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Longing for the good old days of one-party government

By D. G. Martin
Posted Monday, February 9, 2004

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I am thinking about better times in days gone by--back in the days of one-party government in North Carolina.

“Just wait a minute,” you say. “That is heresy. We all believe in a two-party system today, don’t we? Surely you jest. Or maybe it’s just your ‘yellow-dog’ Democrat colors showing through, longing for the days when your party had it all to itself.”

Maybe you have a point. But my current nostalgia is not based on my partisan politics. It is just remembering some good things about an old system, maybe forgetting for a moment its bad qualities.

I have listened to other people long for the “good old days” when everybody knows those times were terrible. I know some people who still think that the antebellum South was a better time and place to live than our today’s region. In East Germany, a few years after the wall came down, I met people who longed for the times of secure jobs, free health clinics, and universal childcare that their former Communist regime had provided them. And we hear reports of people in Iraq who hated Saddam, but would take him back if they could get back their old jobs and safe streets.

Our two-party system excludes some of our best people from participating in elective politics

These examples prove that people, including me, can put out of mind even the horrible aspects of former times, when we remember some of the good things we used to have. We start pretending that we could get the good things back without having to take the awful things that came with them.

“Okay,” you ask, “what are the good things that we are missing because North Carolina now has a very competitive two-party system?”

First, let’s talk about the legislature where the party that has a majority ordinarily takes full control. All the important leadership assignments go to members of the majority, and members of the minority pretty much sit on their hands--or work hard at being obstructionists. There are some important exceptions to this rule, but not many.

In the old days of one-party government, there were cliques and groups of conservatives and liberals. But a legislator could shift back and forth among the groups without going through the trauma of changing parties.

The North Carolina House of Representatives recovered some of the advantages of the “old days” last year when its closely divided membership established a coalition leadership led by co-speakers, Democrat Jim Black and Republican Richard Morgan. Not everybody is happy, for sure. But many members of both parties have told me that they are enjoying working across party lines. They said they like open cooperation better than some of the blind partisanship that had previously kept them from contributing.

Secondly, our two-party system excludes some of our best people from participating in elective politics. For instance, it is virtually impossible for a Republican, however well qualified, to win a partisan election in Chapel Hill and Orange County. It is the same thing for a Democrat in Southern Pines and Moore County. If it were not for two-party politics, we would have a bigger pool of potential leaders.

Let me disclose that I am a proud Democrat and comfortable with my party identification. But I have some good friends who are not comfortable with a total commitment to either party--or whose party loyalties shift as different issues become more or less important to them.

Without a fixed party loyalty, these folks do not have a good way to run in a partisan election. People like General Wesley Clark, who became a Democrat about the time he decided he needed to offer us his services as President, are rare. It is a shame to lose such people as possible candidates. It is another disadvantage of the two-party system.

Last week I had a long talk with Luther Hodges, Jr., the son of a great Democratic governor and himself a former Democratic candidate for the U.S. Senate. Hodges has recently changed his party affiliation to Republican, based in large part, he says, on his views on economic issues.

Later, remembering how his father, Governor Hodges had been a progressive “businessman” governor, I wondered if today he would have faced the same dilemma as his son. If the senior Hodges had been uncomfortable committing to either party, he might never have run for public office, and North Carolina would have lost a great leader.

This year we will get a test of my nostalgia for the old days in one set of elections. North Carolina has put aside the two-party system for its appellate judicial elections. So, we will know how these nonpartisan (non-two-party) elections work.

When it is all over in November, I bet there will be some of us who will be longing for the good old days of two-party, partisan judicial elections.

For some of us, the good old days always look better, even when they weren’t.

[I]D.G. Martin hosts North Carolina Bookwatch.[I]

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