Not One of Us: How a North Carolina Election in 1972 Presaged Today’s Politics

Remember the old saw about how history repeats itself, “first as tragedy, then as farce”? The 2012 political spoof The Campaign may be a farce, but it recalls a tragic election that changed the course of politics in America.

In the film, Zach Galifianakis plays Marty Huggins, an eccentric upstart who challenges long-term Rep. Cam Brady, who expected to run unopposed. The film, directed by Jay Roach, mastermind of the execrable Meet the Parents series, does not offer sharp political satire, but it’s at least infected with a touch of Tea Party-era lunacy.

Zach is not the first Galifianakis to run for office.  Forty-five years ago, his uncle Nick battled conservative commentator Jesse Helms for a place in the Senate.  The election vaulted Helms into power for the next thirty years and transformed a former Democratic stronghold, ushering in the long period of conservative dominance for the state that only appeared to break with Barack Obama’s historic (and wafer-thin) victory in 2008.

In a way, the story of Nick Galifianakis sounds familiar: a liberal law professor with a “funny name” and immigrant roots runs for office and slays an establishment giant. Galifianakis was born in 1928 to Greek immigrant parents in Durham, NC, where he studied law and eventually taught at Duke University.  In 1966 he won a seat in Congress, representing a district that stretched from his hometown to Winston-Salem and later encompassed the state capital, Raleigh. In a South only then breaking away from Jim Crow, his ethnic heritage stood out as relatively exotic.  He brushed off any such concerns, joking to reporters that his name is easy to remember: “It starts with a ‘Gal’ and ends with a kiss.”  He would soon find out the politics of race and identity in the South did not always work so smoothly. [Read More]

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