The valley of humility is about to become an abyss.
Over a century ago, a Charlotte newspaperman contrasted North Carolina with its more aristocratic neighbors to the north and South, calling Virginia and South Carolina “mountains of conceit” and saying that North Carolina possessed a “contrary spirit of unpretentious virtue.” That sense of exceptionalism defined the state’s sensibility for a century to come, and would animate its politicians until the year of our lord two-thousand-and-ten, when the forces that had long looked southward with envy took control of our proud state’s government.
The new Republican majority did not hide its admiration for South Carolina. In their telling, the Palmetto State was not a national pariah, a backwater obsessed with its dubious history of secession and political extremism, but rather a model for economic prosperity. It perhaps gave out too many subsidies to individual firms, but its taxes were “competitive” and its hostility to labor unions absolutely unyielding. After all, the state had attracted BMW and Boeing. Legislative bull moose such as Phil Berger and Thom Tillis set out to remake us as a replica of the state that produced Strom Thurmond and Confederate-flag controversies.
They moved swiftly and ruthlessly in this direction. When the Palmetto State finally removed the stars-and-bars from their state capitol, North Carolina legislators passed a law to protect Confederate monuments. Their superior commitment to reactionary policy was not confined to reverence for racist traitors. In the last 10 years, North Carolina’s per-pupil education spending has gone from nationally enviable to now well below that of South Carolina. And North Carolina’s longstanding squeamishness about tax incentives vanished as the state desperately pursued an auto plant. We are, officially, behind South Carolina in the march toward joining the rest of the country in the sunlight of the 21st century.
To think that North Carolina Republicans could reinvent state government along the lines of our southern neighbor without consequences is a variant of wishful thinking to which I myself have fallen victim. Surely, the legacy built by 100 years of North Carolina Democrats can outlast a decade or two of GOP regression. But the reality is that we are well on our way to resembling what South Carolina has been throughout its modern existence: a basketcase state. A state that is nationally pitied, not envied. The numbers themselves bear out the sad story: Population growth is down, while poverty is up. Education is declining, while our national reputation is gutter-bound.
By the end of the NCGOP era, which will come someday, but perhaps not someday soon, North Carolina will bear a striking resemblance to South Carolina today. We will be a low-growth holdover to which few people want to move, and which attracts people to beaches we owe to nature rather than to man. Our state will have one or two successful metropolitan areas in a vast landscape of impoverished, rural stagnation. In South Carolina, that’s Charleston. In North Carolina, it’ll be Charlotte and perhaps the Triangle, though RTP will increasingly fall behind other tech clusters that are less burdened by socially reactionary politicians.
It’s a sad thought. To think that one fluke election, followed up by years of partisan gerrymandering, could change the very character of a state is stark testimony to the power of political leadership. This has happened before in North Carolina, when the 1898 white supremacy campaign allowed racists (then the Democrats) to rewrite the parameters of state government for three quarters of a century. We’ve had one regression-inspiring election. One hundred years from now, who knows what they’ll call 2010.
Alexander H. Jones is a policy analyst with Carolina Forward. He lives in Chapel Hill.