One of the best gifts I received this Christmas was a history book entitled The Country Church in North Carolina. (Yes, I’m just that nerdy.) The author, a Duke University specialist in rural sociology, began with a brief overview of the state. Observing that the growth rate of North Carolina’s largest cities was far outstripping the rest of the state, Professor Jesse Marvin Ormond wrote that “rural institutions are not keeping up with the march of social progress” and that “the result is that a social chasm between the ruralite and urbanite is evident.”
Ormond wrote this in 1931. But with a few tweaks of language and examples, his argument could have been published last week. For decades, North Carolinians have fretted about the growing divide between urban and rural areas. For decades, their political leaders have promised to close it, usually without a large effect on relative growth rates or differences in cultural norms.
That’s not to say North Carolinians who live in places other than the largest cities have had to endure decades of grinding poverty, cultural backwardness, and deep despair. That’s the kind of caricature drawn by passing tourists and parachuting journalists who only see what fits their preconceived notions. Most North Carolinians still live in places other than the largest cities. Most of them like where they live, and the lives that they live there.
Of course there are places where the demise of traditional industries and other economic factors have constrained opportunities for employment and pushed residents to relocate to faster-growing areas. But there’s nothing novel about this. Historically, economies thrive not on stasis but on dynamic change, even wrenching change.
North Carolinians responding to that change by leaving their traditional communities aren’t exactly flooding into uptown lofts and urban villages, in case you haven’t noticed. Most relocate to suburbs outside of downtowns, or to the counties that ring the urban centers.
In politics, those who think statewide elections are won in Charlotte and Raleigh are colloquially known as “losers.” Mecklenburg and Wake counties together make up about one-fifth of the North Carolina electorate. That’s a lot of voters. But if you want to win, you better figure out how to talk to the other 80 percent. And not all voters who live in Mecklenburg and Wake live in Charlotte and Raleigh, or consider themselves to be urban voters.
In recent statewide contests, Democratic candidates have dominated the vote in North Carolina’s big cities. And they have usually lost. In the 2016 cycle, for example, Hillary Clinton attracted 60 percent of urban voters. But nearly two-thirds of North Carolinians who voted in 2016 lived in suburbs, small cities, or rural communities. Most opted for Donald Trump.
Roy Cooper was the outlier, and his narrow victory actually makes the point. While he did a little better than Clinton in the cities and better still in suburbs, he outpolled her among rural North Carolinians by a solid five percentage points, at 44 percent. Smart Democrats know that they can neither win back a majority of statewide elective offices nor regain control of the General Assembly — regardless of how district lines are drawn, or by whom — unless they can rebuild their relationships with suburban and rural voters.
Does that mean coming up with practical, affordable ways to boost the economic competitiveness of small towns while addressing the rapid suburbanization of formerly rural counties such as Union, Iredell, Johnston, Harnett, Alamance, and Davidson? Yes. But as I observed, the fates of these communities are only partially determined by local and state policies. Politicians shouldn’t overpromise, even when they propose useful ideas such as improving education, upgrading infrastructure, and lightening the regulatory burden on business investment.
What the task would require, more than anything else, is more face time and less condescension. If you exit the interstate looking for deplorables who cling bitterly to their guns and religion, you will find voters who enjoy their freedoms, cherish their relationships with God, and return your contempt measure for measure.
John Hood is chairman of the John Locke Foundation and appears on the talk show “NC SPIN.” You can follow him @JohnHoodNC.