Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Jesse Helms and the Current American Political Climate

I'm late on this, but I needed a few days to sift through my thoughts on the former North Carolina senator following his passing on Friday. Helms represented a rare dichotomous political figure. Obviously this dichotomy wasn't of the flip-flopping variety that many associate with Washington politics, but more representative of the two sides of the man himself. There were no gray areas with Jesse Helms. People either loved him or hated him. And in the electoral arena, that can come back to bite you. But it never quite did for Helms. He lasted 30 years in the Senate, but never got more than 55% of the vote in any of his election (or re-election) bids.

But what I find interesting is the coalition(s) that he cobbled together every six years. Now the way the media has played it and the way his death and the details of his life have been knocked around the blogosphere have certainly focused upon the more racial aspects of his public career. And that is certainly part of that dichotomy I referred to above. The other part is the service aspect. And both combined to provide Helms with enough of an edge throughout all four of his re-election bids to retain his senate seat.

Well, what do you know? You're just some 30-something from Georgia speculating about the guy from afar.

True, but I grew up in the Old North State and count the events of the 1984 Helms-Jim Hunt senate race as among my first memories of politics (And you're studying presidential elections?) and one of the major roots of my interest in political science. I also had a front seat to both Helms-Gantt I and II and received my bachelor's degree from the University of Negroes and Communists (I still haven't figured out whether I fit in one, the other, or both groups in the familiar moniker Helms hung on the University of North Carolina.). And during my life in North Carolina, I heard quite a few stories about Jesse Helms. Many brought up his nightly editorials on WRAL in Raleigh in the 1960s or his actions on the floor of the Senate as proof of his bigotry and racism and still others spoke of his service to the residents of North Carolina; his constituents.

Those relating the former always voted for his opponent, whoever it was, while those who told stories of his constituent service were often willing to overlook the racial half of the man to vote for him. And it was this group, I'd argue, that formed the swing electorate in those elections. Republicans voted for him (He helped bring many Jessecrats to the party following the southern conservative Democrat exodus from the Democratic Party after civil rights.) and liberal Democrats voted against him. And while there were many overt racists who undoubtedly supported Helms, I don't believe that the majorities supporting him were racist themselves. Many just simply wanted to put the past behind them and look at the good Helms had done. And it was the small, going-out-of-his-way sorts of things that helped those voters overlook what seemed to many of the more progressive Democrats to be people voting against their own interests.

But in my experience and in the outpouring of thoughts on the man following his death last week, there has been account after account of those sorts of actions. The types of actions that David Mayhew would have called advertising in his book on the electoral connection. In Helms' case, this advertising went a long way and accumulated over 30 years helped sway a vote or two in his direction.

Helms' death and the discussions of his life's work come at an interesting time in United States political history. Yes, Obama is the first African American presidential candidate from one of the two major parties, but that isn't really the direction I'm heading in with this. The 2004 presidential election represented on one level, a contest between a stick-to-your-guns candidate and a Washington flip-flopper. George W. Bush, as president, has very much been in a similar vein to what Jesse Helms was in the Senate for 30 years, a never wavering from your positions politician. 2008, by contrast, is a change election where flip-flopping is being tolerated a bit more. That's partly because both Obama and McCain have been accused of changing positions, but also has much to do with an electorate ready to embrace a leadership style that is willing to change given the problems that face the nation. I don't mean a politician that blows with the prevailing political wind necessarily, but one willing to make a move to build a consensus in the middle. In that sense, both of the candidates in this race differ from both the current president and Jesse Helms.

Recent Posts:
The Electoral College Map (7/6/08)

Blog Note

Happy 4th of July!!!!


Jack said...

There have been changes in the attitude of the country - largely because most of the country is tired of a stick-to-your-principles-no-matter-what-the-facts-are president. But there's more to it than that.

I think the country has become more moderate over the years with both sides moving towards the center. I believe there are many reasons for this, but it might be largely because of what seems to be a widely-held opinion that solutions are almost always to be found in the middle and that centrism is synonomous with unbiased objectivity.

Also, the style that worked for Helms in Senate elections in a conservative state would not have played nearly as well in a national election. People do, it is true, like those who stick to their guns and are direct, but not if they are perceived to be too radical. In a national election, Helms probably would have won the South but little else.

Anonymous said...

There has always been a desire for moderate politics in this country. Many probably thought that was what they were getting when they voted for a compassionate conservative in 2000. During Helms' tenure in the Senate though, the pendulum happened to be swinging to the right. Oddly enough, in his absence it is beginning to swing back in the other direction. Coincidence? Well, yeah.

Helms knew enough not to move on to national politics, well, those beyond the Senate. But if he had, he'd have gotten less than what Thurmond did in 1948 or Wallace in 1968. That each sequentially would have gotten less and less of the vote indicates something of the centrism you mention though.

Robert said...

I was in the Eighth Grade living in Clemson, South Carolina, when Harvey Gantt enrolled at Clemson University. We were ordered to go straight home from school to avoid the expected riots, but they never materialized. I think the relative calm at Clemson relative to the riots at Ole Miss was due to the leadership of President R.C. Edwards (one of my newspaper customers) and the class shown by Harvey Gantt. He won over many of his opponents at Clemson with his humor and his charm. I didn't know much about Jesse Helms until the Helms-Gantt race. My attitude towards Helms was largely negative, particularly with reports that on many occasions he was a single Senator who could hold out against the whole Senate to defeat a large consensus. I'm glad to know that there was a positive side to the man.

For more about the integration see

I think the swing voter in the US is essentially moderate who seeks a balance between the two parties which have become increasingly partisan. They have achieved the desired balance by not allowing any party more than 12 years in the Presidency since 1952 and by keeping a divided government between President and Congress for much of the last 20 years. I think the swing voter is looking for more moderation, but I think they are getting radicals who are willing to go to the center to win votes. I suspect that regardless of who is elected the populous will be disappointed. The only way to satisfy the swing voter will be to get a coalition of "liberal" Republicans and "conservative" Democrats in Congress to pair up with a "moderate" third-party candidate who can actually win. I think the rest of the population is still too polarized. We had one such choice in 1980, John Anderson, who was soundly rejected. Michael Bloomberg might provide the population another chance in 2012.

Anonymous said...

Here's that link from Rob.