In the late 19th century, 60 German Jews made their way into the terra incognita of Old North Carolina. James “Buck” Duke had invited them here because he had the bright idea of automated cigarette rolling, and they knew how to operate the machines. It must have been quite a shock — going from a country, Germany, that was then the worldwide capital of science and technology, to a state of quiet, rolling hills and tobacco fields that the same families had planted since the days of Frederick the Great. But they set down roots, and as a result, Durham has a vibrant Jewish community to this day.
What’s the point of this story? Mostly, its exceptionalism. North Carolina does not have a deep immigrant history. In fact, for the first three and a half centuries of the state’s existence, our population remained in an equilibrium of native-born whites, enslaved or oppressed Blacks, and the remnants of Indigenous civilization that European genocide had all but exterminated. Many people in North Carolina still take this social order for granted because it was what they grew up with. For many, it’s all they have known — and its recent destabilization by the influx of immigrants and transplants lies at the heart of the state’s bitter politics.
Republicans in North Carolina overwhelmingly draw from the population of traditionalist, native-born whites. The large majority of them are rural and the vast majority are Christians. They take the Old South as their default, with all of its rhythms and inequities. And many of them are in shock that the state their families have long known is being transformed into a more modern, more urban and more diverse place with the hegemony of political conservatism no longer as secure as it has been for most of the state’s history. This upending of the status quo has caused deep fear and anger in the Republican base; and certain politicians, some of whom are cynics, and others true believers, have exploited this fear to produce staggering turnout rates. This attitude is evident in their rhetoric: “Lightly threatening” Washington politicians who would deny Trump an arrogated second term, to use the example of Madison Cawthorn.
But these are not the only people who live and vote in this state. Our state’s Democratic electorate contains a large base of Black residents with roots just as deep as the GOP base and wholly justified discontent over centuries of oppression. Their moral claims on government provide the ethical core of the modern Democratic Party. And they are joined in this quest for dignity and validation by urbanites, immigrants (many of them also people of color), women, and LGBTQ North Carolinians. Make no mistake: the outsider-oriented Democratic base relates to politics with the same elevated stakes as Republican whites who see the political process as a fight for “their'' country. Consider: while the number of legislators of color (Black, Latino and other) in the North Carolina Legislature is roughly proportional to their number in our state, they are all, every single one, Democrats. North Carolina has not one single non-white Republican legislator.
Thus, North Carolina’s political divide overlaps almost perfectly with underlying social divisions. Both sides of this coin see in politics not just a clash of policy proposals or even philosophical ideas, but also as an arena for the affirmation of social dignity. One side has more just claims than the other; rural white Christians desperate to hold onto their entitlement are not comparable to marginalized groups seeking their rightful status. But with voters and their representatives so deep into a contest for the character of their state, it is hard for partisans to see their opponents even as colleagues in a civic project. The result, as Duke scholar Mac McCorkle has said, is that “everything’s a battle [in North Carolina politics].” The best thing Republican leaders could do is to reconcile their voters to a pluralistic understanding of the political community. The best thing Democratic leaders could do is fight for the oppressed.
Alexander H. Jones is a policy analyst with Carolina Forward. He lives in Chapel Hill.