COLUMBIA, S.C.—Race is no longer as overt a factor in South Carolina politics as it was when Strom Thurmond, who is memorialized in a statue looming over the state Capitol complex here, quit the Democratic Party for the GOP after Congress passed the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Yet race remains embedded in the state’s political DNA. The role of race in South Carolina politics has moved far beyond the civil-rights era’s questions of explicit discrimination. Today, whether openly discussed or not, race is central to the clash between Democrats and Republicans over taxes and spending. In that way, far more than in the days of the backlash against integration, the state previews what national politics will increasingly resemble if it continues along its current trajectory.
The dominant fact of South Carolina politics is racial polarization. In the 2008 general election, Barack Obama won 96 percent of the state’s African-American vote, but John McCain carried 73 percent of its white voters. That wasn’t an anomaly rooted in Obama’s race: In 2004, George W. Bush won an even higher percentage of the state’s white voters (78) against John Kerry. And in the 2010 governor’s race, Indian-American Nikki Haley carried 70 percent of whites in the Republican’s narrow victory over Vincent Sheheen, a centrist white Democratic state senator. Sheheen, meanwhile, won 94 percent of the black vote. In Saturday’s critical GOP presidential primary, whites will likely cast more than 95 percent of the ballots (although they represent only about two-thirds of the state’s population).
Sometimes the two parties in South Carolina collide over issues that directly inflame racial tensions, as they did in 2000 over the display of the Confederate flag. The legislation that Haley signed last May toughening voter-identification requirements—which the Obama Justice Department has moved to block as racially discriminatory—has produced similar, if less explosive, collisions.
But mostly, racial conflicts in state politics now play out through the parties’ differences over the role of government. African-Americans and other minorities overwhelmingly believe that they need an activist government investing in services, such as education, job training, and health care, to help them ascend into the middle class. Most of South Carolina’s whites are comfortable with a governing model that limits taxes while investing far less than most states in public services. “There is a fundamental difference in attitudes about the role of government between whites and African-Americans,” says veteran South Carolina GOP strategist Warren Tompkins.
The Republican skepticism about government here, as in Washington, manifests most importantly as unwavering opposition to new taxes. Resisting tax increases “is the one issue that unifies Republicans,” says GOP state Sen. John Courson. “It is the chewing gum, or glue, that keeps Republicans together.” Courson, who chairs the Senate Education Committee, acknowledges that commitment to low taxes comes with a cost, particularly for the state’s public-school students, nearly half of whom are now minorities. “The revenue stream has not been there to adequately fund public or higher education in South Carolina,” he says flatly. But, like others in his party, Courson argues that the answer is not to increase revenue but to trim waste in the education system and to find savings elsewhere, particularly in Medicaid for the poor.
As Obama does nationally, Democrats in South Carolina offer the counterargument that the state cannot attract good-paying jobs without investing more in education, training, and infrastructure. That case helped Sheheen unexpectedly win the state Chamber of Commerce’s endorsement in the gubernatorial race last year.
Yet in pressing that argument, Democrats face two huge headwinds among South Carolina’s whites. One is the enduring belief that too many government programs benefit the indolent—a group that in many minds is disproportionately composed of minorities. “It’s all race, it’s just that simple,” says John Land, the (white) state Senate Democratic leader. The second problem is a sharp rightward shift among white seniors, who see little personal benefit in the education or infrastructure investments that Democrats favor. “They feel differently about paying taxes for kids they don’t have anymore,” says Democratic state Rep. William Clyburn, who chairs the legislative black caucus.
In all these ways, the state crystallizes the dynamics shaping the national debate. National polls show that amid tough times, most whites (especially older and blue-collar whites) are hardening in skepticism of government, while most minorities continue to view it as essential to their opportunity. Mitt Romney presents that backlash as opposition to an “entitlement society,” but that’s too broad. Surveys indicate that most Republicans (particularly the white seniors flocking to the party) are adamant about preserving the biggest entitlements, Social Security and Medicare; what they oppose is transfer payments to people they view as undeserving.
It’s that sentiment Newt Gingrich stokes when he derides Obama as “the food-stamp president.” It almost doesn’t matter whether Gingrich is deliberately sending coded racial signals. As long as the argument between the parties revolves so centrally around government’s role—and whites and minorities divide so sharply in their attitudes toward governmental activism—the racial polarization that defines South Carolina politics will increasingly drive our national campaigns as well.
This article appears in the Jan. 21, 2012, edition of National Journal.