N.C. Poicy Watch

Whatever the party name, conservatives have usually called the shots in North Carolina

By Rob Schofield | Mar 18, 2014

See if you’ve heard the following description of the current political situation in North Carolina (you probably have as it has appeared in dozens of major news stories over the past couple of years):

“In North Carolina, conservative Republicans now control all the main levers of government for the first in more than a century.”

This is from an article that appeared in February of 2013 in the UK-based magazine The Economist:

“… [F]or the first time in more than a century, North Carolina has a Republican governor, a conservative majority on the state Supreme Court and Republicans controlling both legislative chambers.”

On conservative websites and blogs, the reference is usually to something like “Republicans have recently ended a century of liberal, Democrat Party rule.”

The implication of such reports and descriptions, of course, is that when Republicans ascended to power after the 2010 and 2012 elections, it represented a massive and essentially unprecedented shift in North Carolina politics. For the first time in modern times – or so goes the story, anyway – North Carolina voters cast their lot with conservatives and abandoned a supposed age-old commitment to “big government, liberal Democratic ideology.”

Revisionist history

The only problem with the characterization of the situation is that it is an inaccurate bit of revisionist history. Sure, momentous changes have hit the state in recent years, but it’s just plain silly to say or imply that those changes brought an end to “a century” or more of monolithic control by “liberal Democrats.” The obvious truth of the matter is that both the Democratic and Republican parties have both undergone enormous ideological changes over the decades as they have moved in and out of power.

Many of the most powerful Democratic leaders of the mid-to-late 20th Century, for instance, would feel right at home in the modern conservative movement. Check out, for instance, Raleigh News & Observer political reporter Rob Christensen’s recent profile of longtime Democratic North Carolina U.S. Senator Sam Ervin and his role during the Senate Watergate hearings of the early 1970’s:

“Ervin’s role is interesting. People sometimes forget that Ervin, a Southern Democrat, was a fiscal and social conservative, a foreign policy hawk and a segregationist. Republican Sen. Jesse Helms, the standard bearer for the conservative movement in North Carolina, greatly admired Ervin, and the two had a lifelong friendship.”

Ervin was interesting but far from unusual. State Democratic Party history is chock-full of similar individuals. Helms himself was a Democrat for many years, as were any number of arch-conservative political leaders. Heck, the fathers of two of the state’s most visible conservative Republican leaders of recent decades were both conservative Democrats. This includes Art Pope’s father, retail magnate John W. Pope (for whom the Pope-Civitas Institute is named) and former state Supreme Court Chief Justice I. Beverley Lake’s father, I. Beverley Lake, Sr. (who ran for Governor in 1960 as a staunch segregationist). South Carolina’s Strom Thurmond was a Democrat for heaven’s sake.

Moreover, this close association between conservative Democrats and the political right certainly did not come to an end in the 1970’s with Ervin. With a few important exceptions – most notably the House Speakerships of Dan Blue (1989-94) and Joe Hackney (2007-10) – leadership of the General Assembly has rested in the hands of moderate-to-conservative Democrats and conservative Republicans for most of the last three decades.

This was particularly true in the Senate where Democrat Marc Basnight (a man who openly supported Republican presidential candidates and who was the proud protégé of a conservative oil tycoon) presided for 16 years over a mostly-conservative, pro-business leadership team. Anyone who thinks otherwise should revisit the debates of the late 1990’s and early 2000’s – a period during which Basnight’s close friend, Democratic Senator David Hoyle, aggressively fought for a pro-corporate, anti-tax agenda and courted business support. Dozens of conservative Democrats in both houses followed (and, indeed, still follow) such an approach.

Even Jim Hunt, who is rightfully and understandably beloved by many modern day progressives, did much to curry favor with the right during his four terms in office – whether cutting taxes and implementing welfare “reform” over liberal opposition or convening a special legislative session in 1995 to enact a “get tough on crime” agenda that raised penalties and abetted prison overcrowding.

Were Basnight and Hunt right-wingers? Certainly not. But the notion that they governed as part of some monolithic and uninterrupted liberal procession is equally off-base.

Thus, while it’s correct to say that “Democrats” were long the state’s majority party (indeed, for many years, its only real party) this fact itself is ultimately about as helpful in explaining how things really were during that era as saying that Teddy Roosevelt and Ted Cruz both hail from the Republican Party. Sure, the recent conservative blitz represents a major shift, but to portray it and the policies ushered in as completely unprecedented (or as displacing what had been some kind of progressive paradise) is just silly.

(It’s also worth noting that many Republican elected officials of the late 20th Century – both legislators and Governors – were far more progressive than their modern counterparts and even, on occasion, a lot of their Democratic colleagues.)

Crafting a more accurate portrait

So who cares what conservative Democrats and moderate Republicans of the late 20th Century really thought? Why does it matter today?

It matters because too many of the people and groups currently calling the shots in the North Carolina policy world have premised their rule on a myth – the myth that they have supplanted a “big government, liberal establishment.” And when such a myth is allowed to go unchallenged – as it too often is in the current environment – present day policy debates and decisions become tainted and get based on inaccurate assumptions.

This is especially problematic in a state like North Carolina that has enjoyed such a large population influx in recent years. If you’ve only lived in North Carolina for a few years and are constantly inundated by right-wing propaganda about the “big government, liberal” past, you might find yourself actually buying into such an inaccurate portrayal.

And, of course, once you make such assumptions about the past, they’re probably more likely to influence your attitude about policy decisions going forward. If you really think the demise of North Carolina manufacturing base coincided with a period of high tax liberalism rather than, as it really did, a period of moderate tax, pro-business, moderate-to-conservative governance, you might be more willing to swallow the present-day policy prescriptions of the Pope-McCrory-Berger-Tillis team.

Now you know at least one reason that Pope and the John Locke Foundation go to the trouble of funding something they call the North Carolina History Project.

All of this revisionism hits rock bottom, of course, when the right-wing bloggers and other polemicists dishonestly seek to link modern day progressives with 19th and 20th century racists and segregationists because of their shared use of the label “Democrat.” If anything ever attested to the way old monikers have evolved and been manipulated, it’s to witness modern conservatives battle affirmative action, the Racial Justice Act and expanded voting rights under the banner of “the party of Lincoln.”

Going forward

And the lesson from all this? Let’s hope it’s that North Carolinians avoid making too many assumptions about party labels – especially in the relationship between the past and the present. The state may be enduring a right-wing ideological onslaught right now, but in many ways the lineage of the current political leadership can be traced to forebears in a party whose members currently make up much of the political opposition. This fact deserves to be remembered and repeated regularly.