By Allen Watson
South Carolina is known as the Palmetto State, though that’s not the image that many have in their minds when they think about the area. South Carolina, for much of the rest of the country, is the state that started the Civil War, a “red” state that lingers towards the bottom in education year after year, and more recently, a state that had a glimmer of hope for the future after one of its darkest moments.
There is no denying that South Carolina is a Republican controlled zone. Most major state offices are GOP controlled, as are both the state House and Senate, and they have been for a long time. Both US senators are Republican as well as six of seven members of the US House. Since 1987, with the exception of a four-year period from 1999-2002, a Republican has held the Governor’s Office.
The election of Nikki Haley in 2010 signaled a shift in the political landscape of the state. Not only was she the first female governor to be elected in South Carolina, but she was also the first minority candidate to be elected, being Indian American. Making her election even more significant was her religion. Haley is a Sikh, making her the first of that religion to become a governor in the US.
When Jim DeMint stepped down from his US Senate seat in 2013, Governor Haley appointed Tim Scott, an African American, to replace him. Scott had won a seat in the US House the year before and, after his senate appointment, he won a special election for the seat in 2014, securing a full term with another election victory in 2016. While this may not seem like a big deal, it is for South Carolina. For the state as a whole to elect him, some serious changes had begun taking place. People could sense major shifts in attitudes amongst the electorate.
Nikki Haley, despite making history herself, as well as setting the groundwork for Scott to become a permanent fixture in the state’s political landscape, operated the state much like her predecessors. The turning point came during her second term with an event that shocked the world.
Dylan Roof entered a Bible study at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in downtown Charleston on June 17, 2015 and killed nine people, including senior pastor and state senator Clementa C. Pinckney. Citizens of the state watched in horror as they tried to process what happened. It was the first time that many South Carolinians actually began to contemplate racism and the consequences it can cause in modern times. More specifically, the possibility of removing the confederate flag from State Capitol grounds became a reality.
The Confederate flag has long been an object of contention for South Carolina. It began its journey on top of the statehouse in 1961 and stayed there until 2000 when it moved to a monument in an even more prominent location, right in front of the building. That all changed after Charleston.
At a press conference just days after the attack Nikki Haley, surrounded by Republican Senators Lindsay Graham and Tim Scott, as well as former Governor Mark Sanford, called for the flag’s removal from statehouse grounds. Though the final decision lay in the hands of the state legislature, the die had been cast. In the weeks that followed, both the state House and Senate took up debate on the issue. Perhaps the most effective and impassioned speech was given by Representative Jenny Horne, a white Republican from the Charleston area. Many say that her speech tipped the scale in the hearts and minds of people around the state. On July 9, 2015, the state legislature sent a bill authorizing the removal of the flag to Governor Haley to sign. The next day, the Confederate flag was gone.
Many people in South Carolina breathed a sigh of relief because an object of bitter contention had finally given way. A state that for so many years could not move past a symbol seemed to be coming together. The presidential election of 2016 changed everything. Or rather, it pulled away a mask of calm that falsely blanketed the state.
Governor Nikki Haley was appointed by President Trump as the next US ambassador to the United Nations. Her early exit from the state made way for Lt. Governor Henry McMaster to become governor, a post which he had sought before. McMaster served as the state attorney general from 2002 to 2011 and ran for governor in 2010, but came in third in primary voting. In 2015, he was elected as Lt. Governor and shortly thereafter assumed the state’s leading role. McMaster is seen as a return to a more conservative base of politics for the state, and as the incumbent candidate, is well positioned to win the 2018 governor’s election. He has already secured the endorsement of President Trump.
If a vote were taken today in the state legislature, chances are the Confederate flag would be back on state grounds. The election of Donald Trump has allowed strong feelings of resentment to bubble to the surface of state society, and in turn, the legislature and governorship. There is a sense that people now have permission to speak their minds; a permission they felt they had lost after eight years under President Obama and in the aftermath of the Charleston shooting.
The more progressive conservatism seen under the tenure of Nikki Haley seems to be gone. For a moment, the state grasped at a chance for change. Just as quickly as they grabbed a hold of it, change slipped away. While the rest of the country is going through a time of political unpredictability, South Carolina has fallen back into a familiar groove – a society that epitomizes the Republican South.