South Carolina: A Tea Party State of Confusion: Republicans Want to Vote for an Archconservative. but Can They Agree on One?

By Boule, Jamelle | The American Prospect, January-February 2012 | Go to article overview

South Carolina: A Tea Party State of Confusion: Republicans Want to Vote for an Archconservative. but Can They Agree on One?


Boule, Jamelle, The American Prospect


If the 50 states were 50 people, and you had to rank them by ideology, then South Carolina--which holds the second Republican presidential primary on January 21--would be the Tea Partier of the group. Forty-six percent of South Carolinians identify as conservative. Republicans hold every statewide elected office and control both the state house and senate. The governor, Nikki Haley, was on the vanguard of the Tea Party in the 2010 congressional elections, and her predecessor--the right-wing libertarian Mark Sanford--was among the five governors to reject stimulus funds in 2009.

The state's congressional delegation is no less conservative. Of its eight members--two senators and six representatives--only one, Representative James Clyburn, belongs to the Democratic Party. Moreover, the state's junior Republican senator, Jim DeMint, is a rightwing icon. It's not just that he is the most conservative member of the Senate, according to National Journal rankings. His Senate Conservatives Fund, a political action committee (PAC) "dedicated to electing strong conservatives to the United States Senate," raised $9.3 million for the 2010 congressional elections and played a major role in the victories of archconservatives Marco Rubio, Pat Toomey, Rand Paul, Mike Lee, and Ron Johnson.

Neighboring North Carolina and Georgia have moved to the middle over the past several years. Given the extent to which South Carolina experienced the same demographic trends--its black and Latino populations have grown significantly since 2000--the state's enduring conservatism might seem inexplicable. But it's not. "If I had to explain it," says Dan Carter, professor emeritus of history at the University of South Carolina and author of From George Wallace to Newt Gingrich: Race in the Conservative Counterrevolution, 1963-1994, "I'd say it's a kind of tripod of suburbia, God, and history."

South Carolina has a long and idiosyncratic history of reactionary politics. Its four delegates to the Constitutional Convention of 1787 were fierce defenders of slavery and the rights of wealthy landowners. The delegates' contributions to the convention included a fugitive slave law, a proposal to limit the Senate to the independently wealthy, and a promise that the Southern states would reject the Constitution if it didn't endorse slavery. South Carolina would later produce John C. Calhoun--who championed states' rights, nullification, and slaveholding as a "positive good"--and become the birthplace of secession.

This tradition of reactionary conservatism would continue through the 20th century and remain centered on a "preoccupation with the Negro," as the political scientist Vladimir Orlando Key Jr. termed it in his classic 1949 treatise, Southern Politics in State and Nation. "The degree to which the race issue influences political life varies almost directly with the Negro proportion of the population," Key wrote. It wasn't until the 1930s that the population of blacks in the state dipped below 50 percent; today, African Americans account for 27.9 percent of the state's residents.

This legacy resides in the suburbs of South Carolina, where more than a third of the state's population lives. Suburbs exist as something of a haven for white South Carolinians, away from black urban centers and the federal government. "Suburbanization, while we think of it as conservative all over the country, has a particularly intense conservatism in the South," Carter says. "Government itself comes to be seen as the enemy, because it's seen as mainly the benefactor of blacks."

All of this is mixed in with the power and influence of religion in South Carolina. According to the Pew Religious Landscape Survey, 45 percent of South Carolinians belong to the evangelical Protestant tradition. Almost nine in ten claim an "absolutely certain" belief in God, and 31 percent say that their religion is "the one, true faith leading to eternal life. …

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