South Carolina's bizarre political sex scandals (Google the names Mark Sanford or Nikki Haley plus "affair" if you don't know what we mean) have made the state a butt of jokes for TV comedians, but its latest foible is more sad than funny. Last week, voters in the state's Democratic primary for U.S. Senate selected a politically unknown 32-year-old unemployed man who is almost incoherent in TV interviews and is facing felony obscenity charges for allegedly flashing pornography at a University of South Carolina student.
Theories abound about how Alvin Greene found himself a major-party nominee for the upper house of Congress. Many, including House Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.), suspect he was a Republican plant — the theory goes that he was recruited by GOP operatives who wanted to ensure a clear field in the general election for incumbent Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.). That's not implausible; it's unclear how the destitute Greene, who collects unemployment checks and lives with his father, came up with the $10,400 needed to file for the ballot, and GOP operatives are frequently accused of exploiting racial splits in the state's Democratic Party by helping black candidates run against white front-runners. Greene is black, while his Democratic primary opponent, former judge and state lawmaker Vic Rawl, is white.
But even if Greene was a plant, it doesn't explain how he got elected. Some have suggested that, in a contest in which Greene did no campaigning and Rawl raised too little money to make an impact, voters picked Greene simply because his name appeared first on the ballot. Others think Republicans, who can vote for candidates of any party in the South Carolina primary, voted for Greene for the same reason they allegedly planted him — to weaken the opposition to DeMint. Or that black voters, who make up the majority of the state's Democratic electorate, opted for Greene simply because of his color. Of course, that raises the question of how they could have known he was black — Greene was virtually invisible before the election.
We don't know who's right, but the election's embarrassing outcome does highlight the unpredictable things that can happen in places where the mixture of politics and race is highly volatile. South Carolina's white conservative political elite wastes few opportunities to reveal shockingly antebellum racial attitudes, such as the time last year when the former chairman of the state's Elections Commission posted a comment on Facebook likening First Lady Michelle Obama to an escaped zoo gorilla, or the op-ed in an Orangeburg newspaper written by two former Republican Party county chairmen suggesting that DeMint was as parsimonious with taxpayer money as a wealthy Jew. Or the comment from state Sen. Jake Knotts, who earlier this month said of GOP gubernatorial candidate Haley (who is of Sikh ancestry), "We already got one raghead in the White House, we don't need a raghead in the governor's mansion." We could go on, but we've got space constraints.
The comments of a few backward politicians obviously don't reflect the attitudes of an entire state, but it's clear that old prejudices are slow to fade in swathes of South Carolina. In this kind of poisonous political atmosphere, it would hardly be surprising if some black voters put racial identity ahead of a candidate's qualifications. Nor would we be shocked if it turned out that some conservative white voters were trying embarrass the black political establishment by gaming the Democratic contest. Neither camp has much to be proud of, and if nothing else, the travesty of Greene's election shows that some interracial bridge building is overdue in the Palmetto State.