North Carolina’s economy has looked at various points in history like the rustic horror of a plantation slave labor camp, the grimness of Satanic mills that persisted down south after New England had healed those wounds, a smoky cigarette factory, and a glass-cube office building teeming with tech workers trying to change the world. This diversity didn’t only result from organic economic change. Like all developments in political economy, the state’s economic evolution was influenced by diverse visions of how North Carolinians should work and produce. And seldom has the contrast between economic visions for our state been starker than it is in the Trump era.

For centuries, North Carolina was an economic backwater. “The state of the public mind in North Carolina is mysterious to us,” said President Thomas Jefferson, exuding the indifference that most Americans felt toward what after Jefferson’s death would come to be called the Rip van Winkle state. By the turn of the twentieth century, North Carolina had begun to industrialize, though even there historians such as UNC’s Peter Coclanis dispute how extensive that industrial growth really was. Still, textile, furniture, and tobacco-product manufacturing began to complement the state’s historic economic core of agriculture. And mill villages became a fixture of the Piedmont.

Despite all the industrialization, by the 1950s North Carolina still ranked 44th out of the then-48 states in worker wages. Appalled, Governor Luther Hodges sought to reconfigure the state’s economic-development strategy to attract higher-wage jobs than had prevailed in the state’s economy, which was then dominated by the textile industry in which Hodges had, ironically, made a fortune. Hodges and several Triad-area businessmen reified this vision by founding Research Triangle Park, a groundbreaking experiment in high-tech economic development that has transformed the state.

Should the economy look like a dusty mill village or a pristinely landscaped and strikingly metallic 21st-century congregation of laboratories and corporate HQs? You may have discerned my preference. But the debate rages within North Carolina political circles as to whether we should emphasize a Jeffersonian minimal-government approach or return to the progressive vision that held sway in economic policy from the days of Luther Hodges to the fall of the legislative Democrats.

Conservative Republicans favor an economic vision that grew out of the conservative textile industry. This entails low wages, unapologetic union busting, and political obedience to corporate demands. As in the mill villages, workers should exhibit absolute loyalty to their employers, resist any efforts by the labor movement to organize them into unions (which in the heyday of the mill-village empire were often derided as “socialistic”), and accept their lot as hard-driven laborers earning a pittance. The expectation is that both workers and politicians will take a deferential and unquestioning stance toward the state’s (largely out-of-state) economic royalty.

Progressives disagree with this free-market fundamentalism and Third-World docility. Most modern North Carolina Democrats want an economy that moves forward with the people and rewards their labor with a living wage. By no means socialists, they welcome high-tech, high-paying industries and are willing to provide incentives to bring these companies to the state. Having attracted the jobs, Democrats seek to equip North Carolinians with the skills necessary to earn a good living.

Ironically, the progressives are really the traditionalists. For 60 years prior to the Republican counterrevolution, North Carolina pursued what Bill Clinton would have called an “invest-and-grow” strategy. GOP leaders want to go back far deeper into history and embrace a strategy more fit for the desperate plutocrats scavenging for any jobs they could bring to the state. In this as in so much else, Republican legislators are not tradition-minded conservatives but reactionaries trying–and succeeding–in returning the state to a poor and benighted past.


Get the latest posts from PoliticsNC delivered right to your inbox!

You have Successfully Subscribed!