Last night, the GOP candidates debated in South Carolina. Tomorrow, the citizens of that state will hold their presidential primary election. So what's it like down there anyway? Over the years, quite a few talented journalists have taken up that question.
Matt Bai sketches the political fault lines. "Discussions about the Tea Party often miss the extent to which the movement is loose and leaderless, a disjointed collection of local chapters and agendas. But if the phenomenon has an epicenter, that place is South Carolina. The state’s junior senator, Jim DeMint, is generally seen as the ideological forefather of the Tea Party, at least among elected officials. Tea Party activism propelled South Carolina’s 39-year-old governor, Nikki Haley, into office in 2010, along with four new Republican congressmen," he writes. "There are, by some estimates, more than 50 autonomous Tea Party groups operating throughout the state, and according to a recent Winthrop University poll, 61 percent of South Carolinians say they approve of the movement — more than double the national figure, according to data from the Pew Research Center."
Jack Hitt explored the unsavory overlap with barbecue. "While I was back home last spring in Charleston, S.C., doing some work with my nephew, we decided to drive over to a barbecue joint one afternoon for some pulled pork and sauce. The place I like is called Melvin's, famous both for its good barbecue and its fine pedigree. Melvin is a Bessinger, a clan whose name in South Carolina has the same kind of power that barbecue legends like Gates or Bryant do out in Kansas City," he writes. "But my nephew warned me that lately there had been a feud. Barbecue had somehow gotten mixed up with issues of race and heritage. Ugly fighting words had been exchanged, leaving a residue of aggrieved feelings. The quarrel had finally touched the third rail of contemporary Carolina anger, the only topic more sensitive than sauce recipes, Strom Thurmond jokes and Charleston genealogy combined: the meaning of the Civil War. And once again, the war had re-enacted its old bitterness, setting brother against brother. Only not at Gettysburg this time, but in a hickory pit redolent with crackling."
Hanna Rosin profiled South Carolina's governor. "Dubbed the 'Daddy Party' 20 years ago, the GOP suddenly finds itself challenged from within by a wave of conservative women, from Sarah Palin and her 'mama grizzlies' to Michele Bachmann and the Tea Party leadership," she writes. "As an Indian American woman, Nikki Haley broke two barriers to become the governor of South Carolina. Was her hard-won victory over the state’s good-ol’-boy establishment a fluke, or a sign of fundamental change in the Republican Party?"
In the Esquire archives there's a classic piece about politics in the region. "Tom Wolfe broke out onto the national literary scene at age thirty-four with this breathless piece," the editors wrote, "an early step in the so-called New Journalism, a first reference for the term 'good ol' boy,' a deep breath into the future of the New South."
And Julia Reed makes the case that there's more to the South than the sometimes depressing statistics that emanate from the region.