Asheville Daily Planet, November 2017
Sometimes history repeats itself. Sometimes history flips. Sometimes history does both.
This is the story of two North Carolina political parties in two different times and how they governed. It’s the remarkable story of how events in one century have been repeated in another – but in reverse.
The two parties are of course Republicans and Democrats. The different times are the 1890s and the 21st century. To help in this crisscrossing narrative, let’s call the 19th century parties D19 and R19, and let’s call today’s 21st century parties D21 and R21.
D19 had controlled North Carolina since 1870. Their tool for maintaining power was a law that gave the legislature control of county commissions, thereby keeping R19 from holding any power at all.
But in the statewide election of 1894, R19 took control of the General Assembly. Immediately they returned power to local governments. They limited interest on farm loans. They reversed D19 voter suppression. And they raised taxes for schools.
Most people here in the western mountains were Republicans. I would have been, too.
That period of R19 rule in Raleigh in the 1890s was the brightest light that shined in 19th century North Carolina. They passed laws that met the people’s needs. They performed well – for four years.
Then in the election of 1898, the Republican Party in North Carolina was demolished. D19 campaigned as “the white man’s party,” and they terrorized R19 voters, especially blacks. D19 won 93 of 118 seats in the General Assembly. And the shining light of North Carolina dimmed for decades.
Democrats had always been the party of slavery. When they took control of the General Assembly in 1898, they moved quickly to disenfranchise Negro – and poor white – voters with poll taxes and literacy tests. The 1890s ended with one-party rule through voter suppression.
In that decade, we had a back-and-forth trilogy: bad D19 government, then excellent R19 government, then return of atrocious D19 government.
A century passed, and our political parties crisscrossed. D19 became R21.
The Democratic Party of 1898, with its voter suppression, evolved into today’s Republican Party. And on the other hand, people today who share the old R19 commitment to public education, fair elections, and maximum participation in voting are in today’s Democratic Party.
And we have seen the same alternation of good and bad government in our time, but in reverse of the 1890s.
As the 21st century arrived, Americans looked at a map of the United States and saw an aura that glowed around North Carolina. Successive D21 administrations had taken us from a society that looked backward, in the manner of our Confederate neighbors, to embrace an open-ended future.
We were enlightened. Our university system was second to none. We invested in public schools. We protected our natural beauty. We valued innovation and creativity. The Research Triangle is a treasure.
Then R21 messed with an election. Days before the election of 2010, R21 dropped a series of misleading mailbox fliers into key races, and they took over the General Assembly.
And R21 began right away to douse the glowing aura that D21 had established for us over decades. We all know their legislative atrocities – voter suppression, extreme gerrymandering, war on teachers and public schools, extending their power over local governments. And they lied and lied. As a professor at UNC-Chapel Hill put it: “It’s hard to see why any political ideology demands its adherents constantly lie about their motivations.”
In the 1890s, I would have been a Republican because their concern was citizen needs, not maintaining power. I’m a Democrat today for the same reason.
In the 1890s North Carolina experienced bad D19 rule, then good R19 rule, then bad D19 rule. In this century, we’ve experienced good D21 rule and now terrible R21 rule. This century’s trilogy is yet to be completed – with good D21 rule.
It will happen. The glow will once again shine. If not next year, then 2020