Two decades into the twenty-first century, the twentieth has begun to fade into memory. North Carolina politics has undergone two sea changes, one moving the state into the purple category and another, a mere two years later, dragging it far to the right. But for everything that has changed, the political era that began at the turn of the twentieth century continues to provide the basic scaffolding for N.C. politics. No book has better elucidated the trends that built modern North Carolina than Rob Christensen’s The Paradox of Tar Heel Politics.
Published in early 2008 before the state became a battleground in presidential elections, Paradox traces the history of Tar Heel politics in the 20th century. As the prologue Christensen writes about the 1898 Wilmington Coup, which if the state had better reckoned with its history would count as our defining trauma along the lines of what World War I did to the British psyche. Having established the framework, Christensen takes the reader on a trip, Epcot-center style, through a century of North Carolina elections and controversies.
Particularly vivid is Christensen’s portrayal of the state’s pre-1964 political landscape. That era continues to resonate today in the form of voter suppression and extreme gerrymandering, but it nevertheless presents itself to the reader as an alien world defined by de jure segregation and the backwardness of a South before the Sun Belt. Christensen provides an engaging snapshot of each episode of the period, from the anguished administration of O. Max Gardner to the muddy-shoes crusade of Kerr Scott.
The writing in this book is fantastic. Christensen is a fine stylist and adept storyteller. In Paradox as in his recent obituary for Marc Basnight, the author distinguishes himself as a painter of biographical portraits. Even relatively minor characters like Depression-era Governor Clyde Hoey come across in three-dimensional and unique form. (As an aside, Hoey deserved to have his name removed from N.C. Central University’s campus; Hoey argued against Hawaiian statehood on the explicit grounds that that territory had too few white people.)
For all his manifest love of North Carolina, Christensen does not sentimentalize the ugliness that pervaded state politics in the twentieth century. He writes that although the state was sometimes slightly less brutal toward Black people than other parts of the South, those who hoped for better would be “disappointed again and again in the twentieth century.” And his treatment of Jesse Helms is damning. Christensen makes clear that North Carolina’s five-term senator was a racist and a demagogue, and shows little patience for the excuses that admirers made for Helms.
There is always a risk in writing political books–that in this dynamic era, politics will pass the author’s analysis by. And that is the case, somewhat amusingly, in the final chapter of The Paradox of Tar Heel Politics. Christensen writes admiringly about four politicians of the early 2000’s–Elizabeth Dole, Mike Easley, Richard Burr and John Edwards–all of whom have since fallen into severe disrepute. But that’s somewhat of a gotcha point. As a whole, Chrstensen’s interpretations of the state’s modern political history remain savvy and essential for any student of North Carolina. No book has since come along to surpass it.
Alexander Jones is an original contributor to PoliticsNC.