Alex Jones: Two visions for North Carolina
Published 12:00 am Tuesday, September 13, 2022
Though it pains us to acknowledge it, for nearly two centuries, North Carolina was an economic backwater. “The state of the public mind in North Carolina is mysterious to us,” said President Thomas Jefferson, exuding the indifference that most Americans felt toward what after Jefferson’s death would come to be called the Rip van Winkle state. By the turn of the twentieth century, North Carolina had begun to industrialize, though even there historians such as UNC’s Peter Coclanis dispute how extensive that industrial growth really was. Still, textile, furniture, and tobacco-product manufacturing began to complement the state’s historic economic core of agriculture. This was the era when mill villages became a fixture of the Piedmont.
Despite all the industrialization, by the 1950s, North Carolina still ranked 44th out of the (then) 48 states in worker wages. Appalled, Governor Luther Hodges sought to reconfigure the state’s economic-development strategy to attract higher-wage jobs. (Ironically, the low-wage, dead-end textile industry that dominated the state economy was the same in which Hodges had made his fortune.) Hodges and several Triad-area businessmen turned this vision into reality by founding Research Triangle Park, a groundbreaking experiment in high-tech economic development through public-private partnership that has transformed the state.
Progressives disagree with this market fundamentalism and Third-World docility to corporate power. Most modern Democrats want an economy that moves forward with the people and rewards their labor with a living wage. Defying the “socialist” label, they welcome modern, high-paying industries, and compete for them by offering attractive incentives like a highly educated workforce and business-friendly policies. Having attracted the jobs, Democrats seek to equip North Carolinians with the skills necessary to earn a good living.
Ironically, the progressives are really the traditionalists. For 60 years prior to the Republican counterrevolution, North Carolina pursued what Bill Clinton would have called an “invest-and-grow” strategy. GOP leaders want to go back far deeper into history and embrace a strategy more fit for the desperate plutocrats scavenging for any jobs they could bring to the state. In this as in so much else, Republican legislators are not tradition-minded conservatives but reactionaries trying – and, for now, succeeding – in returning the state to a poor and benighted past.