Editor's Note: Tarheel blues 

The story goes that the Tarheel State got its name during the Civil War. Back in the day, North Carolina was considered suspect by true believers. They were the last to secede from the union, and did so only reluctantly.

Nowhere near as dependent on slave labor as its arrogant, affluent neighbors South Carolina and Virginia, North Carolina simply didn't see much of a reason to go to war.

Things changed. Apparently there was some battle or another in Virginia where a brigade from North Carolina were the only Confederates who stood their ground under Yankee fire. Some other rebel troops — who had retreated — later taunted the Carolinian troops by referring to their state's main industry at the time, turpentine:

"Got any more tar at home, boys?"

Legend has it that one of the North Carolinians responded, "No, Jeff Davis bought it all up. He's gonna put it on y'all's heels to make y'all stick better in the next fight."

OK, we don't know whether or not that really happened. But we do know that by war's end North Carolina had sacrificed more men than any other Southern state to the secession it initially didn't support.

For more than 100 years to follow, the Tarheel State would remain something of an anomaly, rejecting much of the reactionary tenor of its neighboring former Confederate states and gaining a reputation for progressivism that lasted until very recently.

At the beginning of the 20th Century, North Carolina led the way in the South for equal access to public education and public health. In the 1930s, while Georgia Governor Eugene Talmadge was fighting FDR's New Deal — the Obamacare of its day — tooth and nail, North Carolina took greater advantage of federal largesse, the Blue Ridge Parkway being a perfect example.

By the start of World War II, North Carolina was the South's most industrialized state, with its lowest unemployment.

In more modern times, North Carolina leveraged the intellectual capital of its large university presence into an updated style of progressivism which once again set it apart from the rest of the region, the most stark example being Barack Obama's upset victory there in 2008.

Just as the Tarheels were the last to secede in the 19th Century, they were also the last Southern state to see a complete conservative takeover in the 21st Century. The Republican wave which overtook Georgia in 2002 would take another full decade to sweep North Carolina. But when that wave hit, it hit with thundering force.

In a stunning turnaround, North Carolina is now ground zero for Tea Party initiatives which are rapidly giving the state a newfound reputation not just for conservatism, but for a particularly radical brand of it. (Google "North Carolina" and "embarrassment" to get a taste of how that's going over.)

The ink had hardly dried on the U.S. Supreme Court's recent majority opinion nullifying much of the Voting Rights Act before North Carolina Republicans trotted out new voter ID legislation which makes Georgia's look downright liberal.

(To be clear: I'm not against having to show your ID to vote. The problem with the new wave of Tea Party voter ID laws has never been that they require ID, but that they disproportionately impact people who vote the other way. As is the case with redistricting, a voter ID law with integrity is one thing; a voter ID law which is just a political tactic is quite another.)

Here are some of the lowlights:

• No more same-day voter registration

• Lowering the bar for "poll observers" to challenge voters' eligibility

• Eliminating high school pre-registration drives for 16 and 17-year-olds

• Prohibiting extending voting hours if there's an equipment or weather issue

The Obama campaign's extraordinary success with early voting especially seems to have rankled North Carolina Republicans. Bucking a nationwide trend towards alternative voting methods, such as early voting and vote-by-mail, North Carolina has now eliminated a full week of early voting.

Do the math on how profoundly these changes could influence elections: 56 percent of North Carolinians voted early in 2012, with over 155,000 voters doing same-day registration.

The N.C. legislature also just passed one of the most restrictive anti-abortion laws in the country, almost completely defunding the procedure through insurance and essentially closing down all but one abortion clinic in a state of nearly ten million people.

(To show how dysfunctional things have gotten there, the abortion measure was inserted into a separate bill which would keep judges from using... wait for it... Islamic Sharia law.)

Perhaps most extreme of all, North Carolina just passed expansive new gun rights legislation that would allow people to carry guns on playgrounds, in their cars while on school campuses, and — get this — in bars.

Taking pistols into bars, what could go wrong?

It almost got worse: They nearly passed a measure which would eliminate any background check at all for buying a gun. But they did indeed pass a measure which would require a background check in order to receive federal or state welfare assistance.

Yes, you read that right. There was nearly a situation where you needed zero background check to buy a gun, but definitely a background check to get food stamps to feed your family if you lose your job.

Politics aside, to a normal person there would seem to be something vaguely, or perhaps explicitly, immoral about such an arrangement. It doesn't pass the smell test -- hence the new tradition of "Moral Mondays," in which outraged victims of these various new initiatives gather to protest on the grounds of the statehouse in Raleigh.

As always, the caveat is that people get what they vote for. If North Carolina wants such a reactionary government, then they should have it and enjoy it.

But the Tarheel State does give us in Georgia a cautionary tale about how quickly things, and reputations, can change.


About The Author

Jim Morekis

Jim Morekis

A native Savannahian, Jim has been editor-in-chief of Connect Savannah for ten years. The University of Georgia graduate is also a travel writer, authoring regional guides in the Moon handbook series... more

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