The timing of Jesse Helms’s death was certainly ironic. He passed away in the summer of 2008, months after the state he represented for 30 years voted for Barack Obama in the Democratic primary, and months before that same state would vote for Obama in the general election. It was tempting to take this coincidence as symbolic. Perhaps the state had moved beyond Helms’s crude, divisive politics and entered a new era of nuanced moderation.
Even then, it was naive to think that Jessecrat politics had been extirpated from the Tar Heel state. In July 2009, Public Policy Polling found that Helms was still the most popular of North Carolina’s recent senators. And the 2008 campaign, Democratic triumph though it was, exhibited some of the ugliness that marked all of Helms’s five campaigns for office. Sarah Palin made her “real Americans” remark in Greensboro; Elizabeth Dole accused her opponent Kay Hagan of being “godless.” Neither attack worked for the Republicans, but Helms-style demagogy still existed in the political landscape.
Since 2008, the legacy of Helms has been even more manifest. On the most straight-forward level, the 2010’s were an era of Republican dominance in the state. Republican conservatism would likely have enjoyed its ascent in North Carolina even without Helms, but his spadework in the ’70s and ’80s laid the foundation for the GOP’s long-elusive takeover of state government. Further, the men who now run the state are Helms Republicans, not disciples of the moderate mountain-and-business GOPers who preceded him as leaders of the party.
From voter suppression to suppression of police videos, the all-white Republican caucus has sought to perpetuate the advantages that whites hold over Blacks. Helms transplanted this longstanding white strategy from the old segregationist Democrats to the GOP, and it remains the basis of politics in the state. That the former party of Lincoln (and Jim Holshouser) would embrace it so forcefully is a testament to how Helms changed his party.
The geography of North Carolina politics also reflects Helms’s revolution. When Helms entered public life, Eastern North Carolina voted more Democratic than almost any region of the country. “Down east” voters deserved credit for keeping the state in John F. Kennedy’s column despite the Massachusetts senator’s Catholicism and Yankee vintage. By now, both Eastern North Carolina and the former racially conservative mill towns of rural North Carolina reside firmly in the Republican column. In a state that still contains large swathes of rural communities, that’s a big advantage for Republicans.
Helms clinched the votes of tradition-minded white North Carolinians with an aggressive culture war aimed at people he could make them see as enemies. No villain sat higher on his list than the University of North Carolina, which he once called the “University of Negroes and Communists.” Over the last decade, state Republicans have nearly achieved his dream of decapitating the face and mind of NC progressivism. When the Board of Governors fights like hell for Silent Sam, it’s reminiscent of Helms’s lifelong reverence for the Confederacy.
Even moreso than in other places, history haunts the South. North Carolina is less tied to the past than the Cotton South, but it remains weighed down by a long history of racial violence and white supremacy that Helms embodied into the 21st century. What is to become of the Helms era? To paraphrase historian Rick Perlstein, “it hasn’t ended yet.”
Alexander Jones is an original contributor to PoliticsNC.