After North Carolina voters approved an anti-gay marriage amendment in 2012, a horrified Gov. Beverly Perdue blurted, "We look like Mississippi." Lots of North Carolinians chuckled over the now-former governor's comparison, but few of those folks are laughing now.
Here we are, mere months after Tea Partiers turned state government into a 1950s-bound time machine, and they've already shredded North Carolina's semi-enlightened reputation. Now, horror of horrors, we're being compared to the land on the far side of Carowinds. Yep, them — South Carolina, also known in North Carolina over the years as "Lesser Carolina" or the "Slow Cousins."
It's all pretty damned depressing, true, but as a native South Carolinian I can tell you unequivocally that citizens of my adopted state are kidding themselves if they think they've reached South's levels of political ass-backwardness.
Let's compare. After 60 years of relatively moderate governance brought big boosts to education and the public safety net, North Carolina fell into the hands of uber-conservatives, or rather goober-conservatives. They immediately refused to expand Medicaid, effectively screwing thousands of the state's most vulnerable citizens. They also cut public education funding and unemployment benefits in a state saddled with the fifth highest unemployment rate in the U.S., handed taxpayer money to private schools, and want to lower standards for charter schools. They revived the voter-ID bill, practically handed over the state's trees to the billboard industry, and will soon take Charlotte's airport out of the city's control. They are also considering making it OK to carry guns in restaurants and bars, allowing the fracking industry to enter the state, and keeping know-it-all scientists off the Coastal Resources Commission so their developer pals can try to turn the coast into the Jersey shore. And we haven't even mentioned making abortions more difficult to obtain, or forcing Medicaid and food-stamp recipients to take drug tests.
Yes, it's pretty pathetic, but guess what, North Carolinians? South Carolina, in one way or another, has already put all those wonderful ideas in place. Moreover, South Carolina features other, uhm, political distinctions that make N.C. seem like an oasis of sanity and good judgment.
We've had some lousy governors in North Carolina, but we've never had one like Mark Sanford, who disappeared while in office and showed up later after having spent taxpayer money to visit his mistress in Argentina. And if we had had such a governor, it's a pretty sure bet we wouldn't then turn around and elect him to Congress. See, it's the little touches, like reviving Sanford's career, that make Palmetto state politics so, well, special.
North Carolina has seen its share of racism — think of the Wilmington riots that overthrew that city's elected government; or the long, nasty, race-baiting career of the late Jesse Helms. On the other hand, we've never triggered a national civil war over slavery. Nor have we had leaders like South Carolina's "Pitchfork" Ben Tillman and Coley Blease, both governors and U.S. senators who actively advocated undiluted, murderous racism. Sure, we had Gov. Cameron Morrison, famous as a leader of the "Red Shirts" vigilante group that intimidated African-Americans from voting, but who once in office, became the "Good Roads Governor."
Beyond rankings of relative racism, however, one thing makes South Carolina politicians perennial leaders in right-wing absurdity: the belief in "nullification" — the "right" of states to override federal law. Tar Heel lawmakers considered nullifying the Affordable Care Act last session, but soon thought better of it. Lately, though, South Carolina has been on a nullification bender.
The state House passed a bill declaring Obamacare "null and void" and making its implementation a crime. The South Carolina legislature is also considering exempting any firearm made and kept in state from federal regulation, and calling for the state to ignore any federal gun laws it considers unconstitutional. History buffs will note the national "Nullification Crisis" of the 1830s, when South Carolina declared that it would nullify a federal tariff. That didn't sit well with S.C.-born President Andrew Jackson, who threatened to send U.S. troops to enforce the laws if necessary. "When the Constitution was passed," Jackson famously said, "we founded a nation, not a club." South Carolina backed down. Since that humiliation — not to mention the catastrophe that followed secession — one might expect South Carolina to be careful not to revive their 19th century ways. Then again, if you thought that, you really don't understand South Carolina politicians' torrid love affair with spiteful contrarianism.
The bottom line on our N.C./S.C. comparison is simple: No one expects South to change anytime soon, whereas in North, there's a good chance that Tea Party rule will be voted out one day. North Carolina is awash in vengeful idiocy right now, but don't for a minute think that our idiots are even in their idiots' league.