Mousa Alshanteer: Terry Sanford’s 'modernizer' ideology wanes

Dec. 25, 2013 @ 09:03 PM

Just over 50 years ago, after Terry Sanford announced his candidacy for the state’s governorship, North Carolina experienced what N.C. Rep. Paul Luebke has referred to as the proliferation of a “modernizer,” rather than a “traditionalist,” political ideology.
This ideology, Luebke writes, “endorses an activist state government to facilitate economic development,” whereas the traditionalist ideology advocates the opposite: “economic growth that could reinforce the established social order.”
Opposing Sanford in the Democratic primary were the party’s foremost traditionalists—Attorney General Malcolm Buie Seawell, former N.C. Senate President Pro Tempore John D. Larkins and Wake Forest University law professor I. Beverly Lake Sr.
Unlike his opponents, Sanford campaigned on a platform of racial moderation and increased spending on education.
Still reminded of traditionalist Willis Smith’s racially-tinged victory over modernizer Frank Porter Graham in a U.S. Senate election 10 years earlier, North Carolinians turned a blind eye to Seawell, Larkins and Lake and were resolute in their support of a modernizer the likes of Sanford.
The Democratic Primary Election of 1960 saw Sanford attain a plurality of the vote over his opponents, Seawell, Larkins and Lake.
Sanford was again victorious in the runoff primary held between him and Lake nearly one month later, an event which guaranteed Sanford’s election to the state’s governorship and heralded the brief resurgence of modernizer politics within the state.
During his tenure as governor, Sanford imposed a sales tax on food and nonprescription medicine in an effort to double the state’s expenditure on public schools.
As a result, he was able to add over 2,800 teacher positions and increase their salaries by 22 percent, consolidate the University of North Carolina system and organize and build the North Carolina Community College System.
“Education fueled economic expansion,” writes freelance journalist Barry Yeoman, “which in turn bolstered school spending without major tax hikes.”
The state’s lack of educational opportunity was not all that motivated Sanford, for North Carolina had long suffered from stagnant unemployment and poverty rates resultant of the Great Depression decades earlier.
Sanford established the North Carolina Fund, later used as a model for President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty, so as to reduce the state’s previously unforeseen poverty rate.
He made use of his close relationship with President John F. Kennedy to secure federal funding for the expansion of Research Triangle Park, an accomplishment which would lure to the state businesses such as IBM and, thereby, decrease the state’s unemployment rate.
Sanford’s modernizer ideology was immune to criticism — his success, unprecedented.
“For generations, North Carolina tended to walk a middle path, spending more on roads, universities and culture, and later on community colleges and research parks, as a way to modernize,” writes Rob Christensen of the Raleigh News and Observer.
The resurgence of Sanford’s modernizer politics, of “the North Carolina way,” came to an end, as traditionalists were elected to the governorship and majorities in both houses of the General Assembly.
In the past legislative session, the traditionalists abolished the graduated income tax, first enacted in 1921, in favor of a flat tax which burdens the lower and middle classes far more than it does the upper class.
The newly adjusted public education budget appropriation represents a $117 million decrease from the base budget, which is defined as what is necessary to continue the current level of educational services.
Funding for teacher assistants has been decreased by 20 percent and the 10 percent pay increase that has traditionally been granted to teachers with master’s degrees has been eliminated.
The earned income tax credit — a refundable tax credit to nearly 900,000 low-income workers — has been repealed, unemployment benefits have been reduced for 700,000 workers and eliminated for another 100,000 and health coverage has been prevented from being expanded to benefit the state’s 500,000 uninsured adults.
John Drescher, the author of “Triumph of Good Will,” a chronicle of Sanford’s gubernatorial campaign, opined that “Terry Sanford, as much as anybody, helped create the North Carolina brand — a clear marking point where North Carolina emerged on a different path than the rest of the South.”
Times have changed.
It now seems that the state’s path is crossing those of other southern states.

Mousa Alshanteer is a sophomore at Duke University and a 2012 graduate of High Point Central High School. Representations of fact and opinions are solely those of the author. Contact him at