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Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Conservatism and South Cackalacky

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.

One comment on “Conservatism and South Cackalacky

  1. David in Nashville on

    As a fellow native, and a historian of the state, I’d say that in addition to the above factors, South Carolina’s political culture is peculiarly insular and arms-length toward the federal government. As some have pointed out, the state has never really had [except, briefly and unstably, during Reconstruction and in the 1970s] an actual two-party system. In antebellum times it went its own way [basically wherever Calhoun led, before his death], and always saw the federal government not as a common institution to be influenced through party politics, but as an alien institution to be fended off, usually by restrictive constitutional theories or, when they inevitably didn’t work, secession. The same habit of mind led to what was, along with Mississippi, the most thorough one-party regime in the post-Reconstruction South: “Democrat” and “white” were mutually reinforcing identities, and blacks were thoroughly disfranchised. After 1932 this monolith began to crack, partly because of the national party’s one-eighty on race, but also because of the popularity of the New Deal with rural upcountry whites and millhands, which pitted them against Key’s black-belt oligarchs. This split persisted through the 1970s. You rightly note that the early postwar SC Republican Party was a wholly-owned subsidiary of Milliken; but this also reinforced a negative image of Republicans as “country-clubbers”; thus by the 1970s Republicans were largely middle-class suburbanites, while rural and working-class whites remained in the Democratic column along with the influx of black voters. What changed this, I think, was the rise of the Religious Right. As right-wing evangelicals reacted to what they saw as rampant Democrat-sponsored secularization, they moved into the Republican party and finally took it over [though not without continuing tension with business elements]; they also restored the long-standing sense of white South Carolinians that party was an ethnocultural expression of southern white identity. But one consequence of white identity politics of this sort is a sense that the most important conflict in politics isn’t between two groups of white South Carolinians, but between whites and blacks, on the one hand, and between white South Carolinians and a hostile national establishment and their black allies, on the other. Thanks to the religious right, this sense of a common minority status isn’t simply racial, but broadly cultural as well. Obama isn’t simply to be distrusted because he’s black, but because he’s a bundle of everything white South Carolinians have always seen as alien and threatening. He is, metaphorically if not literally, the AntiChrist, and anything he says is to be dismissed out of hand.
    In conclusion, I’d suggest that it’s possible that South Carolina is in the vanguard in this regard; something similar seems to be going on in the rural upland South from West Virginia across Tennessee and Arkansas to Oklahoma–even while the expanding urban South, with its more sophisticated economy, is heading in a different direction.


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