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August 20, 2013 11:30 AM Tar Heel Blues

By Ed Kilgore

The myth of North Carolina as some sort of progressive southern oasis was always a bit overdone. It was in the Tar Heel State that I saw for the first and only time a highway billboard proclaiming “The Ku Klux Klan Is Watching You.” No state with a powerful textile industry (as North Carolina used to have) could be said to have a particularly progressive business community. And it’s hard to believe the state that elected and re-elected Jesse Helms to the U.S. Senate five times is entirely shocked by its current leadership. In truth, there are good and bad legacies honoring good and bad people just about everywhere if you look closely enough.

Still, there is no question that progressive southerners from other states often envied North Carolinians over the years, as a place where it was at least possible to say and do heretical things, and as a place that understood the importance of high education standards and plentiful cultural amenities as an alternative to perpetual abasement before yankee capitalists as a strategy for economic development. It had many of Virginia’s attainments without the Old Dominion’s inveterate elitism. That is the lost legacy that Al Hunt (himself a graduate of Wake Forest) mourns in his Bloomberg column on Art Pope’s counterrevolutionary drive to make North Carolina as much as possible like South Carolina or Alabama.

North Carolina, dating back to the 1960s and Terry Sanford, the country’s best one-term governor, and four terms of Jim Hunt, produced a much-envied system of higher education and community colleges, good race relations, a desirable quality of life and a healthy business climate. The debate about its usefulness today will persist. The North Carolina model, which served the region and country so well, is gone.

I can relate, Al. As recently as the early 1990s, there was a sense that what Hunt calls the North Carolina Model for development had triumphed among southern Democrats and was winning over southern Republicans. Virtually everyone in the region talked about education and quality of life as crucial to a good business climate, and looked down on the poor yahoos who still thought the smart thing to do was to make one’s community the most lurid opportunity available for the complete exploitation of people and resources.

Then, about the same time as the 1990s boom ended, the rock started rolling back down the hill and what we used to all sneer at as “low-road development strategies” made a big and nasty comeback all over the South and increasingly elsewhere, culminating with the meme that Rick Perry of Texas had thought of something new in urging his state to lower its standard of living and gut its common wealth to spur economic growth. North Carolina was the last bastion of a different approach to development, and it’s sad to see it fall.

Sooner or later southerners will figure out they’re selling their birthright for a mess of pottage and start seeing the Rick Perrys of the world for what they are: not brilliant and pragmatic “job creators” but hirelings of the Art Popes of the world. But for now, like Al Hunt, I’m Tar Heel blue.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

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