In the following interview, Tom Eamon, author of The Making of a Southern Democracy: North Carolina Politics from Kerr Scott to Pat McCrory discusses the nuances of southern politics.
Q: Your book is arguably the most comprehensive analysis of North Carolina politics from World War II to 2012. What motivated you to undertake this study?
A: I grew up with a real passion for politics. Thanks to my father, I knew all the presidents’ names and states and capitals well before I could read. And we often attended speeches by politicians of various persuasions. To me, the big elections were even greater dramas than the World Series or college basketball championships.
There is a rich tradition of first-rate writing on North Carolina history and politics. But I dreamed of a book that would focus on the change in the period from the end of World War II to now. Then, North Carolina and the South were for all practical purposes South Africa on the North American Continent. On paper, blacks might have had more political rights here. But in reality South African-style apartheid prevailed. For all the friction and turmoil of the last sixty-five years, it is a different world today.
I wanted to tell how and why the change came both in the society and in its politics, and to do it in a way that would provide both a book of record and one that would appeal to readers outside the ivory towers of academia.
As for the “comprehensive” nature of the book, it is the most detailed coverage to date of North Carolina’s modern elections, a story of how and why they came out as they did. Elections often reflect both the strengths and frailnesses of a society and the foresight and shortcomings of its leaders.
This story has implications beyond North Carolina and even the South. It provides lessons in the opportunities and pitfalls of American democracy.
Q: As a professor of political science, why are you so well positioned to write this story?
A: This story is my passion. As a young boy, I witnessed the tail end of the old order and the friction as widespread racial integration began in North Carolina and the South. As a young man, I was acquainted with and watched closely many of the movers and shakers as well as ordinary citizens of North Carolina. And for several decades, I have talked about the subject almost every day in the classroom and other environments.
Q: What about your approach is different from the work of previous authors?
A: First, I have nothing but praise for earlier studies of state history and politics, both from professional scholars and journalists. But my study looks at the elections in much greater depth than earlier books on the premise that elections have been crucial in shaping politics. Also, I have made an effort to convey to readers the atmosphere and flavor of various periods of North Carolina and national history. Moreover, I attempt to portray the personalities and explain the motivations of major political figures. This can be risky business, but I feel good about the outcome and my book makes the most serious effort yet to weave the relationship between national and state politics.
Q: What makes North Carolina a unique state politically?
A: Originally, geography was important. Arguably North Carolina was the most diverse of any southern state, one with the highest mountains of eastern North America at one end and subtropical lowlands with rice plantations on the other. Many elements in the state opposed secession from the union in the early 1860s. Though centered in the highlands, there were pockets of opposition to secession all over the state.
In the first half of the twentieth century, a leadership committed to widespread public education, a commitment that almost reached the status of a secular religion, set North Carolina apart from many states. And in the second half of the century, North Carolina was a pacesetter in higher education as well as related research and development. Both elected politicians and ambitious university administrations drove this movement. Many state elites, progressive and conservative, Democratic and Republican, were committed to the massive expansion of universities and research.
In recent decades North Carolina has often been a test tube for the political strains in American society. Senator Jesse Helms was a major figure in pushing the national Republican Party toward more conservative positions, especially on social issues. Concurrently, Jim Hunt, a modern progressive-style Democrat, was governor for sixteen years and a major figure in national politics. Yet he was unable to displace Helms.
Today, the state includes cutting edge metropolitan areas, a few among the most dynamic in the country. Not far away are dying industrial and market towns and there are bastions of American liberalism such as Asheville and Chapel Hill. There is also a deeply ingrained conservatism. Politically, it is one of the most closely divided of American states.
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