Why Racial Polarization Is Still Central to South Carolina Politics

Jim Crow and Strom Thurmond are long gone, but race remains central to tax and spending issues -- perhaps an omen for national politics.


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.

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Ronald Brownstein is Atlantic Media's editorial director for strategic partnerships. More

Ronald Brownstein, a two-time finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of presidential campaigns, is Atlantic Media's editorial director for strategic partnerships, in charge of long-term editorial strategy. He also writes a weekly column and regularly contributes other pieces for the National Journal, contributes to Quartz, and The Atlantic, and coordinates political coverage and activities across publications produced by Atlantic Media.

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