Alexander H. Jones: Upscale North Carolina goes blue

Published 12:00 am Sunday, May 26, 2024

By Alexander H. Jones

The SouthPark shopping mall is a marvel of modern wealth. Anchoring an edge city outside Charlotte, the high-end bazaar boasts retailers so posh they have only one location in all of the Carolinas. Gucci. Burberry. Psycho Bunny.

The patrons of this mall work in banking and law, utilities and the executive class of corporate logistics. They are — delicately put — wealthy. And politically, their votes once followed their wealth. South Charlotte was one of the first parts of North Carolina to vote Republican in the early 1960s and remained a staunchly Republican community until the last several election cycles.

In fact, the conservative lean of the Charlotte area reaches back into the era of the Democratic Solid South. Myers Park, an affluent neighborhood a few minutes from SouthPark mall, went for conservative Democrat Willis Smith in the infamous 1950 Senate race. The racist themes of North Carolina conservative campaigns did not deter some of the wealthiest people in the from voting their interests — until Donald Trump remade the Republican Party.

Since the 2016 election, affluent suburbs across the state have shifted decisively into the Democratic column. Places like South Charlotte and North Raleigh now help form part of the backbone of the Democratic Party’s coalition. Wealthy suburbs have joined the more urban inner cores of the state’s metropolitan areas as major sources of voting strength for the Democratic Party. Without Democratic growth in Cary and North Raleigh, for example, Wake County — which has but one remaining Republican state legislator — would likely not have awarded 62% of its votes both to Cheri Beasley and to Joe Biden.

This progressive trend in affluent suburban areas may seem a bit difficult to explain.

After all, the animating force behind the suburbs’ conservatism was once middle-to upper-class self-interest. Upscale suburbanites were never comfortable with the social conservatism of the Southern GOP. They chose to overlook the party’s retrograde positions on abortion, same-sex marriage, creationism and gun control in order to secure a steady diet of tax cuts from the conservative politicians they elected to office. And the GOP has hardly changed its stance on fiscal policy, remaining — as the budget plan recently released by the Republican Study Committee indicated — as committed as ever to the goals of low taxes on the rich and low spending on programs for the poor.

What explains the bluing of suburbia is the fact that American politics is increasingly post-material. Beginning in the 1960s with the rise of the modern social justice movement and other causes like environmentalism and consumer rights, American political culture has grown to incorporate values that exist separately from the distribution of wealth and resources. This idealistic politics first took root among the liberal upper middle class and predominated in blue-state jurisdictions like Massachusetts and northern California. But the Trump explosion spread the politics of social concern to the Sun Belt, bringing suburban areas like the communities north of Atlanta and south of Charlotte in line with their economic peers along the so-called “coasts.”

As a result, North Carolina’s more affluent communities have embraced the Democratic Party. The Republican brand has become so toxic to them that they are now willing to forego fiscal largesse in order to protect their values of outward-looking cosmopolitanism and cultural tolerance. Republicans have, by embracing Trump, ceded this base to the Democrats, supplying a boon to a party that has been hollowed out across the rural areas of the state. (Black-majority rural counties being the notable exception.) The formerly Jacksonian Democratic Party has become the home of people whose loyalties lie more squarely with Dwight D. Eisenhower.

It does not reflect particularly well on the Democrats that they have become the party of upscale North Carolina. The party’s best self emerged when it stood for the interests of working people, white, Black and otherwise. But it reflects even more poorly on Republicans that they cannot win, and indeed spurn, the best-educated members of the electorate. As the journalist David Frum wrote in his 2008 book “Comeback,” Democrats have always won the lion’s share of the “Ph.D. crowd.” But it now appears that almost anyone who styles themself an educated and thoughtful individual likely feels an animosity towards Republicans that borders on repulsion. At the least, very few customers at Psycho Bunny are likely to vote MAGA in 2024.

Alexander H. Jones is a policy analyst with Carolina Forward. He lives in Carrboro. Have feedback? Reach him at