It seems the Democratic narrative about the GOP take over of North Carolina is getting under John Hood’s skin. In an op-ed piece in the News & Observer, he wrote that liberals have a fairy tale view of North Carolina that he calls North Carolina Exceptionalism. He says that liberals mistakenly believe that North Carolina became an economic powerhouse that outperformed our neighbors because of progressive policies. Mr. Hood argues that, in fact, North Carolina did not significantly outperform our neighbors in economic measures such as GDP and per capita income and that current GOP policies are putting us on a path to prosperity.
Mr. Hood misses the point. The progressive story is not about GDP. It’s about values and priorities.
Democrats in North Carolina made a conscious decision to invest in people. They did it with broad support from the business community. Our neighbors to the South spent their energy trying to protect a social system that should have died a hundred and fifty years ago but was preserved through the Jim Crow laws that defined the South throughout the first half of the 20th century.
But even after the civil rights movement disrupted their way of life, they fought to keep as much money and power concentrated in as few hands as possible through low taxes and low wages. In North Carolina, we chose to diversify our economy and try to lift people out of poverty. To do that, we invested in a knowledge-based economy to supplement our agricultural and manufacturing sectors.
To make sure that it worked, we built state university and community college systems that are still among the best in the country. In the 1990s, we made serious investments in early childhood education and public schools. Our children saw better outcomes, reflected in steadily improving graduation rates and test scores.
Democrats also enacted measures that protected our environment and made tourism our largest industry. They took a balanced approach. When developers overreached, Democrats reeled them in, protecting ridge lines in the mountains and waterways that emptied into our sounds and oceans. Then, they built the roads, bridges and highways that made those areas accessible to people from both in state and out.
While our GDP might not have been significantly better than our neighbors, our quality of life was. Until 2012, our median income was significantly higher than all of our southern neighbors. Our poverty rate is lower and our high school graduation rate is higher. We have lower infant mortality and we live longer. From 1979 to 2007, North Carolina’s average income grew by a far greater rate than other Southern states and the income was distributed more equitably. And between 2000 and 2010 we grew significantly faster than any other Southern state besides Georgia. People were coming here because North Carolina was an attractive place to work and live, not because of low wages and low taxes, though neither were too high.
Not everything the Republicans have done is bad. As Mr. Hood points out, the GOP has modernized our transportation funding formula, made positive steps toward updating the teacher pay schedule and, yes, even forced our university system to take a hard look at itself. But that’s not what caused the liberal outrage or caused businesses to become wary of the state.
No, the anger erupted when the GOP passed the most restrictive voter laws in the nation in an attempt to keep people who disagree with their agenda from voting. It came from the GOP shifting public funds into private schools at the same time they were seriously underfunding public education. It came with restrictive abortion laws and putting discrimination in our constitution through banning marriage equality.
The nation was shocked, then amused when legislators introduced a bill to allow a state religion. Businesses became uneasy when they passed bills to ban Sharia Law and drug test welfare recipients despite obvious constitutional problems. And we became a laughingstock when Republicans rolled an anti-abortion bill into one to allow motorcyclists to ride without helmets.
The anger came from rejecting a Medicaid plan that would have provided health care to 500,000 citizens and would have created tens of thousands of much needed jobs–at no cost to the state. It came from kicking 170,000 long-term unemployed people off of unemployment insurance even though there were no jobs to be had.
As for their so-called tax reform, the GOP did little more than give their wealthy benefactors a huge break while shifting the tax burden to the middle class at a time when median household income is lower than it’s been in more than 30 years. We can have a serious debate about broadening the tax base, but not when the middle class is still struggling and the labor force is shrinking. They’re not reforming the tax system. They’re just depleting our revenue stream.
But what is most disturbing is that Mr. Hood and the conservatives believe that the deep South states are an enviable model. Other than GDP, we’ve outpaced our Southern neighbors on virtually every measure of quality of life. And unlike them, we’ve consistently been ranked one the best places to do business in country.
As for his fairy tale, I believe in North Carolina Exceptionalism. I grew up in a state that smart and creative people wanted to move to instead of move from. I grew up in a state where people took seriously improving education and reducing poverty. I grew up in a state where protecting our natural resources was as important as exploiting them. I grew up in a state that didn’t look like South Carolina, Alabama or Mississippi because our elected leaders made better choices. As I’ve said before, I grew up ten miles north of the South Carolina border. I don’t want to live there.
Thomas Mills is the founder and publisher of PoliticsNC.com. Before beginning PoliticsNC, Thomas spent twenty years as a political and public affairs consultant. Learn more >