Election Day, 2014. I agreed to be a poll worker in the predominantly rural, working-class white precinct in Transylvania County, North Carolina, where my wife and I vote. After a couple of hours setting up the machines Monday night, I was back at the precinct at 5:30 a.m. Interesting, but not fun—and that's not just because of the long hours and the results. Still, it was an educational experience sitting there and chatting with the other five poll workers. One was a quiet Democrat. I think the others were Republicans in affiliation or outlook. They were extraordinarily warm and pleasant, but over the next fourteen to fifteen hours I learned more about the political culture of working class conservatism than I would have gleaned from reading a dozen books on the subject.
|Location of Transylvania County in North Carolina (top) and location of the Pisgah Forest Precinct in Transylvania County, North Carolina (bottom). Maps by Southern Spaces, 2014.|
I also discovered (as I had during the May primary) that it was relatively easy to spot most Republicans before handing them their voting forms, since they often shared a common facial expression: anger. To paraphrase the oft-quoted line from the 1976 film Network, they were mad as hell and they weren't going to take it anymore.
When we closed up the polls at 8:30 p.m. and printed out the results, I didn't need a statewide exit poll to know what had happened. In a precinct where registered Democrats made up 37 percent, Republicans 30 percent, and "unaffiliated" 33 percent, the incumbent Democratic US senator Kay Hagan earned 38 percent of the vote, losing to a widely disliked Republican opponent who had led the GOP's attack on public education in North Carolina. In her 2008 election, Hagan had lost to Elizabeth Dole by 1 percent in Transylvania County. Hagan's defeat could be blamed on the links between the senator and president Obama. As her opponent and the dark money supporting him said in their commercials, she had supported the president "96 percent of the time."
But in local races where Obama's name was seldom mentioned, the results were the same. There were two slots open for the county commission. One incumbent was a conservative activist whose sarcastic letters in the local newspaper attacking liberals and Democrats in general and Barack Obama in particular have been tempered since his 2010 election. But as far as I could tell, his primary campaign message was to remind voters, "It's your money, not the government's." The second incumbent was against gay marriage, the Affordable Care Act, tax increases, any form of zoning or community planning, and regulations on business ("Job killers"). He was for Second Amendment rights. From my perspective, neither of these Republican incumbents extensively campaigned.
Lee McMinn (University of Texas graduate, retired Marine lieutenant colonel, Vietnam veteran/helicopter pilot with two graduate degrees and years of community activism) and Sam Edney (a local businessman and committed environmentalist whose special passion is the problem of food insecurity for children) ran as Democrats. The two worked seventy-hour weeks, spoke and shook hands at every gathering available and met with smaller groups of voters in dozens of homes across the county. They presented a thoughtful program that they posted on their websites and promoted through all forms of social media, including Facebook. They described the kinds of constructive measures that have worked across Transylvania County to develop environmentally responsible and appropriately scaled industry in order to improve the county's struggling economy. While avoiding the word "zoning" (the third rail of local politics), they emphasized the need to engage in coordinated planning to protect the community's greatest resource, its natural and unspoiled beauty. Since the commission levies taxes for the county's excellent but strained schools, they emphasized the importance of adequately funding Transylvania County's school system. They promoted these positions extensively and worked closely with the local Democratic get-out-the-vote campaign.
In the weeks leading up to the election, I heard enough angry remarks from voters, many bearing all the marks of poverty (or barely hanging on to middle class), to become persuaded there is little future here beyond right-wing sound bites—at least not in my lifetime. For the last four years, Republican legislators in Raleigh have engaged in a relentless war on public education. When a teacher came in to vote, openly clutching her Republican ballot sheet, it was all I could do to keep from asking: "Do you always lick the boots that kick you?"
Of course one western North Carolina precinct is not a profile of the nation. This one is overwhelmingly white and has a percentage of retirees twice that of the state as a whole. But in some ways, the vote in this county is a microcosm of what is happening across America. When my wife, Jane, and I moved here part-time in 1991, the county commission was majority Democratic. While Republicans gained the majority over the next several election cycles, on local issues the commission was fairly progressive, supporting education funding, county planning, and investment in new facilities like the state-of-the art county library. Transylvania was included in the congressional district of Charles Taylor, a right-wing Republican. During these early years, county representation in the state house and senate moved back and forth between fairly conservative Democrats and moderate Republicans and there was considerable cross-party cooperation.
|Party affiliation by race in Pisgah Forest Precinct, Transylvania County, North Carolina, 2014. Chart by Southern Spaces.|
Although the latest election, like that of 2010, was a disaster for Democrats, the political center had been shifting rightward over the last fifteen years. In part this was simply a reflection of national trends, but it also reflected the powerful role of Art Pope, North Carolina's version of the Koch Brothers. Through the 1990s and the last decade, the wealthy retail magnate relentlessly promoted a right-wing agenda even as he used his considerable clout to defeat moderate Republican office-holders. (A Tea Party-endorsed candidate unseated the county's moderate Republican state representative in the 2010 GOP primary.)
Today the city of Brevard (population 7,700) remains Democratic—though by a reduced margin—but Tea-Party Republicanism has been on the rise here and throughout western North Carolina, Asheville excepted. As I looked at the precinct returns at election headquarters on election night, I was struck by the voting unity of white working class voters and well-to-do retirees. In the western end of the county, retirees in upscale developments around Lake Toxaway joined hands with some of the poorest residents of the county to vote solidly Republican. (Whites in Transylvania County have a poverty rate that is 20 percent higher than that of whites across the state.) The same pattern appeared in the precinct encompassing Connestee Falls, the large middle/upper-middle class gated retiree community a few miles south of Brevard.
The final element cementing this political shift is the ruthless efficiency with which the North Carolina GOP pushed through its gerrymandering project in 2011. It is conceivable that Democrats can compete in statewide elections, and there are a few areas of the state where countywide elections and a fairly even party balance can create competitive races. But the scalpel-like precision with which national Republican redistricting guru Tom Hofeller carved up congressional and state legislative districts in this state means that most elections are as pointless as those in North Korea. In this election less than half of the state senate and house incumbents faced opposition, and the election produced almost no change in party composition. Given the difficulty of unseating incumbents in their safe districts, the number of challengers in 2016 is likely to decline even further. Our neighboring South Carolina offers a window into the future. In this most recent election less than 25 percent of South Carolina legislators faced opposition. Not a single seat changed parties.
|Moral Monday march on Raleigh, North Carolina, February 8, 2014. Photograph by James Willamor, CC-BY-SA 2.0. In September 2013 Dan T. Carter wrote for Southern Spaces about the tumult in North Carolina government.|
It is a pattern repeated across the South. In the aftermath of the 1968 presidential election, Kevin Phillips assured his boss, Richard Nixon, that the 95 percent support of black voters for John Kennedy was a blessing in disguise. The GOP, said Phillips, could "build a winning coalition without Negro votes. . . . Indeed," he said, "Negro-Democratic mutual identification" was a critical factor in the growth of the Republican Party in the South which would become the foundation of a new Republican majority. With the Democratic Party becoming the "Negro party throughout most of the South," the Republicans would soon dominate that section of the country. That same policy of "Negro-Democratic identification," he added, would attract disenchanted white working class voters in the North as well.1Kevin P. Philips, The Emerging Republican Majority (New Rochelle, NY: Arlington House, 1969), 468, 286. That memo has been the driving Republican strategy from Phillips through Lee Atwater and on to Karl Rove. With the added lift-off furnished by many white southerners' visceral hatred of a black president, it has made the white Republican South the lynchpin of the GOP's congressional majorities in the US House and Senate.
I have continued to work and write and speak about progressive politics after Reagan, driven by disgust over what I saw as the triumph of greed in our economic system and contempt for those who are not "winners" in our increasingly dog-eat-dog society. Optimistically, I concluded that I would probably be dead before the final triumph of our corporate plutocracy. But I did not want to see my children and grandchildren inherit this political dystopia.
While the 2008 election seemed to offer a possibility of change it now seems more like a mirage in our political downward spiral. I've often felt depressed, most recently after the 2000, 2002, 2004, and 2010 elections. My usual response to disappointment has been to feverishly read the analysis of state and national political pundits, searching for what went wrong, grasping for the silver linings.
Not this time. I know it was a debacle, but I still haven't read political coverage in a newspaper, and I've tuned out television, magazine, and internet post-mortems. Nor, after decades as a political news junkie, have I any desire to follow the coverage.
Two days after the election, in an attempt to avoid such depressing reflections, I went into my shop to catch up on one of my duties at the Unitarian-Universalist Church here in Brevard: making obituary "leaves" for the sculptural tree in our memorial garden. (A local blacksmith did the tree; I engrave the names of deceased congregation members with birth and death dates, cut them into leaves, and epoxy them to the tree.) As I finished the seventh and last leaf, I looked at the birth dates. One was 1919, another 1927, the rest from the 1930s and 1940s. I realized suddenly that one was my age; another was younger.
|The good old days. Detail from "Don't Sit under the Mushroom," 1956. Pamphlet promoting atomic bomb safety by Seattle and King County Civil Defense Departments. Courtesy of Seattle Municipal Archives, CC-BY 2.0.|
Except for the normal problems with memory that we have as we get older—particularly names, where I have to rummage around to pull the rabbit out of the hat—I am in good physical and mental health. But I don't think I want to spend the years I have left feeling angry, bitter, and frustrated. It pains me to say it, but I think this new rancid form of conservatism has won the underlying battle of ideas for the foreseeable future. Over the last thirty-five to forty years, the war against the very notion of the common good and government as a tool in reaching that common good has sometimes retreated one step backward, but retreat was always followed by two steps forward.
Religious fervor centered around the issues of abortion, gay rights, and other social issues has played a powerful role in the shift. And I can understand the deep nostalgia of frightened voters who want to return to that "golden age"—say 1953—when blacks knew their place, women were happy as homemakers, most people went to church on Sunday and anyone—anyone white at least with a high school education and a strong back had a future with relative security.
If nostalgia and religious reaction play a major role in our political transformation, it is money that calls the tune. The new plutocracy and its well-paid pimps have had the advantages of vast wealth and a news media that gives the phrase "shallow and superficial" a whole new meaning. How do we make thoughtful political decisions in a country where reporters solemnly balance the views of crackpot climate-change deniers and the 97 percent of earth scientists who have spent their careers analyzing the data? Given the deep seated anti-intellectualism that permeates our culture, should we really be surprised to learn that more Americans believe in the physical existence of angels than in the theory of evolution? Or that, as several studies have shown, our college educated generation is no better informed on basic civic information than a Depression generation dominated by grade school and high school graduates?
And so a parasitic financial industry grows exponentially as it shuffles money from the middle class to the rich with all the skills of a side-walk hustler plying his shell game to clueless marks; the super-rich and those just below them see their portfolios fatten while middle class, working class, and poor Americans watch their incomes stagnate or decline; a generation of children remain trapped in schools overwhelmed by the complex ills of poverty and isolation; we continue to incarcerate young men (mostly black and brown) at a staggering rate; growing numbers of Americans remain food insecure in the richest nation on earth; despite the gains of the last year, millions continue to lack health care insurance at a time when every other advanced democracy in the western world sees this as a basic human right; young people graduate from college overwhelmed with debt; a bloated defense industry siphons hundreds of billions into the sinkhole of sleazy contractors and useless weapons systems; global warming threatens the future of our planet; our national infrastructure continues its slow but inexorable decline toward third world status . . .
And millions of voters seem convinced that the greatest threat to our nation is the "war on Christmas" or—in the words of the late Ronald Reagan—the "strapping young buck" who buys T-bones with food stamps. As a civically engaged electorate retreats with each election, I've reluctantly come to believe that it's what most people want, or if that's not what they want, it's not very important to resist. I can understand the feeling. Watching Dancing with the Stars or fondling an iPhone is a lot more relaxing than confronting the cynical, money-driven political system in Washington and Raleigh.
|Millions of voters seem convinced that the greatest threat to our nation is the "war on Christmas." This still is from the December 2, 2014 episode of the The O'Reilly Factor on Fox News.|
Something has soured as the American dream of mobility and economic security drifts further away. What if the right is winning not because of its financial clout or its political skills but because they have tapped into the authentic core of the new American psyche? What if racism, sexism, homophobia, classism, and hyper-individualism are all bound together by a fear that somewhere, someone struggling one step below on the ladder of life will get a free meal at "my" expense? Perhaps the intensity of the hostility toward "Obamacare" is more than a reflection of the very real racial hostility toward Barack Obama. Perhaps it lies in the belief that this program is just one more handout for the undeserving poor, paid by "my" money.
Americans can be generous volunteers, givers of charity, filled with compassion. My own community has a dozen or more organizations struggling heroically to fill the needs of our poorest residents. But I've concluded that much of this generosity extends only so far as the "giver" chooses the level of giving and the objects of his or her charity. The notion that there is some fundamental principle of justice that requires us to relinquish that individual choice to a democratic government is simply not going to carry the day—at least in my lifetime. As the top vote-getting commissioner says to voters in my county, which has one of the lowest tax rates in the state, "It's your money, not the government's."
Couple that with the fact that we have become a nation of voters who shrink from any demands on our pocketbooks or any personal sacrifice of our "liberties" for the common good and you have the new America. This is now the subliminal default position among voters or at least among those who bother to vote. I acknowledge that there is an understandably cynical view that voting really doesn't count. As I look at the groveling subservience of much of the Democratic Party to the same financial interests and K Street lobbyists that are corrupting our teetering democracy, I keep thinking of the late George Wallace's complaint that the difference between Republicans and Democrats was "tweedle-dee and tweedle-dum." Of course there are differences: just ask the millions of Americans who now have healthcare as a result of the expansion of Medicaid and the passage of the Affordable Care Act. In the case of both parties, however, the subservience to Wall Street and the one percent differs only in degree.
I recently read through the major speeches of Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, and Ronald Reagan in preparation for an interview in CNN's planned series on the 1970s. In the face of the gas crisis of 1979, Carter called upon Americans to turn down their thermostats, car pool, and drive less. After the 2001 9/11 attack, George Bush insisted that tax cuts should go forward as planned and he urged Americans to take their families to Disneyland and "enjoy life the way we want it to be enjoyed." Whatever his faults, Jimmy Carter was the last president who asked for broad sacrifice from the American people, who bluntly told them there was no free lunch. And Americans hated it. Ronald Reagan set the template: every candidate that followed, with the exception of the hapless Walter Mondale, has had to promise ever-expanding programs for the middle and upper classes without increasing taxes, the good times for all without sacrifice by anyone. There is little support for a national leader who tells us to eat our peas instead of "freedom" fries.
|"NC GOP Redistricting," November 10, 2014. Political cartoon by John Cole. Courtesy of the cartoonist.|
Having retired, I now live in the midst of great natural beauty here in the western mountains of North Carolina; every day I encounter friendly neighbors who make day-to-day life worthwhile. But I also live in a county that just rejected two outstanding candidates while reelecting our reactionary Republican commission members; in a county that voted two-to-one for a mean-spirited Tea Party state senator and a Christian nationalist state representative. I live in a state where those who bothered to vote have chosen as their United States senator a man who led his party in slashing public education; manipulating homophobia for political gain; enacting voter laws that take their inspiration from the days of Jim Crow; granting tax cuts to his rich backers; rejecting federally funded medical care for our poorest citizens through Medicaid; cutting unemployment insurance to some of the lowest levels in the nation; and in general serving as a faithful gofer for every right-wing financial interest ready to open a check-book for his party's next political campaign.
As I have watched these events unfold I have reluctantly concluded that seeking justice by placing our faith in a public dialogue over "the facts" is as fantastical as Don Quixote's mounted charge against the tattered windmills of seventeenth century Spain. Frederick Douglass may have been a great orator who believed in the power of language to rouse his supporters, but in bringing about genuine change he was nearer the truth when he wrote that "power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will."2Frederick Douglass, "An Address on West India Emancipation," August 3, 1857.
I'm no Henry David Thoreau and I don't plan to retreat to my own version of Walden Pond. I am taking a break from my day-to-day obsession with politics and the avalanche of information that—I fear—leaves us adrift in understanding what has been happening to our nation and what we might do to reverse course. Perhaps I will have a flashing insight as I cut, plane, and assemble into furniture the hardwoods of these mountains that I have come to love.
About the Author
Dan Carter is Educational Foundation Emeritus Professor at the University of South Carolina. He is the author of numerous books and articles including The Politics of Rage: George Wallace, the Origins of the New Conservatism, and the Transformation of American Politics (Louisiana State University Press, second edition, 2000).