Let me tell you about Joe Wilson…


A lot of folks are presuming to explain Joe Wilson, based on the impression he made last week in his Tourette’s Moment (or the far worse impression he’s made since then trying to leverage the moment to his political advantage). Some, such as bloggers from the left, are explaining it as just the sort of thing you expect from those idiot Republicans. Voices on the right, meanwhile, hail Joe as the guy who was saying What Real Americans Think (which you know has gotta be making Sarah Palin jealous, because what else has she got now that she’s not governor any more?). Maureen Dowd, after saying she was “loath” to resort to such oversimplification, chalked it up to racism, asserting that what Joe really meant was “You lie, boy!”

Well now, there’s something to that if you’re making a general statement about the Republican Party in the South. There was a time when to be a Republican in the South meant you were either a reformer who couldn’t bring himself to join the Old Boy network that was the Democratic Party, or black. But then Strom Thurmond, inspired by Lyndon Johnson’s embrace of civil rights, defected to the GOP in 1964. It took awhile for a lot of white voters to follow him. But then some of the folks who followed George Wallace in his independent run in 1968 just didn’t go back. Some considered themselves independents for awhile, but they eventually drifted into the GOP, and after awhile a certain dynamic was in place whereby more and more white folks got the impression that all the other white folks were going over there, and joined them.

The process wouldn’t be complete in South Carolina until Republican lawmakers persuaded some black Democrats to join forces with them in a reapportionment battle in the 90s. Here’s where things get more complicated than the Dowd explanation. You see, after a certain point (the point to which white Democrats were willing to go), the only way you can create another black-majority district (which will presumably, according to conventional wisdom, elect black candidates) is by creating several surrounding districts that have been bleached free of black voters. Such districts are FAR more likely to elect a white Republican than a Democrat of any color. Anyway, that reapportionment deal led to the election of a few more black members and a LOT more white Republicans, which is how the GOP took over the Legislature.

So yeah, the dynamics that produce a Joe Wilson — or a Jim Clyburn — are just shot through with racial considerations. So you can always say that race is part of the equation in any confrontation such as we saw last week. I haven’t examined the list of people who contributed to Joe Wilson’s campaign coffers last week because he made an ass of himself, but I’m thinking it’s pretty safe to say that it’s somewhat whiter than South Carolina as a whole — and most likely whiter even than the 2nd District.

Does that mean Joe Wilson is a racist? No. The idea would shock him. He would sputter and protest in that out-of-breath way he has when he’s excited, and he would be absolutely sincere. I know Joe Wilson; I’ve known him for more than two decades, and I know that he’d mean it when he said that he’d never judge the president or anyone else by the color of his skin. Joe Wilson is a guy who goes out of his way to be nice to everybody.

No, there’s another explanation for why a guy like Joe Wilson gets elected, and why huge numbers of white folks will flock to his side when the Nancy Pelosis of the world are looking daggers at him. It’s a phenomenon that runs in parallel to the narrative of race in our state’s history, one that is so interwoven with it that whenever it appears, people look right past it and see only the racial aspect, black and white being less subtle than what I’m talking about.

White South Carolinians, as a group, exhibit a trait that is not at all unusual in this nation, but which has shown some of its most extreme expressions in the Palmetto State. It’s the thing that makes a guy put his foot down and declare that no government is going to tell him what to do. This manifests itself in lots of ways. It was surging through the veins of those Citadel cadets firing on Fort Sumter. Yes, you can say that the Civil War (conceived and launched right here in South Carolina) was about race. You can say it was about a minority of wealthy whites wanting to keep black people as their property, and the majority of whites being dumb enough to go along with them on it, even though it was not it their economic interests (or any other kind of interest) to do so. But ask yourself, HOW did the ruling elites get all those other whites to go along with them? By selling them on the idea that the federal government was trying to run their lives. It worked like a charm, and we’ve been reaping the evil result of that madness ever since.

It’s no accident that we have twice elected a governor who has NO accomplishments to point to and who distinguished himself by being the last governor in the union to accept stimulus funds that S.C. taxpayers were (like taxpayers everywhere, if they live long enough) going to have to pay for. Standing against gummint involvement, especially federal gummint involvement, plays well among a significant swath of the electorate here.

But defiance is not a necessary ingredient. If it were, Joe Wilson would not have gotten as far as he has. He’s no stump-thumper (the shouting incident was truly anomalous); you wouldn’t mistake him for Ben Tillman, or even Strom Thurmond. But Joe Wilson is the natural heir of another political phenomenon that Thurmond embodied (and Sanford has raised to an art form): the do-nothing officeholder.

It’s a twist on the Jeffersonian notion that one is safest when the government governs least, a play on the old joke that we’re all safe now because the Legislature’s gone home, etc.

We all know about the highlights, or lowlights, of Strom Thurmond’s career — his Dixiecrat campaign, his infamous filibuster against the Civil Rights Act, his later mellowing on race, etc. Less noticed by the popular imagination is that for most of his multi-generational career, he didn’t do much of anything. In fact, the only legislation I can remember bearing his mark in the years that I was responsible for The State‘s coverage of him was those little health warnings on beer cans and wine bottles. That’s about it. I mean, that’s something, but it’s not much to show for half a century in the Senate.

What Strom Thurmond did was constituent service. He perfected the technique of staying in office by being the voters’ (black voters or white voters, he didn’t care) own personal Godfather in Washington. You got a problem with that big, bad government up there? Talk to your Godfather. Doing personal favors for people was far more important than lawmaking. And this made him politically invulnerable.

Over in the House, the member who best embodied the Thurmond Method — minimum lawmaking, maximum constituent service — was Floyd Spence. Joe Wilson became Spence’s acolyte, his squire, his sincere imitator. It was perfectly natural that he became his successor. Floyd was a nice guy who loved being a congressman but didn’t want to accomplish much in Washington beyond constituent service and a strong military, and Joe fits that description to a T.

The 2nd District has come to expect, even more than any other district in the state, elected representation that Does Nothing on the national scene (beyond fiercely supporting a muscular national defense, of course).

The representative of that district, who is very much the product of that non-governing philosophy, is bound to be at odds with a president who is the product of the Do Something philosophy of government. And you can see how he might get a little carried away with himself in trying to stop the Biggest Thing Barack Obama has tried to get the government to Do.

And yes, you can describe this dichotomy in racial terms. The folks who keep re-electing Jim Clyburn want government to Do As Much As Possible (at least, that’s how he interprets his mandate, and I don’t think he’s wrong), while Joe Wilson’s constituents tend to want the opposite. And those districts were drawn to put as many black voters in Clyburn’s 6th District as possible, thereby leaving the 2nd (and the 3rd and the 4th the 1st, and to some extent the 5th) far whiter than they would be if you drew the lines without regard to race.

I’m just saying there’s a lot more at work than that.

25 thoughts on “Let me tell you about Joe Wilson…

  1. Lee Muller

    The people who keep electing James Clyburn want to do as little as possible, themselves.

    The Constitution forbids them being able to elect a James Clyburn to rob the working people and buy the votes of the lazy. But people like James Clyburn don’t care about the rule of law, and their idea of changing the Constitution or other laws is to just ignore them.

  2. doug_ross

    And lets not forget the impact gerrymandering has on keeping incumbents (particularly those on ultra-right or ultra-left sides) in office. 90% of incumbents get re-elected and it’s not because they are great at what they do.

    Let’s have a national law that no congressional district can cross county lines and must be contiguous.

    Add term limits and we might see real change in Washington.

  3. Elliott1

    Interesting. I’m a Democrat in the 5th District. I agreed with redrawing the lines to get Black representation. I guess this is one of those be-careful-what-you-wish-for ideas. Blacks may be better represented in the House, but most Democrats don’t feel represented by the legislature.

  4. Randy E

    You hit on a key point that Krugman has made. Why would lower socio-economic status whites continue to support a party (GOP) that takes a financial position contrary to their best interest?

    For example, social security, medicare, and minimum wage will help poor whites in the country side. Despite this, they decry big government and vote for a party that wants to do away with these government support systems.

    The reason this happens is wedge issues: race, guns, gay marriage, and government is bad.

  5. Lee Muller

    Anything that socialists like Paul Krugman don’t comprehend, they attribute to race.

    Lower WORKING whites support the GOP because the Democrats want to limit their opportunities for economic advancement.

    They are smart enough to realize that the welfare programs touted by Randy don’t work for them, and are inferior and more expensive than letting them keep their money to make their own decisions.

    Minimum wage laws prevent unskilled people from getting the jobs where they learn skills – just as the unions intended.

    Social Security takes 15.3% out of a wage earner’s paycheck for the promise of receiving half of it back in a future welfare check. Anyone investing that money conservatively would have at least $500,000 of their own money at age 65.

    Medicare started out as a safety net, and not is a mandatory HMO which denies care to the elderly, underpays doctors by 40%, and loses $50 billion a year to waste and fraud.

  6. Lee Muller

    typo correction:

    Medicare started out as a safety net, and NOW is a mandatory HMO which denies care to the elderly, underpays doctors by 40%, and loses $50 billion a year to waste and fraud.

  7. Santee

    I’m very glad that you discussed the effects of South Carolina’s reapportionment in the 1990’s. We need districts in which politicians must consider the needs of a broad spectrum of the population. Unfortunately, the problem of homogenous “safe” districts is not unique to South Carolina, and it is getting worse. Computerized analysis of demographics now makes it possible to fine-tune those homogenous districts to a degree impossible in the past. This process is dividing our nation, as well as our state, into irreconcilable extremes.

    On the other hand, I can’t agree with you about Joe Wilson’s character, and I think the problem relates to the reapportionment issue. I’m sure that Wilson would sincerely protest that he is not a racist, and believe it himself. However, his actions over time (from attacking Thurmond’s daughter to his outburst in Congress) indicate to me that he is just the “nice” face of racism. I suspect he spends most of his time listening to the same people who are now telling him that he did the right thing in yelling “You lie!” during a Presidential address to Congress. They are not giving him the broad spectrum of opinion that he needs to hear, every day, in order to understand that he does not stand at the center of the political spectrum, but at the far right side where racism and vitriol flourish. He doubtless believes that he is as nice a fellow as can be, but the evidence points elsewhere.

  8. doug_ross


    Social Security and Medicare do not work. They both bear a strong resemblance to a typical pyramid scheme where the people who enter the system earliest reap the benefits until the number of participants exceeds the number of people paying into the system.

    “In 1945, there were 42 workers to support every one Social Security beneficiary. Today, that number is just over 3 workers for each beneficiary, and when younger workers retire, there will only be 2 workers per recipient. In 2018, the government will begin to pay out more in Social Security benefits than it takes in revenue – and shortfalls then will grow larger with each passing year.”

    A system that only works because it has the authority to increase taxes on the people paying into it doesn’t really “work”. And it’s destined to collapse.

    A system that allows a worker to pay in a significant percentage of his wages for 50 years and have no actual balance assigned to his name doesn’t “work” – especially considering typical lifespans of blacks as compared to whites.

    “White men had a record life expectancy of 76 years in 2006, and black men saw their life span increase to an average of 70 years. White women on average can expect to live to 81. The life expectancy for black women is just under 77.”

    The black male population is basically subsidizing the retirement income of elderly white women. They used to have a name for that.

  9. Brad Warthen

    The kind of partisanship to which Joe Wilson and Jim Clyburn subscribe does have certain characteristics in common with racism.

    Once a person has surrendered his political identity to a party as completely as they have, the party becomes the “friend” identifier in a very primitive “friend or foe” equation. A fellow party member is OK, someone of the other party is a threat, and must be opposed by all means available, including delegitimization. Or rather, by all acceptable means. Unfortunately, in Washington’s partisan wars, the definition of “acceptable” keeps getting defined downward. It looked for a moment as though that descent would be checked the other night, when Joe quickly apologized to the president. But when DEFENDING Joe became a watchword of his tribe, we went into freefall.

    When the member of one party no longer sees members of the other party as deserving of the common courtesies one usually accords to fellow humans, you’ve got the same dynamic in place that underlies racism. It’s quite reasonable that it would be mistaken for racism when virtually all of the members of one tribe are white, and the offended member of the other tribe is black. But it’s not that simple.

  10. Birch Barlow

    Unfortunately, in Washington’s partisan wars, the definition of “acceptable” keeps getting defined downward

    Unfortunately, in America’s voting booths, the definition of “acceptable” keeps getting defined downward too.

    I wonder if there’s any relationship between those two observations.

  11. Brad Warthen

    Oh, yeah, absolutely. And unfortunately, that dynamic will once again present us with unsavory choices at the ballot box next year. Joe Wilson and Rob Miller have both raised enough money to make each a fait accompli for his respective party’s nomination. This is it, the choices we will get.
    The choice will be between Joe Wilson, as reflexive a party follower as you’re likely to find in the GOP, and Rob Miller, who is a nice young man who deserves our deep gratitude for his service, but (from what I’ve seen so far) is no more capable of expressing independent thought that goes beyond his party’s cliches than Joe is.
    This could have been a chance to upgrade our representation in the 2nd District, but the chance has been blown away by this hurricane of money — a hurricane driven entirely by the mutually-supporting partisan spin cycles of the two parties, and NOT by the interests of the people of the 2nd District.

  12. Santee

    Brad, I can agree with you up to a point, in that Joe Wilson ignores my perspective (a white voter who is not right-of-center) as easily as he ignores the views of black voters. Together we are all still a minority in his district, so he doesn’t need any of us to get elected. I’d also say that I have no reason to suppose that he sits around privately thinking about hating people on the basis of their race.

    On the other hand, when Thurmond’s daughter when public, he found it an insult to Thurmond’s memory and claimed that she was lying. Why? More importantly, he is happy to court voters who are motivated by much more overtly racist positions, without ever challenging their assumptions or their rhetoric. So, I don’t suppose that Joe Wilson secretly belongs to the KKK. However, he tolerates a great deal of racism among his supporters, and encourages them to suppose that their behavior is acceptable.

    You’re a great admirer of John McCain. McCain ultimately faced down supporters who made ugly claims about Barack Obama that I think most people would agree had a strong racist component. I can’t imagine Joe Wilson doing the same. He’s happy with the folks he’s with.

  13. Brad Warthen

    Santee, the distinction you draw between a Republican like Joe and one like McCain is dead-on (which is why it irritated me so much when Democrats tried to act like electing McCain equaled re-electing Bush, an assertion based in the belief that all of “them” are the same).

    I realize it’s impossible to divorce the Thurmond soap opera from race at this point, but don’t you think Joe would have adamantly (even irrationally) defended Strom if everyone involved had been white? It wouldn’t have been quite the same, since her being the daughter of a black woman brought the added condemnation of hypocrisy upon the head of the former Dixiecrat, but I suspect Joe still would have said foolish things in defense of his hero…

  14. Karen McLeod

    Brad, I doubt Rep. Wilson would have had much to say, had said daughter been white (other than perhaps a remark about a young man sowing ‘wild oats’) simply because the claim would not be so destructive to the perception of the man as he had been when he fathered the child, and so destructive to the man he had become when he embraced civil rights. Either way you look at it said daughter, and his failure to acknowledge her up front becomes very problematical.

  15. Lee Muller

    McCain lost because he acted like a frightened old woman, shutting down his campaign to deal with the Democrats on the banking crisis, then being shut out by Harry Reid.

  16. Santee

    Brad, actually I’m not so sure Wilson would have responded vehemently if the race issue had not been present. My guess is that any response would have been far less emphatic in that case. However, we’ll never know for sure, one of those “what if” questions.

  17. Lee Muller

    Anti-American liberals:

    Many of the folks who sneer at the Sons of Confederate Veterans and United Daughters of the Confederacy, also sneer at the Daughters of the American Revolution and other pro-American groups.

    Racist liberals:

    The way they try to twist everything as race-based lets us know that they have a racist outlook on life. They have their own set of racist views, that they have to take care of incapable non-whites, so they think everyone who opposes their welfare programs has to just a different kind of racist.

  18. bud

    A lot of folks are presuming to explain Joe Wilson, based on the impression he made last week in his Tourette’s Moment …

    Tourette’s Moment? That’s a bit insensitive toward folks who really have Tourette’s syndrome. What Wilson did was boorish, rude and perfectly in line with his entire sorry political career. His accusation that Essie Mae was a liar in regard to her claim that Strom Thurmond was her father is proof that the “You lie” comment was not a one time event. Wilson is nothing but a sorry, racist moron who is looking out only for number 1, and who has no common decency as a man, let alone a United States Congressman.

  19. bud

    Santee, the distinction you draw between a Republican like Joe and one like McCain is dead-on (which is why it irritated me so much when Democrats tried to act like electing McCain equaled re-electing Bush, an assertion based in the belief that all of “them” are the same).

    On policy matters McCain and Bush were in agreement 98% of the time. That’s what the Democrats were asserting. How is that partisan?

  20. Lee Muller

    You cannot help people permanently by doing for them what they could and should do for themselves.
    …..Abraham Lincoln

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