Recently, I was talking with a woman who lives in Columbia and works with government contracting on the local, state and national level. She is a very accomplished professional who has built a multi-million dollar business. She runs her business with honesty and integrity.
In talking about her work with South Carolina state government she said something that stopped me dead in my tracks. She said, “State government has become so corrupt on every level and it’s been that way for so long that people just accept it as business as usual – just the way it is.”
Read what she said again. Normal = corruption.
There are lots of reasons for this and one of the biggest reason is that the legislature makes the laws – and thus write in loopholes, exceptions, fuzzy language and such that makes what ought to be illegal legal. Many things that happen in the daily course of doing business are not illegal but they should be and are definitely corrupt.
What struck me most about my friend’s statement was that folks who do business with state government have come to expect that things will be corrupt… and it’s this expectation that allows it to continue. This set me to thinking about the idea of expectations and what are our expectations of our state.
Child psychologists tell us that children’s self-image, what they think of themselves, has a lot to do with their own expectations for success. Kids who think they can’t succeed don’t – and kids who think they can succeed do.
So how have our expectations and experiences as a state played themselves out? On the one hand, we have had great victories and on the other hand, we have had humiliating defeats. This has given us as a state a very bizarre psyche. One writer said that we have a ‘debilitating inferiority complex’ coupled with a ‘soaring arrogance’ – and I think we do.
Much of this mindset was shaped by our experiences in the two revolutions where our state played such a vital role. In the first revolution against the British, South Carolina played a pivotal role – and we won. There were more Revolutionary War battles (in all honestly, many were just skirmishes) in South Carolina than in any other colony. South Carolinians were bold, audacious and willing to take on the most powerful nation on earth. And, with the help of 12 other colonies, we won.
In the second revolution, the Civil War, the sons and grandsons of 1776 displayed that same audaciousness against the government their ancestors helped create. This time, we lost – and it cost our nation 600,000 lives, more than in all the other wars before and after combined.
Though some would never admit it, this last humiliation has left us with a psychological scar and terrible self-image. For generations we have thought of ourselves as ‘poor ole South Carolina’ …’thank God for Mississippi’ as they are always worse off than we are.
Given the scramble of these two historic events – and then throw in the issues of slavery that permeated both revolutions – it’s no wonder that we in South Carolina have developed a unique and bizarre psyche. I don’t quite know how to describe it but I think the Millennials have a phrase for it – a hot mess.
In short, as a state, our triumphs are tangled up with our tragedies.
Both of these big events, indeed much of South Carolina’s history, have played out within the context of a Plantation Mentality. A few people ran the plantations (and later textile mills) and the rest of us worked for them. The masters call the shots on the plantation, in the economy, in society, and in politics. Occasionally, there have been a few domestic uprisings (Ben Tillman, the Textile Strike of 1934, the civil rights movement, etc.) but by and large we accepted that the folks in the Big House will run the show.
The Plantation Mentality also says there is not much we can do about it, that we have to accept what they in the Big House (i.e. Statehouse) do. Further, when there is no political competition or challenge, we get one party rule – first it was the Democrats and for the last generation or so, the Republicans. One party rule leads to one party having essentially unchallenged power – and you know the rest – “power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
So what does all this historic psycho-babble have to do with corruption in South Carolina government today? Is this just a rant by a Democrat who wants to get ‘us in and them out’?
No, as it’s really not about Democrats and Republicans but about insiders and outsiders. Too often Democrats have simply given up on challenging the Republicans and trying to win and have instead just decided to cut their own deal to get what they can for themselves and their friends…. i.e. see my friend’s comments at the top of this column.
There is not space in this column to list all the solutions – and there are solutions – but we must first begin with a clear-eyed understanding of where we are and how we got here … and we must expect more of ourselves and our leaders.
It’s a beginning.
Phil Noble is a businessman in Charleston and President of the S.C. New Democrats, an independent reform group started by former Gov. Richard Riley to bring big change and real reform. He can be reached at [email protected]