North Carolina, in its third century as a state, has become one of the leading-edge parts of the nation, a state whose growing economy, booming demography and vibrant culture are in many ways typical of the way the nation is going--or would like to go. This was mostly unanticipated. Few people 30 years ago picked North Carolina as a state that would chart a path to the future. It had no great central city, no Atlanta primed to become another Chicago or Los Angeles, but rather a series of small metropolitan areas spaced out over thickly settled countryside. It did not have what seemed to be cutting-edge industries: the biggest employer was textiles, typically an underdeveloped nation's first industry, and the other two were stolid furniture and soon-to-be-disfavored tobacco. Geographically, it seemed to be off the nation's main lines of commerce--too steamy to be businesslike in the summer, too cold to be a resort in the winter. It did not seem socially advanced, with a population made up almost entirely of native-born Anglo-Saxons and African-Americans and with an attachment to traditional and sometimes fundamentalist religion.
Yet North Carolina has emerged as one of America's leading growth states. Its population grew by 45% from 1980 to 2004, from 5.9 million to 8.4 million; it ranks just behind also-fast-growing Georgia as the 11th largest state and is likely to pass New Jersey soon and become number 10. Its economy has diversified and grown steadily. The number of textile and tobacco jobs is down, but Research Triangle Park, between Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill, has become one of the world's leading pharmaceutical and high-tech research centers: semiconductors, photonics, nanotechnology and security technology. GlaxoSmithKline has headquarters here, and Cisco, IBM, Nortel, and Sony Ericsson have big facilities. And the Triangle's success has been echoed by the Centennial Campus at Raleigh's North Carolina State University and the Piedmont Research Triad in Winston-Salem, which attracted a 2,000-job Dell facility in 2004. North Carolina has become one of the nation's leading banking centers, the headquarters of Bank of America (formerly NationsBank and NCNB) and Wachovia, both of which have been buying up other banks; Winston-Salem's Wachovia merged with Charlotte's First Union in 2003. North Carolina even has a film industry: Dirty Dancing, Evil Dead 2 and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles were shot here, as well as the TV show Dawson's Creek. Charlotte and Raleigh-Durham accounted for half the state's population growth from 1990 to 2003, and they are now not just regional centers but major metro areas, with national sports franchises and huge hub airports. Nearly half the state's population--and more than half its affluent population--are in the Charlotte, Raleigh-Durham and Greensboro-Winston-Salem metro areas which have spread out into formerly rural counties. North Carolina is not just Mayberry any more.
Not all of North Carolina is upscale. The state is the nation's number two hog producer; some people are worried about the state's decline in manufacturing jobs, as low-wage factories close and work moves to lower-wage factories in less affluent states or abroad. The furniture industry is pressed by competition from China. The October 2004 tobacco buyout, ending tobacco allotments, is spurring farmers to shift to other crops like blueberries and pumpkins, even sheep and goats; some, free to compete in the market, are shifting from flue leaf to burley leaf, but the old tobacco economy will never be the same. North Carolina, number one in the percentage of workers in manufacturing jobs in 1993, was number five in 2002. But manufacturing job losses have been overwhelmed by the rise in service jobs, and the unemployment rate is low enough that thousands of Latinos moved into North Carolina seeking jobs in construction and meat and chicken factories. The state's Hispanic population rose from 77,000 to 379,000 in a decade, the biggest percentage rise in any state. Yet for all its metropolitan growth, life in North Carolina has not lost its rural tone. This has always been thickly settled rural land, and if one is never out of sight of others there is also plenty of green space and reminders of rural roots, from barbecue stands to country Baptist churches to stock car tracks.
Change has not been directed from any single establishment; the forces that have produced it are diverse and sometimes hostile. North Carolina historically had a small and articulate elite, which looked for guidance from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the liberal editors of the state's newspapers, most prominently the Raleigh News & Observer and the Charlotte Observer. Quite different attitudes are nurtured by tradition-minded churches in a state where churchgoing is deeply ingrained, endorsed for years through Sunday blue laws and strengthened periodically by religious revivals. When North Carolina was an economically backward state, infant mortality was common, indoor plumbing was not, and religion was a fountain of hope and a source of discipline; it is still, perhaps even more, in this now bustling air-conditioned, cable- and computer-wired commonwealth.
North Carolina has grown with the aid of both its progressive and tradition-minded citizens, and in spite of--sometimes because of--the polarized politics that has developed between the two sides. North Carolina's professionals tend to share progressive values; its businessmen and conservative Protestants tend to share tradition-minded values. Both groups have contributed to the state's economic dynamism and cultural energy. Liberal progressivism has provided an impetus toward building good schools and universities and highways and amenities like the nation's first state-funded symphony and state high schools for science and mathematics and the arts.
From these two strands of North Carolina tradition developed a polarized, increasingly party-line politics that is pretty evenly balanced, waged partly on economic issues but even more on cultural attitudes. It is a politics in which Democrats and Republicans have been distinctive, sometimes bitter in their rivalries, for years not overlapping in their ideas but by the mid-1990s converging on at least some issues. This politics was built on historic partisan patterns. Coastal North Carolina settlers tended to be British Anglicans who became Methodists, slaveholders who supported the Confederacy and voted Democratic; Piedmont settlers tended to be Scots-Irish Presbyterians with a scattering of German sects, Union men in 1861 and Republicans ever after. The most effective paladins of both traditions for the last quarter century, Republican Senator Jesse Helms and Democratic Governor Jim Hunt, were each elected to statewide office five times over 25 years, and in 1984 waged what was then the most expensive Senate race in U.S. history; once bitter rivals, they later reconciled, and worked together on some issues. Now they have both retired from office.
Most elections here have been decided by relatively narrow margins. Since 2000, election results have fallen into a pattern: Democrats tend to win state contests, Republicans tend to win federal elections. George W. Bush carried the state 56%-43% in 2000 and by a nearly identical 56%-44% in 2004, when North Carolina's John Edwards was on the Democratic ticket. Democrat Mike Easley from East Carolina--traditionally Democratic country where Jesse Helms ran well--won the governorship in 2000 by 52%-46% and 56%-43% in 2004. Democrats have held the state Senate through his governorship, won the state House in 2000, ended up with a 60-60 tie there after the 2002 election, then won a majority in 2004. North Carolina's two U.S. senators are now Republicans. Elizabeth Dole won her seat in 2002 over Clinton White House Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles by a 54%-45% margin. In 2004 Congressman Richard Burr beat Bowles for the seat vacated by Edwards by a 52%-47% margin. Republicans hold just seven of North Carolina's 13 House seats, because of a districting plan drawn by Democrats and because two moderate Democrats win in areas easily carried by Bush; in 2004 he carried 9 of the 13 current districts.
North Carolina's electorate breaks along cultural, not economic lines. In the 2004 exit poll blacks, 21% of the voters according to the NEP exit poll--quite possibly an oversampling--voted 85%-14% for John Kerry. But conservative white Protestants, 24% of the electorate, voted 95%-5% for George W. Bush. Bush carried voters with incomes of $30,000 on up (only 28% had lower incomes). Geographically, the Piedmont urban counties, filling up with professionals and with significant black populations, have trended Democratic; the counties farther out, filling up with middle-income families working in decentralized businesses, have been producing large Republican majorities. Coastal east Carolina, once overwhelmingly Democratic, is now mixed, mostly for Bush; smaller counties in and near the western mountains are heavily Republican. The result is a close balance between two cultural and political blocs which have contributed to North Carolina's unanticipated growth--though neither is inclined to give the other much credit.