I have written for years that the great force holding South Carolina back from social and economic development is fear — fear of black people, fear of secularism, fear of sex, fear of the future itself. Events in recent weeks offer ample support for my contention.

Demagogues dominated the political landscape in this state for generations, herding white people around like so many sheep, keeping society divided against itself and distracted from the real challenges the state faced. Their tactics were colorful and inflammatory and their bogeyman was always the threat of “race mixing.” The age of the fire-breathing, race-baiting demagogue is gone. He has been replaced by the pinstriped “public interest advocate.”

The most mendacious example of this today is South Carolinians for Responsible Government, a “grassroots” organization, which has either 2,000 or 200,000 members, depending on whom they are talking to, and who are funded by one Howard Rich, a millionaire Libertarian who writes huge checks to South Carolina Republicans from his New York City apartment. It is SCRG that is pushing Gov. Mark Sanford’s “Put Parents in Charge” voucher plan and so far Rich has given $30,000 to Sanford and $40,000 to Karen Floyd, the GOP candidate for superintendent of education. In so doing, he’s flouted the intent of the state’s $3,500 contribution limits and has sued the State Ethics Commission for trying to hold him to those limits. (The executive director of SCRG recently resigned after he was caught sending letters to the editor of The State newspaper under false names. More “grassroots” organizing, no doubt.)

In the Republican primaries last June, SCRG funded several right-wing candidates who knocked off moderate Republicans who had failed to support Sanford’s voucher plan. Of course, the voucher scheme is little more than a “respectable” way to re-segregate South Carolina’s schools and suck the lifeblood out of public education in this state.

Now South Carolinians for Responsible Government has cast its lot in two local House district races. Two weeks ago, I wrote about the glossy, four-color flyer which SCRG mailed out to thousands of Republican voters in District 115, attacking Democrat Eugene Platt, not on any issues or political positions, but on his poetry. Yes, his poetry!

In screaming headlines, the SCRG denounced Platt’s character and accused him of “deviant sexual behavior” for penning lines such as this:

“Our weekly passion spent, we fall apart on sheets

Illicitly stained before us by legions of lovers like us,

and savor mirrored forms lying side by side overhead.

Beside the bed a digital clock signals, then,

the end of another hour of stolen bliss…”

Speaking last week on a local radio call-in program, Platt said, “I would challenge my opponent, here in the presence of God and, by extension, your listening audience, to condemn this mailing as one of the most dastardly acts in the history of South Carolina politics.”

His opponent, incumbent Republican Wallace Scarborough, has not condemned the SCRG flyer. He understands the power of sexual innuendo among the sexually repressed white folk of District 115.

Then, last week, SCRG sent a flyer to Republican voters in District 119, charging Democratic candidate Leon Stavrinakis, as a member of Charleston County Council, with supporting a pro-drug special interest group. What the flyer referred to was the council grant of $500 to South Carolinians for Drug Law Reform, a registered 501(c)(4) lobbying group based in Charleston. Not only did Stavrinakis oppose the grant (which was made by another council member), but the $500 was later returned because SCDLR did not meet all council stipulations for the grant. But none of that was explained in the flyer. It was just another smear job by SCRG, trying to play on people’s irrational fear of drugs.

Politicians have so successfully linked the fear of crime to the fear of drugs that it is impossible to separate the two in any public discourse. Any politician who suggests that legalizing drugs would go far toward reducing the violence on our streets would meet the same fate as Stavrinakis, who had the misfortune of just being in the same room where another council member made a grant to South Carolinians for Drug Law Reform.

So it seems that our fear has doomed us to fight this “war on drugs” until hell freezes over, while gangs and thugs fight it out on the streets over turf and nickel bags. Two weeks ago Mayor Joe Riley went to Columbia to present the General Assembly with his crime-fighting wish list. There was no mention of drug education or rehabilitation; just longer sentences, more laws, more cops, more courts, more prisons.

In South Carolina, we cannot afford a decent education system, safe roads, environmental protection, or Medicaid. But there is always money to protect us from our most irrational fears.