Out on the hustings, people often ask me: “Can you explain South Carolina?”
I just shake my head.
It’s complicated, I say.
The simple answer, eternal and everlasting, is anti-secessionist James Petigru’s remark: “South Carolina is too small for a republic and too large for an insane asylum.”
For those keeping an eye on the upcoming South Carolina primary, including the droves of journalists now combing the state for fresh fodder, a bit of background is in order. As to my bona fides, suffice it to say that my family settled hereabouts in the late 1600s.
Essentially, the state is three within one, each with its own personality – Upcountry (conservative), Midlands (mixed) and Lowcountry (liberal) – plus the separate nation of Charleston, which is its own, singular place. The city is a Democrat’s town, owing not least to its large African American community. But also, port towns tend to play a little looser than the land-locked. Most of South Carolina otherwise consists of rural towns that honor tradition in all its forms.
Most important, however, South Carolina is the joker in the nation’s deck. Although it’s increasingly difficult to put the state in a box politically – so many non-natives have discovered its charm and beauty – certain relevant characteristics of its indigenous peoples bear mention.
First, South Carolinians aren’t just anti-establishment. They’re anti-everything if it means they’re expected to perform or respond in certain predicted ways. This tendency is especially acute when elites (aka not from around here) are involved. Thus, a local might do the opposite of what is anticipated based on history or demographics.
Companion to this quirk is a strong current of what-the-hell-ism that courses through the veins of generations of good ol’ boys and girls, i.e. descendants of the Scots-Irish with all their stubborn pride. If they don’t much cotton to foreigners, they also don’t care much for authority. In their book, the fact that candidates think they should be president pretty much disqualifies them.
But you gotta vote for somebody. May as well be Donald Trump. Is he everything a true Southerner dislikes in another human being? Absolutely. “But if the elites don’t like him,” goes the thinking, “then maybe I do.” See how this thing rolls?
Same thing on the Democratic side. At any other time, Bernie Sanders would be an impossible candidate – beyond the norms of Southern rectitude. He’s loud, angry and graceless with an accent you don’t hear much in these parts.
But Sanders has something the others don’t. He’s real as dirt. If there’s one thing a native can’t stand, it’s fakery. Whether from the ladies who smile and say, “How nice,” when they mean something extremely different – or the politician who suddenly can’t take his hands off a gun or Bible – Southerners have a knack for spotting a fraud.
Hillary Clinton enters troubled waters here, particularly among African Americans. Despite a likely endorsement from influential Rep. James Clyburn, it may not matter enough. As just one signal, Clinton’s visit to the state for Martin Luther King Day celebrations left many feeling colder than the weather dictated.
She was nowhere in sight for the march in Columbia, where Sanders joined the front line. At a ceremony on the State House steps, she breezed out of the warmth of the building, took her seat and read her prepared remarks. People notice these things. At another service later that day, half of the black audience held Sanders signs, according to Bud Ferillo, a longtime South Carolina political operative and head of the nascent South Carolina Collaborative on Race and Reconciliation.
The message? The Clinton machine is showing its age and is out of touch with Democratic voters, Ferillo says. His prediction: Clinton might win the Palmetto State, but if Sanders puts in the time Barack Obama did in 2007-08, he could pull an upset.
An African American friend in Camden responded to my plea for comment with only a photo showing Clinton dancing on “The Ellen DeGeneres Show” with the host’s black DJ. The caption, playing off the rap hit “Watch Me (Whip/Nae Nae)”: “Now watch me beg, for all the black votes.”
Ouch. So there you have it, much condensed but representative based on my own several conversations and interviews. Then again, what the hell, it’s South Carolina. All you know for sure is that whatever happens, there will be blood.