Viewing S.C. Politics From Afar

7 mins read

By Scott Graber

It’s Monday morning and I’m aboard American Airlines Flight 2589 en route to Charlotte. We were delayed departing Albany — and our pilot says there is some hope he can make up the time as we fly south — but this brings a small amount of angst and uncertainty about making my Charlotte to Savannah connection when we land.  

My wife and I own a loft in western Massachusetts, where she spends several months every year painting. I spend less time at the loft, usually flying up for long weekends, and today I’m on my way home. These visits always include time with Grover Askins and Michael Bedford.  

When I arrive in North Adams, I go into an incredibly cluttered and wonderfully disorganized bookstore that Grover operates at the Eclipse Mill. I give Grover a couple of names — Wallace Stegner, Nevil Shute, etc. — then watch Grover climb into and onto his floor-to-ceiling bookcases. Usually his search results in a couple of dusty volumes that keep me satisfied for the duration of my stay in Massachusetts.   

This past week also included conversations with my friend Michael. Michael spent his professional life running the Peace Corps in Bangladesh, Thailand and Afghanistan. He has great stories set against dramatic backdrops like civil war, genocide and famine.   

“I was told I had to get my 300 volunteers out of country within 48 hours,” Michael told me one afternoon at the Bright Ideas Brew Pub in North Adams. “But those days are behind me,” he said wistfully, “What I really want to understand is South Carolina.”  

“Really?” I asked. “Yes,” he said, “And your rock solid support of Donald Trump. What the hell is going on with you guys in the South Carolina?”    

And so I took another sip of my locally crafted IPA and started my tutorial with James Webb and his book, “Born to Fight.” Webb’s book begins with the Scottish immigrants who started off in Scotland and then went to Ulster in Northern Ireland. Eventually these “Scots-Irish” people immigrated into the United States by way of Pennsylvania, working their way down the Appalachian Mountains into Virginia, North and South Carolina. Then they — or their children and grandchildren — made a right turn, going west into Alabama, Tennessee and Mississippi.   

These folks, according to Webb, hated everything English or Anglican. But mostly they hated the central government in London. They brought that contempt for central government with them when they came to the United States. They also believed in isolation, self-defense and shotguns. They were mostly Presbyterian and for a long time didn’t vote at all. But that has changed.  

I told Michael that once there was a Democratic Party in South Carolina. There were some remarkably able people in that Party — Senator Fritz Hollings, Governor John West and Dick Riley (former governor and secretary of education). But then came Carroll Campbell who, with help from Lee Atwater, decided to mobilize ‘Joe Six Pack.’ I believe that Joe Six Pack was a not-so-subtle euphemism for under-educated, sometimes unemployed white men living on the edge or in a double-wide. And I believe many of these unhappy folks are of Scots-Irish ancestry. Regardless, a new voting cohort came to the table with a contempt for central government.    

Then I told Michael that Atwater and Campbell (a former governor of South Carolina) decided to ice the Republican cake with people who lived mostly in the upstate Bible belt of South Carolina — better known as Evangelicals. These folks had never voted before and generally spent their time praying. But Roe v. Wade made these folks reconsider their contemplative, church-centered lives.  

“But Scott,” he wailed. “Hold on a minute. Aren’t these the very folks who benefit from ObamaCare and the similar safety-net programs put in place by the Federal government?”  

“Yes,” I said. “Some of these folks participate in programs that they loathe.”   

But the blow that was fatal, at least as far as the House of Representatives was concerned, was the “packing” deal that moved many of South Carolina’s black voters into the 6th Congressional District. Women and minorities are essential to any Democrat who runs in South Carolina, and this 1990 deal meant that there would be no real chance for a Democrat in any of South Carolina’s other six Congressional Districts.    

“And so, Michael, South Carolina became a constant, red-blinking beacon in the night.”    

But, of course, South Carolina’s political map is more nuanced, more complicated than my little formula for failure. And fatalistic curmudgeons like myself were stunned by Joe Cunningham’s win in the 1st Congressional District. The young Democrat won downtown Charleston, Mt. Pleasant and the precincts west of the Ashley River. He didn’t win Beaufort County but I take a little bit of pride that he won Port Royal #1—my precinct.

Scott Graber is a lawyer, novelist, veteran columnist and longtime resident of Port Royal. Email Scott at cscottgraber@gmail.com.

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