Interview: Tom Eamon on North Carolina Politics

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.

Tom Eamon

Tom Eamon

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.

Q: What have been some of the primary issues of debate in North Carolina politics and how have they changed over the years?

A: Race and education have been primary issues and the ones most often discussed and debated. For a long time, the arguments related to race could be blunt and vicious. Now they are more subtle and often hide under the banner of other issues.

From 1900 to now, education—both grades K through 12 and university—have been on the front burner. Cost and quality issues figure into almost every campaign and legislative session.

Jobs and the economy are always concerns though politicians are limited in what they can do about them. And typically they overpromise. The environment always looms as a big issue, but it takes a crisis to move to the forefront. Transportation is a perennial issue.

Q: You say that North Carolina is a state of conflicts—one that is a leader in higher education, but trails in educating its children; that has attracted the medical technology and health care industries, but leaves many of its citizens with poor health care. What has led or contributed to these paradoxes?

A: From early on, North Carolina was one of the poorest and most backward of states. It slept through much of the 1800s. Critics called it the “Rip Van Winkle state.” Early in the twentieth century, some of the leadership began to focus on education and development. Such figures as Governor Charles Aycock and publisher-politician Josephus Daniels sought to push the state forward and expand educational opportunities on all levels. Unfortunately, they were white supremacists even by the backward standards of their time.

From the mid-twentieth century much of North Carolina’s political and business establishment preached economic development and education as holy causes. Universities sought to expand their scope and there was a vast expansion of medical facilities. To a point, the results were dramatic. Major cities boomed. Charlotte and the Research Triangle were, along with Austin, Texas, among the more charismatic of American metro areas. The state emerged as a research center in medicine and many other fields.

Today, there is a gap. Many metropolitan areas and university communities are booming and attract migrants from all over. But farming areas once reliant on tobacco and old textile towns are withering and face high unemployment. And textiles were a low wage industry to begin with. More recently, public employees have faced salary freezes. Economic problems are here to stay. Despite great progress in many areas, North Carolina is a captive of its past.

The Making of a Southern Democracy: North Carolina Politics from Kerr Scott to Pat McCroryQ: In 2010, the Republican Party took control of the North Carolina General Assembly for the first time in more than 100 years. How do you explain this shift?

A: The outcome of 2010 was the culmination of a trend that had been going on for decades. Though there were lurches backward and forward, the overall pattern from the 1950s was for the Republicans to move forward in legislative strength.

The midterm elections of 2010, like those of 1994, were banner ones for the Republicans on a national level. North Carolina followed the trend. And the incumbent Democratic governor of North Carolina, Beverly Perdue, was unpopular.

The big story was what came afterward. The 2010 elections were a godsend for the Republicans. For the first time in the twentieth or twenty-first century, the GOP was in charge of the decennial re-apportionment process for legislative and Congressional districts. For over a century legislative Democrats had mapped districts in such a way as to minimize Republican strength. 2011 was payback time. And, Republicans did it in a big way. The 2012 elections confirmed their map-making skills. Republicans won narrow victories in the state-wide legislative popular vote. However, they won landslide majorities in the contests for legislative seats.

As an example, Obama won both Pitt and Wilson counties in the heart of eastern North Carolina. Yet Republicans won all legislative contests in the same area. The 2011 legislature had there—and in many other locales—drawn the districts in such a way as to enhance their strength.

Q: In 2012, Pat McCrory defeated Democratic candidate Walter Dalton by a large margin of 11.2% to become the current governor. The race for lieutenant governor, however, was decided by a margin of just 0.16% and Democrats were elected to six of the eight remaining primary statewide offices. In what ways does North Carolina politics go beyond party affiliation?

A: This time the Republican candidate for governor was better known than his Democratic opponent. McCrory had come pretty close to winning the governorship in 2008. Many independents and a few Democrats had positive attitudes toward him. While generally taking conservative positions, McCrory had a moderate image stemming from his 2008 campaign and his tenure as mayor of Charlotte. Lt. Governor Dalton was an emergency candidate, a last minute stand-in for retiring governor Bev Perdue. He was capable enough but presented a bland personality and had little time to raise money.

Though both candidates for lieutenant governor had respectable credentials, neither was a state-wide figure. Linda Coleman was African American. Dan Forrest was white. Race played a minimal role at least among swing voters.

I suspect that the razor thin outcome reflected the true party balance of 2012 more so than did any other state-wide race. Republicans went for Forrest. Democrats went for Coleman. Swing voters determined the winner. All the way through, the “persuadable” voters were closely divided. As for the other statewide races, the incumbents or better-known candidates won. Name recognition was more important than party.

Q: Race has always been a driving force in North Carolina politics; what do you expect from the state’s changing demographics, including the growing Hispanic population?

A: Racial undercurrents will continue to be important. One does not turn back two hundred years overnight. Yet there has been vast change. Strong, well-financed black Democratic candidates have been as competitive in North Carolina as strong whites. And Barack Obama ran better in the state than had recent white Democratic nominees.

For decades, more blacks left than came into North Carolina. This trend reversed in the late twentieth century. Now many Asians and Hispanics are coming in, Asian to the university and research centers and Hispanics all over. At the moment their political influence is minimal, but it will be heading upward. North Carolina is not California or Florida, but change is bound to come.

Q: In The Making of a Southern Democracy, you assert that North Carolina’s political history is the result of a revolution, not a natural evolution. What do you mean by that?

A: Walk down the street in 2014. Then take a time capsule back to 1948! You enter a different world. The old cars would be fun to see. But psychologically, the obvious race caste system would be the most shocking. The changes have been sweeping in many other respects: the development of a two-party system, more women in high office, and campaign techniques. At least in election influence, the “good ole boy” network has declined. Many elements fought change tooth-and-nail all the way.

To many, the word “revolution” suggests sudden change. Although there were many dramatic moments, this one lasted for decades. It may not be over. Like other revolutions, this one was people driven. It didn’t just happen!

Q: Do you foresee any changes in North Carolina’s political climate in coming years?

A: Yes, but no immediate change in the political balance. North Carolina, like Virginia, is becoming less a southern state and more a Middle Atlantic state. However, North Carolina is behind Virginia in making this transition. Neither state will ever be a New York, politically or otherwise. But both may come to resemble Maryland more than Mississippi, South Carolina, or Tennessee. The Obama victory in 2008 probably exaggerated the extent of change. And the Republican gains of 2010 and 2012 were also misleading. The 2012 GOP gains came largely from their redistricting talents.

North Carolina’s apparent lurch forward to the right has caused alarm on the left. In the summer of 2013 The New York Times ran both a lead editorial and a front page article on the shift. North Carolina is a national story.

As migrants arrive from California, New Jersey, Mexico, and India, cultural change will continue. Political change will follow. However, North Carolina is not unique in this regard. The county is polarized. So is North Carolina, only a bit more so!

For half a century North Carolina had been a Republican-leaning state in presidential elections and Democratic leaning on the state level. There may be no such distinction in the future. The state will be at the center of American Politics much as Ohio has been for a long time. Political stability is gone with the wind!

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Tom Eamon teaches political science at East Carolina University. He has won numerous teaching awards and written extensively on American politics. Eamon provides political and election commentary for WUNC radio as well as for other outlets. The Making of a Southern Democracy: North Carolina Politics from Kerr Scott to Pat McCrory is now available.

6 Comments

  1. It’s unfortunate the professor would dismiss what the Republicans did in 2011 as “map-making skills” and “redistricting talents.” Gerrymandering is neither a skill nor a talent. It is a serious abuse of power, which as the professor probably correctly predicts, could allow the GOP to retain illegitimate and undeserved control of the General Assembly and the Congressional delegation for the rest of the decade. Republican gains in 2012 were not “largely” due to redistricting abuses; gerrymandering was the entire reason for those gains. As the professor says, Republicans followed the national trend, winning big in 2010 with 59% of the statewide legislative vote. That dropped to 52% in 2012, though Republicans ended up with 65% of legislative seats only because of redistricting. In congressional elections, Democrats won 51% of the statewide vote in 2012, but Republicans netted 9 of 13 congressional seats.

  2. Lee I stand by the original wording though we agree on the results. Wish you would come to one of our book functions sometime. Or it would be delightful to visit over lunch. Sorry not to have replied earlier but I had been busy and had not seen this. Hope to have the plaasure of meeting you soon.. And hope you will buy the book if you have not already. All my best, Tom

  3. I am fascinated with the content of your book, but I have a question about your distinct accent. I just heard you on WFAE’s Charlotte Talks and I am trying to place where you are from.

  4. Thanks! Accent or dialect is a favorite subject of mine. As I tell my students,everyone who speaks English has one. Having always lived in North Carolina , mine is basically Southern. However, My father grew up in northern New York state and influenced my pronunciation of some words and vowels. And I enjoy IMITATING various accents. If we were talking in person, we could pursue topic in more detail. Glad you are fascinated by book. my best wishes, Tom

  5. Hi Tom. Thanks for getting back to me so quickly. As someone who is also a native North Carolinian (I am from Cumberland County), I have been told I have an Eastern North Carolina accent with a little bit of Yankee influene from living in a miliitary town. However, different areas of North Carolina have different accents. For example, our NC Appalachian accent is remarkably different from the coastal North Carolina accent which has a bit of a cockney lilt. What area of North Carolina do you hail from if you don’t mind me asking? I am, as you might guess, a student of accents.

    • Native of eastern NC. Lived mostly in durham growing up. And for years I have lived in both Durham and Greenville. Near beginning of courses in both southern and NC politics, we discuss the various accents of the South and NC. Always fun for the students.Nationally, I find the ones around Rochester NY and Philadelphia to be interesting.

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