Every few years, the rest of the United States suspends its indifference toward South Carolina just long enough to deplore yet another instance of that state’s benightedness. If the state isn’t barring women from the Citadel, it’s letting its sleazy gambling industry buy the governor’s office. If it’s not selling the governor’s office, favorite son Lee Atwater is Willie Horton-izing American politics. This, remember, is the state that gave us Susan Smith.
South Carolina has not disappointed during the Republican presidential primary. The campaign has illuminated the appalling fundamentalist theology of Bob Jones University—which still bars interracial dating—and South Carolina’s endless controversy over whether to remove the Confederate flag that still flies over the state Capitol.
South Carolina’s location on the northern border of the Deep South is one reason why the state astonishes outsiders. Compared to North Carolina’s aggressive cosmopolitanism, South Carolina’s Confederate flag, intense religiosity, and militarism may seem puzzling. In fact, they are typical of the region. Mississippi and Georgia both incorporate the Confederate banner into their official state flags. South Carolina may consider itself “the buckle on the Bible Belt,” but so do Southern neighbors Mississippi, Alabama, and Arkansas.
The history of South Carolina is mostly defined by its cussed insistence that it doesn’t really belong to the United States. More than any other state, it has championed states’ rights, a euphemism for “let us do whatever we damn well please.” Before the Civil War, it was the only state with a black majority, and its white leaders were the most vehement in the Confederacy about preserving slavery. Sen. John C. Calhoun devised the doctrine of “nullification,” whereby a state could reject federal laws with which it disagreed. South Carolina seceded first from the Union, fired on Fort Sumter to begin the Civil War, and lost a larger percentage of (white) men in the war than any state in the Confederacy. (Its philosophy: Extremism in defense of slavery is no vice.)
South Carolina remained proudly on the fringes after the war, rejecting the United States as much as possible. During Reconstruction, the Klan and other whites conducted a successful insurgency against blacks and Union occupiers, the most vicious of postwar struggles. After Reconstruction, South Carolina mercilessly disenfranchised its black population. Strom Thurmond fomented the Dixiecrat rebellion of 1948, running for president on a state’s rights, segregationist platform. In 1964, Thurmond became the first major Southern politician to secede from the Democratic Party. Later he helped concoct Richard Nixon’s Southern strategy. More recently, South Carolina embraced the religious right with a fervor unmatched elsewhere.
South Carolina’s exceptionalism, so shocking to Yankees, is a source of honor to many natives. The state has clung proudly to the idea of the “Lost Cause.” As Walter Edgar recounts in South Carolina: A History, white South Carolinians adopted the Lost Cause as a civic religion after the Civil War. The state became a monument to glorious defeat, with Charleston as the “Holy City.” “Heritage” groups dedicated to memorializing the war thrive in South Carolina. These are the folks who especially pushed to keep women out of the Citadel and to keep the flag flying. They are happy to let history pass them by.
But the real lost cause in South Carolina is the Lost Cause itself. Lost Cause South Carolina—isolationist, racist, atavistic—is shrinking every day, replaced by homogenized, moderate burbs. South Carolina’s economy, long an embarrassment, has become tech-driven and booming. The textile mills that anchored the state’s economy have been slaughtered by foreign competition. But South Carolina did not retreat into the nativism and isolationism you might expect (except for conservative textile magnate Roger Milliken, who bankrolls anti-WTO groups). Instead, the state’s business leaders and politicians have made it the nation’s biggest magnet for foreign investment. Its technical colleges and anti-union rules have drawn high-tech manufacturing firms by the hundreds. Per capita, South Carolina has more people working for foreign companies than any state but Hawaii.
Demographically, too, it is becoming like the rest of the nation. Immigrants used to be rare and unwelcome. Fifty years ago, fewer than 10 percent of South Carolinians were born outside the state. Today, more than a third of South Carolinians were not born there. They are less religious, less Southern, and less socially conservative than the natives. Blacks, who comprise 30 percent of the population, now play leading roles in the economy and politics. South Carolina even looks more like America. Sprawl has swallowed its small cities and charming rural towns. The northeastern quadrant of the state feels like a giant strip mall.
These economic and demographic shifts have softened the state’s abrasive politics. South Carolina Republicans now rescue establishment presidential candidates damaged by New Hampshire. Bob Dole whacked Pat Buchanan here in 1996. Bush routed Buchanan in 1992 and Pat Robertson in 1988. The press credits these victories to the wizardry of former Gov. Carroll Campbell and Atwater, who supposedly herded the state’s sheeplike Republicans to vote for their favored candidate.
South Carolina Republicans, however, have boosted mainstream candidates not because they are Campbell’s or Atwater’s sheep, but because the state is much more mainstream than it seems. The throwback “heritage” vote, though noisy, is a small minority of the state, and even a small minority of Republicans. Christian conservatives don’t have a choke hold on the GOP either. South Carolina is more Republican than the rest of the country, but not in a nutty way. Its Republicans are pro-business pragmatists. South Carolina escaped violence during the civil rights movement because the state’s white business leaders, after resisting integration for as long as they could, realized they wanted a placid business environment more than they wanted segregation. The state chamber of commerce has led the campaign to remove the Confederate flag. Jim Guth, who studies religion and politics at Furman University, has noted that South Carolina’s Christian conservatives are less ideological than their cartoon image suggests. (Bob Jones University President Bob Jones III, for example, is pushing to remove the Confederate flag.)
Today’s South Carolina consistently elects pragmatists, not ideologues. In 1998, Sen. Fritz Hollings, a highly secular politician, beat Christian conservative challenger Bob Inglis. Inglis relied on priggish, hard-right principles, while Hollings made bald commercial appeals to pork-barreling and commerce. Thurmond, once a firebrand on race, has held his Senate seat by moderating his views and lavishing federal funds on the state. The Citadel now enrolls women. Most South Carolinians frown on Bob Jones’ loopy dating rules. A huge majority of South Carolinians want the Confederate flag removed. (It will almost certainly come down by year’s end, thanks to a compromise between white Republicans and black Democrats.)
In short, the state that behaved for a century as if it didn’t belong to the United States has become just like it. Which is why South Carolina is exactly the right place to hold the Republican primary that matters most.