The new state Senate majority of 2011, led by men of modestly successful careers, and in large part from rural areas, came into power with an edge of payback. As Bev Perdue exited office after one term, Senators Phil Berger of Rockingham County, Tom Apodaca of Henderson and the exceptionally aggrieved Ralph Hise of Mitchell went on a search and destroy mission aimed at the Dix Park lease, which local leaders had envisioned as a crown jewel of bustling downtown Raleigh. They almost succeeded in destroying the lease and in the process striking a blow against the capital city.
This was just a particularly dramatic example of the rural-urban divide. Since the Republican takeover of the General Assembly in 2010, rural legislators have sought to sublimate their cultural and psychological grievances against prosperous urban North Carolina. It isn’t new. Going back to the first, very modest inklings of urbanization in the state, there has been a current of resentment running through rural areas. In his clear and readable book, “The Rise and Fall of the Branchhead Boys,” retired News and Observer columnist Rob Christensen chronicles an age in which rural political rage ran in a left-wing direction.
With his first book, “The Paradox of Tar Heel Politics,” Christensen established himself as the leading journalistic authority on North Carolina politics. Whereas “Paradox” takes a bird’s-eye-view perspective on a century of Tar Heel political history, his latest contribution takes a granular look at the life of one family, the Scotts, who constituted the closest the state had to a political dynasty. Kerr Scott served as Governor and U.S. Senator in the 1940’s and ’50s. His son, Bob, served as Governor from 1968-1972, and Kerr’s granddaughter Meg Scott Phipps would spend an ill-fated term as Agriculture Commissioner at the dawn of the 21st century. To varying degrees, all three Scotts drew on a base of impoverished voters in the sandy plains and hardwood forests of the state’s countryside.
Christensen presents a harsh picture of rural life in early-to-mid century North Carolina. He marshals one damning statistic after another to illustrate the economic, cultural and physical isolation of rural North Carolinians. Few rural residents had electricity; virtually none had telephones. North Carolina still lags the nation in many ways, but at the outset of Kerr Scott’s political career rural NC had barely progressed beyond the 19th century. Because the state was two-thirds rural, this deprivation exerted a toll on the entire state.
Having built his case for rural hardship, Christensen introduces his protagonists. The Scott saga began in Alamance County, where Kerr’s grandfather was a town father and leader in the region’s virulent Ku Klux Klan. Kerr would never fully overcome his Old South roots. Even though he denounced the resurgent Klan of the 1950’s, he boasted of keeping his grandfather’s KKK regalia in his garage and became a hardened segregationist in the Senate. Christensen doesn’t sugarcoat this.
Much of the book is dedicated to Kerr’s and Bob’s respective governorships. At times, Christensen goes into too much detail–a whole section concerns telephone service–but as a whole, his analysis is savvy and fair. The narrative takes on a frisson of drama when Kerr appoints the sainted Frank Porter Graham to the U.S. Senate, only to have him destroyed in an incandescent race-baiting campaign. Christensen surveys the wreckage of the Graham-Willis Smith primary with an evocative grimness. Throughout, the book is engaging despite its highly specialized subject matter.
Like so many historic actors, the Scotts’ story ended in irony. Their white working-class base would come, in the 21st century, to undercut the style of left-populism that drove the family’s political careers. Beginning in the 1960’s, and now almost complete, a rightward trend pulled rural, white working-class North Carolina toward conservative Republican politics. Christensen is both too charitable toward the change’s causes and too understated in describing its tragedy. Rural whites moved right largely for one reason: Race. Now the areas that need most help from progressives like the Scotts don’t seem to want it.
Alexander Jones is an original contributor to PoliticsNC.