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SOHP Home > Media > "Understanding the Enormous Republican Strides"

"Understanding the Enormous Republican Strides"

Reprinted with permission from the Raleigh News & Observer (July 6, 1997).

Joe Mosnier, a graduate student in history at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, is one of the researchers involved in the Southern Oral History Program's project on the N.C. Republican Party. Mosnier is traveling across the state interviewing key participants in the Republican Party's re-emergence and preserving their stories for scholars and historians. Here are some of his thoughts on the work he is doing.

Q: What is the N.C. Republican Party Project?
Mosnier: What we are trying to do with the Republican Party project is take a systematic, very broad look at as much of the party's history as we can, reaching as far back as memory will allow. So we hope to do ultimately 40 to 50 interviews with folks at all levels of the party's work as far back as say… the '30s.

Q: Why focus on the history of the Republican Party?
Mosnier: Very little has been done on the North Carolina Republican Party. It's come more to the attention of scholars, I would say, in the last couple of decades, particularly around the issue of the Conservative Club - the Congressional Club - and Jesse Helms. That is sort of where the level of attention has been given by most scholars looking into North Carolina politics. And so what we want to try to do is understand how here in North Carolina the Republican Party has made such enormous strides and compare its history here to the simultaneous rise of the party elsewhere since so much of the national political landscape has been reorganized.

Q: How did you decide whom to interview?
Mosnier: Well, that's really sort of a work in progress. We have done interviews with a number of leading Republicans in the course of the politics series. And then - you talk to folks, you borrow from your own understanding of how the history has unfolded, and you keep tacking back and forth trying to make sure you do a comprehensive and systematic survey of the sorts of political players who have been there across these years.

Q: What different aspects of the GOP do these Republicans represent?
Mosnier: We've tried very self-consciously to ensure that we're covering all parts of the spectrum. So the traditional divide, as people generally describe the North Carolina political history, is you have the traditional mountain Republicans in the west… as against the more ideologically motivated, more socially conservative brand of politics represented by the Congressional Club, Jesse Helms, Jim Gardner. And we've tried very carefully to survey both those two traditional wings.
There's something of a more contemporary amalgam, maybe, represented by a type like Jim Martin, who was successful in straddling that divide in considerable measure I think. We've also tried to reach as well folks who are expressly religious conservatives.

Q: What have you learned from the first round of interviews?
Mosnier: I think maybe the key lessons are that North Carolina long had a very conservative political bent and that the GOP's rise is tied very closely to that central fact. I think that the broad political realignment in party identification that has happened is really not so much that the views of North Carolinians who switched parties have changed but rather their sense of where they most comfortably belong has changed across the last several decades.
I've talked a lot with different folks in the series about the power of contemporary media, the incredible influence and role of television and radio in shaping contemporary politics and how inevitably really today no one really can afford to try to somehow stand above that sort of campaigning in politics.

Q: Have any of the interviews turned up any surprises, chapters of Republican history that previously were untold?
Mosnier: You get to hear a lot of things that maybe never made it into the official story, that never made it into the paper, that never will make it into big scholarly volumes that might someday be produced from official documents. So I don't know if we have learned anything that has caused me to reconsider in the most general sense the history of Republican Party politics in North Carolina, but you learn so many other things that fill in the details and explain motivation, perspective, and sort of a self-conscious understanding on the part of these political players at the time when they were active in the political arena.
And you also have told to you stories that resolve uncertainties. When you turn a page in a history volume and you can't really understand why X turned into Y, you can put that question to somebody in an oral history interview and if you have the right person they can explain, 'Well, you know, in fact that happened because…'

Q: Are there any impressions or misconceptions about the GOP or Republicans that the research will help to correct?
Mosnier: One that struck me, and perhaps I was sort of unique in having this question bouncing around in my own mind, I was much impressed by the perfect sincerity of advocates of certain views that I thought were adopted rather more in the heat of an election cycle or campaign. Certain arguments advanced that seemed narrowly and exclusively for the advantage of putting an opponent on the defensive in a particular race.
Oftentimes these are views subscribed to quite sincerely by the advocates and proponents of these other positions. So that was interesting to learn, that in more cases than I might have thought folks were actually saying what they mean even around election time.

The Southern Oral History Program
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