The valley of humility is about to become an abyss. Over a century ago, a Charlotte newspaperman contrasted North Carolina with its more aristocratic neighbors to the north and South, calling Virginia and South Carolina mountains of conceit and saying that N.C. possessed a contrary spirit of unpretentious virtue. That sense of “exceptionalism” defined the state’s sensibility for a century to come, and would animate its politicians until the year of our lord two-thousand-and-ten, when the forces that had long looked southward with envy took control of a proud state’s government.
The Republican majority did not hide its admiration for South Carolina. In their telling, the Palmetto state was not a nationally reviled backwater obsessed with its dubious history of secession and political extremism, but a model for economic prosperity. It perhaps gave out too many subsidies to individual firms, but its taxes were “competitive” and its hostility to labor unions absolutely unyielding. After all, the state had attracted BMW and Boeing. Legislative bull moose such as Phil Berger and Thom Tillis set out to remake us as a replica of the state that produced Strom Thurmond and Confederate-flag controversies.
They moved swiftly and ruthlessly in this direction, even superseding their South Carolina counterparts in affection for Confederate symbolism when the Palmetto State finally removed the stars-and-bars from their state capitol and North Carolina legislators passed a law to protect Confederate monuments. In fact, their superior commitment to reactionary policy was not confined to reverence for racist traitors. North Carolina’s per-pupil education spending is well below that of South Carolina. And North Carolina’s longstanding squeamishness about incentives has vanished as the state desperately pursued an auto plant. We are, officially, behind South Carolina in the march toward joining the rest of the country in the sunlight of the twenty-first century.
To think that North Carolina Republicans could reinvent state government along S.C.-lines without consequences is a variant of wishful thinking to wish I myself have fallen victim. Surely, the legacy built by 100 years of North Carolina Democrats can outlast a decade or two of GOP regression. But the reality is that we are well on our way to resembling what South Carolina has been throughout its modern existence. The numbers are clear. Population growth: down. Poverty: up. Education: declining. National reputation: gutter-bound.
By the end of the NCGOP era, which will come someday but perhaps not someday soon, North Carolina will bear striking resemblance to South Carolina today. We will be a stagnant backwater to which few people want to move, which attracts people to beaches we owe to nature rather than to man, and has one or two successful metropolitan areas in the midst of a general backwardness. In South Carolina, that’s Charleston. In North Carolina, it’ll be Charlotte and perhaps the Triangle, though R.T.P. will increasingly fall behind other tech clusters that are not burdened by luddite politicians.
It’s a sad thought. To think that one fluke election followed up by years of gerrymandering could change the very character of a state is stark testimony to the power of political leadership, and to fate. This has happened before in North Carolina, when the 1898 white supremacy campaign allowed racists (then Democrats) to rewrite the parameters of state government for three quarters of a century. We’ve had one regression-inspiring election. One hundred years from now, who knows what they’ll call 2010.
Alexander Jones is an original contributor to PoliticsNC.