South Carolina: Place, People, Primaries

Charleston, South Carolina, is one of the loveliest cities you will ever go to. On a Saturday night, the town is overrun by attractive young things in suits and ties, or expensive dresses, ready for a night on the town. Never mind the taxi driver who tells you that they are mostly ruined (suits and people) by the end of the evening or that a house on the Battery can be bought for $6 million; Colonial America’s sense of class and style still exists here, even if the eponymous dance has been buried by the onward march of the nightclub.

By Sunday morning, a different Charleston is again on show. Gentlemen in smarter, greyer suits, ladies in Sunday best on their way to church. There are more churches in Charleston than anywhere else in the United States of America, earning it the right to be known as the ‘Holy City.’

Venture up past the Visitor’s Centre and towards the expressway, where the Greyhound Station stands at the end of a row of budget motels and you would be considered some kind of a holy fool. This is where good ol’ Charleston meets the rest of America; motels which inexplicably change their name, soul food shacks and gas stations where the cashiers are protected by bullet-proof glass. Asked if we were going to let a man with exaggerated movements in a baggy white-tee cut into line ahead of us, the answer was a meek nod and the most non-threatening smile possible.

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This is an example, but a potent one, of America’s failure to connect people. Barely connected by transport, culture or business, the outskirts of Charleston simply don’t connect to the centre. Multi-million dollar homes give way to what are still practically shacks as you cross literal and metaphorical railways lines on the last bus home, in the early evening.

*         *        *

The South Carolina Primary is an early caucus. It’s advantage to the Republican Party is that as the third primary in the string leading to the Presidential Nomination, its conservative, religious members check the tendencies of any early, unexpected moderate front-runners.

At this point it is worth reminding ourselves who the candidates for the Republican nomination for the Presidency of the United States are.

Mitt Romney – a man with a perfectly respectable record as Governor of Massachusetts, who is forced to run against this in order to secure the nomination. A businessman who claims he is well versed in creating jobs, but was more noted for rationalising them, and a Mormon who is notable for the infrequency of his converts.

Newt Gingrich – a man whose career has been a campaign against infidelity, political and sexual, and whose private life is a study in it.

Rick Santorum – a largely unpleasant piece of work.

Now, here is a snippet from a New York Times summary of a debate in South Carolina, back in November 2011.

8:40 P.M.Perry Says He Would Zero-Out Foreign Aid Budget

Mr. Perry suggested tonight that he would zero-out the foreign aid budget to all countries around the world, rethinking aid to friends and foes alike.

The governor of Texas cited Afghanistan, Pakistan and India as examples of countries that would no longer get any money from the United States at the beginning of a Perry administration.

He said countries would then be forced to prove that they deserve any money.

“The foreign aid budget in my administration will start at zero dollars,” he said. “Zero dollars. And then we’ll have a conversation.”

Year Zero

This is the essential position of this year’s Republican caucus. It is unwise to hold detailed policies in response to social ills in case they are rubished, like Herman Cain’s 9-9-9 tax reform, or adopted by the current Administration. Yet the danger of being seen as obstructive is the tactic that Barack Obama is banking on, and the Primary system obscures this trap from Republican eyes.

Instead, the Primary system, which might be the most uninformed debate possible in America, encourages all candidates to start from scratch. Romney’s record in government counts for nothing, Gingrich’s ‘lessons learned’ from 1996 are forgotten, and serious thought surrounded the candidacy of Rick Perry, who not only could not remember one of the three departments of government that he would scrap, but more worryingly, could remember that he wanted to scrap the Education department.

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Charleston is home to a monument to John C. Calhoun, remembered as one of America’s greatest Senators. Calhoun too excised the lessons of his past experience, when he turned his back on the policies of municipal improvement in order to favour nullification and slaveholding. A less tasteful memorial, on the way out of town, read as follows:

150 years ago, April 1861, shots were fired on Fort Sumter, and the Beast Lincoln had his war.

Most of the remainder of the South remains fixated with the legacy of Martin Luther King Jnr, whose birthday January 15 is. King’s legacy remains complicated, but imagine how short a shrift his ideas would have had, if they had been prefaced with the suggestion that every Church, every Union and every Movement simply start from the beginning, or take a long pause, while they figured out how to regulate the lives and choices of their individual members.

The Republican Party has ceased thinking and is hoping to win the 2012 Presidential election on tactics and advertising alone. This may be an interval, to make way for the inconvenient Primary season, or it might be a result of places like Charleston, which venerate foolish idols, sacrifice self-government to division and seek not to replicate their success elsewhere, but exclude the outside world.

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