This state's tragic racial history weaves itself through our culture in complex, sometimes ironic ways. But whatever form it takes, it is always poison, and it paralyzes our social and economic development just like a scorpion's sting paralyzes its victims.
We saw this tragedy in all its ugly permutations last week, when Republican and Democratic candidates for governor held their respective debates, Democrats on May 2, Republicans the following night. Let's begin with the GOPers.
The Republican Party in the South — a.k.a. the White People's Party — has been the bulwark of segregation and social reaction for more than 40 years. Party leaders have used racial rhetoric and code — such as the Confederate flag and welfare — to keep the majority of whites in the GOP tent and voting against their own interests. The GOP has used its power at the polls to push programs detrimental to public education, the environment, and economic and social justice.
We got a glimpse of all this when Republican candidates Lt. Gov. André Bauer, U.S. Rep. Gresham Barrett, state Rep. Nikki Haley, and Attorney General Henry McMaster faced off on SC ETV last week. In response to questions from moderator Mark Quinn, the four lined up shoulder-to-shoulder in support of Arizona's draconian new immigration law. This was a red-meat issue that would allow no nuance or equivocation. Bauer trumped them all, however, by riffing on his earlier theme that giving welfare to poor people was like feeding stray animals. But now he says that giving welfare to illegal immigrants encourages illegal immigration. Does he not know that welfare for illegals is against the law, or does he just assume we are too stupid to call him on it?
The candidates also agreed they would veto any attempt to raise the state's lowest-in-the-nation, seven-cent cigarette tax. Keeping taxes at rock bottom is more important than raising money for indigent healthcare or preventing young people from taking up smoking — the two most commonly cited justifications for raising the nicotine tax.
Taxes were at the heart of the gubernatorial debate, taking up half of the event's 56 minutes. McMaster said he wanted flatter taxes, a line that must have warmed the hearts of his wealthy family and patrons. In a state with one of the widest disparities of wealth in the nation, it takes chutzpah to call for flatter taxes. But among Republican true believers, a flat tax has been the Holy Grail since the Reagan years. McMaster knew exactly who he was talking to.
McMaster, Haley, and Bauer said they favored the elimination of all corporate income taxes.
"If we really want to change the way that South Carolina is perceived, that would be the number one vehicle," Bauer said. "Businesses would flock here. They'd come here solely based on the (elimination of the corporate) income tax."
McMaster said, "I want to make this the most business-friendly state in the country." None of the candidates said anything about making this the best educated state or the safest or the cleanest state in the country. Just the most business friendly.
Of course, South Carolina already has one of the lowest corporate tax rates in the nation. If that was all business wanted from us, we would be among the most industrialized states. But businesses are looking for an educated work force, sound infrastructure, and a safe and livable environment — all things that cost money. But you heard hardly a word last Monday night about these issues. The whole discussion of education was wrapped up in less than eight minutes. And speaking of the environment, all four GOP candidates were still enthusiastic about drilling for oil and natural gas in South Carolina waters, less than two weeks after the cataclysmic spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
In short, this quartet was clearly serenading a well-healed white constituency with just enough red-meat talk about illegal immigrants and welfare cheats to bring the God-and-guns crowd along. It has worked for the Republicans for 40 years, and it worked for the Democrats before the great party realignment. It will probably work in 2010.
After eight years of failure and scandal, which has left this state in the worst economic mess it has known in decades, shouldn't South Carolina be ready for a change? Yet the white people of this state are going to return Republican majorities to the House and Senate and probably put another GOPer in the governor's mansion. They can't help themselves. And that is the tragedy of South Carolina, a state trapped in its racial past like a mammoth in a tar pit.
Next week: Race and the S.C. Democratic Party. See Will Moredock's blog at charlestoncitypaper.com/blogs/thegoodfight.