Joe Wilson’s little town hall tantrum during the president’s speech the other night has fed an inevitable question: what is it about the conservatives of South Carolina? You got Mark Sanford trying to keep the ctizens of his own state from benefitting from economic stimulus legislation long after it was enacted (but before his own pants-down moment). You got Jim DeMint almost daily embracing every extremist way of looking at government that he can find. And now Wilson’s managing to get himself compared to Preston “Bully” Brooks, the antebellum symbol of southern bellicosity.
Alexander Burns of Poltico examines the question of the Palmetto State’s peculiar taste for conservative extremism, and does come up with this interesting assessment from one of the SC GOP’s First Families:
Carroll Campbell III, the son of the popular late governor and a Republican exploring his own bid for Congress next year, suggested Wilson’s behavior may have resonated with a powerful conservative base frustrated by its minority status.
“I talk to a lot of Republican groups, but most of these individuals are really happy that at least he’s showing some backbone,” said Campbell, whose father served two terms as governor. “Republicans are desperate for, looking for the new face of politics…There’s a sense of satisfaction that at least he can step up and do what he did.”
But there’s clearly a lot more going on than contemporary political feelings. The great southern historian V.O. Key once referrred to South Carolina and Mississippi as “the super-South.” These were the states where slaves represented a very large majority of the population prior to emancipation. SC was famously the state that nearly broke the union during Andrew Jackson’s presidency, and then did break it by firing on Fort Sumter. It was a state where there was virtually no hint of cross-racial class solidarity during the Populist revolt. It was the state where class conflict among white people was best symbolized by the brutal crushing of efforts to unionize the textile mills in the 1930s and 1940s.
South Carolina is the state where the realignment of conservative whites towards the Republican Party was really pioneered, with the defections of Sen. Strom Thurmond and Rep. Albert Watson in 1964 started a long trend throughout the region. And it’s no coincidence that the SC GOP was for many years pretty much the wholly owned subsidiary of the Milliken textile family, among the bitterest economic reactionaries in the country.
So there’s some history there, all right, and enough drama to make the occasional demagogue or South American sexual tourist in the political ranks not terribly conspicuous. It’s a wonderful thing for the embattled ranks of South Cackalacky progressives that the state played an important role in the nomination of Barack Obama as president. But it was indeed a rare occasion.