Names have changed, but the ideas driving the NC conservative movement are distressingly familiar
Professor Gene Nichol, the outspoken UNC Chapel Hill Law School professor and anti-poverty warrior who, to his everlasting credit, ran afoul of the state’s conservative political leadership in recent years, was nonetheless chastised recently  by the editor of Raleigh’s supposedly liberal News & Observer.
According to John Drescher, Nichol was wrong to liken the performance of Gov. Pat McCrory to those of Confederacy-loving dunces like George Wallace and Lester Maddox because to do so was to get “personal” with the Governor. Professors, Drescher solemnly intoned, “should inform us through research and lead us though debate at a high level that is focused on ideas and aspirations.” Besides, Drescher explained, the Governor even did some nice things for some African-American kids when he was Mayor of Charlotte.
Setting aside the obvious shortcomings of Drescher’s strange admonition—a) Nichol’s comparison was, in fact based on plenty of research and analysis and b) it’s just plain silly to say that people with PhD’s can’t bring passionate or personal references to their work or that having black friends immunizes a politician from the attacks on the impacts of his policies—it does serve to raise up an issue that has received far too little attention during North Carolina’s most recent renaissance of reaction: the true nature of the conservative family tree of ideas.
Despite the protestations of those who claim that the state’s ongoing rightward swerve is all about advancing the causes of ”liberty” and “freedom” and limiting the power of state government, a research-driven closer look points in different and less noble directions.
Refighting the Civil War
Gene Nichol may have gotten grief for hearing disturbing echoes of the mid-60’s in the performance of the state’s current chief executive, but, truth be told, the obvious historical comparisons and linkages for many of the Governor’s friends and allies do go back at least to the 60’s – the 1860’s.
If you think this hyperbole, take a few minutes to read this story by Prof. Eric Foner in this past Sunday’s New York Times . For the past four years, the Times has been featuring a regular stream of stories to help readers re-experience the Civil War on its sesquicentennial. Now, as we quickly approach the 150th anniversary of the war’s end, Lincoln’s assassination and the beginning of Reconstruction, articles like Foner’s make clear the many deeply embedded connections between the forces of American reaction in the second half of the 19th Century and those at work in the first half of the 21st.
“Issues that agitate American politics today — access to citizenship and voting rights, the relative powers of the national and state governments, the relationship between political and economic democracy, the proper response to terrorism — all of these are Reconstruction questions. But that era has long been misunderstood.”
After explaining the fierce battle that took place between President Andrew Johnson and the Radical Republicans who championed full rights for freed slaves, Foner notes:
“Soon after, Congress incorporated birthright citizenship and legal equality into the Constitution via the 14th Amendment. In recent decades, the courts have used this amendment to expand the legal rights of numerous groups — most recently, gay men and women. As the Republican editor George William Curtis wrote, the 14th Amendment changed a Constitution ‘for white men’ to one ‘for mankind.’ It also marked a significant change in the federal balance of power, empowering the national government to protect the rights of citizens against violations by the states.”
Reconstruction was and is, he explains, a badly underappreciated period in the nation’s history with many parallels to the present era. It is also a period that its resisters in the states of the old Confederacy have done much to wrongfully smear with overblown myths about evil “carpetbaggers.” The truth of the matter, as Rev. William Barber often so eloquently reminds us, is that the “fusion” politics of multiracial coalitions that arose during the post-war period accomplished many great things for a time – the spread of the franchise and universal free, public education to name two of the most important.
Add to this the post–war Civil Rights constitutional amendments and their guarantees of equal protection (and the “states’ rights” backlash that those amendments provoked) and one starts to see even more parallels between then and now.
Nullification rears its head again
Just to make sure, however, that no one makes any mistakes about which sides the participants in today’s ideological debate represent in this age-old battle, modern conservative lawmakers and advocates have stepped up to the plate of late to make things crystal clear. Just last week, Senators and Representatives in the North Carolina General Assembly introduced bills to promote the ideas of “nullification”  – that is, the old antebellum idea later championed by Wallace and Maddox and their ilk that state governments ought to be able to nullify or “countermand” federal laws.
Not that this should come as much of a surprise. One of the major candidates for the Republican U.S. Senate nomination last year actually helped sponsor a conference in Raleigh in 2013 called “Nullify Now!” that championed the same idea. Its purpose, as reported in this space at the time :
“to discuss and promote the idea previously championed by Confederate leaders during the 1860’s and the segregationists of the 1960’s that individual states retain the right within their borders to nullify (i.e. disregard and/or declare invalid) most laws and acts of the federal government with which they disagree. Indeed, according to at least one of the event’s sponsors and several speakers and attendees, not only do states have the right to nullify federal laws, they also retain the right to secede from the union itself.”
Less obvious parallels?
And then there are the less obvious and well-known parallels with past episodes of reaction. As NC State University history student and Park Fellow Michah Khater explained yesterday on The Progressive Pulse , even the recent actions by conservative state lawmakers to redraw the local electoral maps in Wake and Guilford Counties have their precedents in a dark and reactionary period in North Carolina history – this one from the 1930’s.
As Khater reports, one of the more egregious precedents for the recent and controversial Wake and Guilford power grabs was a 1934 effort by reactionary white Democrats. Anxious to frustrate progressive portions of the New Deal (e.g. voting and labor rights) these conservative state officials redrew the map in then-Republican and comparatively progressive Wilkes County:
“Wilkes County was one of those Republican strongholds. There were only a handful of counties in the western part of the state, like Wilkes, that had not yet disenfranchised African American voters, most likely because of their historic support for the GOP in a Democratic-majority state. Voters in Wilkes County consistently elected Republican county commissioners, who controlled, as they do now, local budgets and public schools. State lawmakers saw counties, like Wilkes, as a direct threat and sought to regain authority in the area.
Lennox Polk McLendon, the Chairman of the State Board of Elections and the son-in-law of former Governor Charles Aycock, felt that something had to be done about those pockets of Republican voters. In hopes of getting more Democrats elected to the County Commission, McLendon and the State Board of Elections opted to redistrict Wilkes County in September of 1934, just before the coming election.”
Telling the teams apart
Interestingly and rather comically, some on the Right have attempted to delude themselves and others in recent years about this undeniable historical pattern. According to this particular bit of revisionism, because of the long ago identities of the “Democratic” and “Republican” parties, modern progressives must bear the baggage of the racist and reactionary Democrats of years gone by while modern conservatives are somehow entitled to bask in the glow of their attenuated connections to the party of Lincoln.
This is, of course, ridiculous and about as logical as arguing that being personally pleasant to people of color inoculates a Governor from allegations about the real world impacts of his policies.
Fortunately, such efforts are doomed to failure. Everyone involved in the modern ideological debate knows in their private moments which team is which. And if by some miracle President Lincoln were to reappear next month on the 150th anniversary of his death, rest assured that he would too.
(Above media file is in the public domain.)