The deluge which soaked our state and still threatens some downstream communities more than a week later has shown the best and the worst in South Carolina. The media has given us plenty of inspirational stories about neighbors helping neighbors, even at risk to their own safety, and churches and civic groups collecting money, food, and clothing to help those who have lost everything. These are all worthy efforts.
I am reminded of Hurricane Hugo in 1989, when someone observed that this state is truly like a small town. Not only does everyone seem to know everyone else (and talk about them behind their backs), but in a moment of crisis, everyone comes together to help. Hugo was a moment which transcended class and even racial divides for a few weeks in this deeply divided state.
These gestures of generosity and shared risk are perhaps a remnant of Christian charity which lingers into the 21st century. But I suspect it is more a remnant of our frontier past, which in many ways is really not over.
Conservatives like to praise that “frontier spirit,” the image of the rugged individual alone against the wilderness, with only his ax and his gun and his family by his side. That kind of individualism has its place, but it also has its price. The frontier is a violent place, seething with bigotry, ignorance, anti-intellectualism. Certainly, that is the legacy that haunts our state and region down to the present day.
But there was another side of the frontier experience. In times of crisis — whether natural or human in nature — frontier folk knew how to pull together, fight together, build together. I think we have seen some of the old spirit in ourselves and in our friends and neighbors during the harrowing days of recent flooding.
As a kid in Upstate South Carolina, I found nothing more exciting than snow days. The unexpected holiday meant that schools were closed and sleds came out of garages and basements by the hundreds. But beyond the fun, there was also a vague sense of danger. The snow created an emergency. We felt it in the news bulletins and warnings, in the ice-covered limbs downing power lines, in the cars suddenly immobile and the grocery store shelves suddenly stripped bare by panicked shoppers. It was a small crisis to be sure, but each of us knew that we must be ready, because at any minute there might be a neighbor in need and it was our duty to be there. Yes, a little snow could bring out the best in even a 12-year-old.
But the frontier spirit does not make for good public policy. In the mundane, day-to-day business of life, rugged individuals like to solve their own problems, including settling grievances without benefit of the law. They hate rules and regulations, anything that would challenge their primal mastery of their land, women, children, and chattel property. And most of all, they hate paying taxes. Taxes go to feed those bureaucrats and regulators which all rugged individuals hate. Of course, they also build roads and schools and hospitals, but in an anti-tax, anti-government culture dominated by neo-frontiersmen, not many roads, schools, and hospitals get built, and the ones that are built don’t get maintained.
South Carolina has perhaps the worst roads in the nation, to say nothing about our schools and other infrastructure, because we have a government that refuses to raise the taxes to maintain them. Before the recent flooding, we were billions of dollars in arrears on road maintenance, and that price just soared with the beating many roads took under some 20 inches of rain that covered much of the state. Many of the road wash-outs and sinkholes we have seen in the media might have been avoided with proper maintenance. Such is the price of living on the frontier.
One more thing about the flood and its aftermath: Gov. Nikki Haley has been seen by Republicans for years as a potential complement to somebody’s presidential ticket in 2016. In the last four months she has twice faced the national media — first with the Mother Emanuel shootings, now with the epic flooding — as a leader in crisis. She has looked reasonably competent and “leaderly” on both occasions, though her more recent appearances before the camera are looking ever more stage managed. She now appears surrounded by male and female, black and white state officials in scenes that are clearly cast for national consumption. Such ecumenism is rare in our GOP-dominated Statehouse. But if it works, as Haley and her handlers clearly hope it will, she may soon be on her way to Washington, taking her frontier notions of governance with her.
Will Moredock is the author of Living in Fear: Race, Politics, and the Republican Party in South Carolina.