In the primary of June 10, the Republican voters of South Carolina gave a comfortable victory to Lindsay Graham, one of the most notorious and repulsive of the current “invade the world, invite the world” brand of U.S. Senators. Friends from elsewhere have questioned me repeatedly: how could this happen in such a traditionally conservative state? One recently wrote: “What the heck happened down there? How did the war-monger, open-borders, amnesty-crat Miss Lindsay win the primary?” Indeed, it is a legitimate question. How can this armchair warrior be the choice of a state that once produced Francis Marion, Wade Hampton, and the Strom Thurmond who rode a glider into Normandy on D-Day and married a beauty queen forty years his junior?
The short answer is that, politically, South Carolina is no longer a Southern state. It is something exactly opposite—a Republican state. Much misunderstanding arises from the long-lived and widespread delusion that a Republican state is the same thing as a conservative state—that the dominance of a Republican party machine is somehow a guarantee of political conservatism. This delusion is and always has been so patently at war with reality that those who suffer from it must be considered defective in intelligence or lacking in sincerity.
Of course, incumbency and money usually tell in any election. I received in the mail every other day for two weeks before the election a slick multicolor mail-out praising the great conservative Graham. Had he not notoriously stood up to Obama on several occasions (although never on anything important)? Does he not support “defense” spending to the limit? What else could you want for “conservative” credentials? One of these mail-outs was designed to facilitate absentee ballots—doubtless for the use of our numerous affluent carpetbag voters who spend the warm winter with us and retreat to cool New Jersey in the torrid summer. And the bachelor Graham proved his family values by portraying himself with his sister and her offspring. It required extraordinary effort even to learn the names of his opponents. Most of the voters never knew these names until they saw them on the ballot.
It has not yet fully penetrated public consciousness that, of our State’s population, half were not born here. That is the white people. The African American population is more native-born but is also receiving foreign increments. The Carolinas are now serving the role that used to be played by Florida—the preferred destination of refugee Northerners. Some of those newcomers are very fine people who joined us for the right reasons. But most are simply ordinary Americans (whether upper, middle, working class, or military retirees) of the kind who are clueless enough to vote for Mitt Romney or Lindsay Graham.
A Carolina accent can scarcely be heard in the cities now. You have to go to small towns and the country to talk native. The speech of a cultured Carolina lady, the most beautiful sound on the North American continent, is giving way in the younger to Valley Girl. It is sad to see something you love being swallowed up in cultural mediocrity. (I am not even counting change brought by the Asians and Mexicans who are numerous enough to be conspicuous.)
North Carolina, having been a target longer, is in even worse shape. The state that not very long ago elected and re-elected Sam Ervin and Jesse Helms failed by only a fraction in giving its vote to Obama in 2008 and 2012.
But this is not the full explanation. To understand you have to know that the Republican party is and always has been primarily an election machine. It is a vehicle by which the ambitious—either stupid rich men or the upwardly mobile devoid of all ideas and principles—seek a rise to power. Its greatest asset has always been a vague appeal to respectability. A great many Americans long for nothing more than the status of respectability, to feel superior to the “Rum, Romanism, and Rebellion,” that was successfully attached to the Democrats for so long.
The Republican machine has money and skillful operatives. It learned to appeal to the Wallace voters and thus vault Reagan into the Executive Mansion. But even before this happened the machine had forced Regan to accept one of its own as running mate. Of course, the Wallace voters received nothing in return from the administration, but they have remained useful as a bloc of voters by default. A bit later, many people were encouraged by the political organization of religious conservatives, which it was hoped would bring some morality back into public life. But the leaders, longing for respectability, were easily co-opted by the Republican machine. The religious conservatives never received anything except lip service, but they remain a reservoir of default voters.
There is no reason to doubt that the same thing will happen to the upstart “Tea Party” movement. Indeed, its co-option is already underway. Lindsay Graham had one promising opponent, articulate and principled state senator Lee Bright. Bright was endorsed by the Tea Party. But the Tea Party also endorsed three other candidates, none of whom got out of single-digit support, and thus hopelessly divided and confused the anti-Graham vote. Having had in my misspent youth some experience of the work of Republican operatives who posed as friends in order to throw monkey wrenches into principled movements, I cannot help but suspect the same at work here.
Clyde N. Wilson is the Emeritus Distinguished Professor of History at the University of South Carolina and a Contributing Editor to Chronicles. Dr. Wilson is best known as the editor of the 28-volume documentary edition of The Papers of John C. Calhoun. He is the author or editor of a dozen other books—including Carolina Cavalier: The Life and Mind of James Johnston Pettigrew and Defending Dixie: Essays in Southern History and Culture—and has published over 700 articles, essays, and reviews. He is also the co-owner of Shotwell Publishing.