The Race Factor and Opposition to Obama

And in the "heat of the moment" in early September, another South Carolina Republican – Joe Wilson – took the spotlight by shouting "you lie!" during Obama's address to a joint session of Congress. The episode has ignited fundraising for Wilson's reelection campaign, which has since raised $2 million, and propelled Wilson to folk hero status in some conservative circles.

These recent rhetorical spats join a long list of other, sometimes more violent, clashes involving South Carolina politicians.

"There have been three fist fights on the floor of the Senate, and all three have involved South Carolinians," said historian O'Neill.

The most prominent of those was South Carolina Congressman Preston Brooks' caning of Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner on the floor of the House after a tiff over slavery in 1856. Brooks' sympathizers later mailed him dozens of brand new canes, one engraved with "Hit him again." The case continues to remain in the public consciousness with the phrase 'preston brooks' garnering nearly 30 million searches on Google in the past few weeks alone.

"No state is more devoted to its history, but no state has been victimized by its past more than South Carolina," said O'Neill. But that doesn't mean South Carolinians are lacking pride: many natives, state historians say, remain passionate about the role the state has played in national policy debates.

Today, "we're not talking as much about revolution [against Great Britain] as attacking the Federal government as the source of our troubles," said Walter Edgar, director of the Institute of Southern Studies at University of South Carolina.

"South Carolina has always had a love-hate relation to authority," said Edgar. The attitude that "Washington is the problem" has long been part of the "fabric of South Carolina culture" -- and across much of the conservative South -- he says.

It's a sentiment evident even on Wilson's campaign Web site, which targets "Democratic leadership" in Washington for choosing to "play political games on the taxpayer's dime [rather] than work to create jobs or reform health care."

"In this state, if you raise the specter of big government, it's easy to mount opposition," said Edgar.

Indeed, despite the state's overwhelming support for Barack Obama in the 2008 Democratic Presidential primary, Republicans outnumbered Democrats at the polls in the general election, voting 54 to 45 percent for Republican John McCain. And since that time, state public opinion polls reflect a continued hostility to what many there see as Obama's "big government" agenda.

Towards a Post-Racial America

Historians say race is likely to remain a salient factor in America's broad political debates for some time.

"The Southern political landscape and in particular the political landscape of South Carolina has historically been dominated by issues relating to race," said Courtney Tollison, a Southern historian.

Despite social progress in South Carolina and elsewhere towards racial reconciliation, Tollison says, the legacy of slavery, Civil War and Jim Crow still weighs heavily on the minds of many who lived through it.

"W.E.B. DuBois wrote in 1903 that the problem of the twentieth century would be the color line" -- a premonition that, to a large extent, came true, she says.

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