Why this Democrat believes a Republican state can be a model for the country
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As a Democrat, the fact that I would praise the politics of my adopted home state of South Carolina might surprise you. Republicans control near super-majorities in the state legislature, and the Palmetto State has not elected a Democratic governor or U.S. senator in more than a quarter-century.
Yet, as their right-wing peers in Florida, Tennessee and Georgia routinely wage culture wars that divide their citizens and rally Democratic voters across the country, South Carolina’s leaders have provided a strong example of a third way, where logic and reason can unite people of different parties, races and beliefs to actually form a more perfect union and achieve shared goals.
In 2016, neighboring North Carolina passed H.B. 2, also known as “the Bathroom Bill” into law, prohibiting transgender citizens from using public facilities aligned with their individual gender identity. In response, the state suffered serious financial consequences totaling billions in lost revenue as many businesses moved offices, investments and events out of North Carolina. The unpopularity of the policy also helped contribute to first-term GOP Gov. Pat McCrory’s defeat later that year.
At the same time, then-Gov. Nikki Haley led opposition to similar legislation in South Carolina, which never passed the state Senate. Even more recently, the South Carolina Supreme Court – solely elected by the Republican-controlled legislature – struck down a bill that would have prevented abortion after six weeks. Today, in this very conservative state, most abortions are allowed up until 22 weeks. The author of the decision was one of the state’s first female jurists and the spouse of a Republican state legislator.
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Most recently, South Carolina’s legislature has sought bipartisan consensus on some of the most controversial issues of our time. In 2022, while other Republican-led states battled with restrictive voter and ballot access laws, South Carolina unanimously adopted an election reform bill, H. 4919, that required each county to offer two weeks of in-person early voting for at least six days a week before an election or runoff and no longer required an excuse – like being out of state or having a disability – to early vote. For Republicans wary of election security, it also included voter ID and installed ballot security measures.
While curriculum battles rage in a number of states, especially in Florida, just last week a bipartisan majority on the South Carolina Senate Education Committee sent a consensus education bill to the floor with broad support. The shockingly non-controversial bill essentially allows teachers to teach, and allows a statewide process for parents to object, at a local level, to content they may deem problematic.
For instance, in the South Carolina bill, there are no bans on teaching about slavery or the Holocaust or books being removed en masse from library shelves. Parents no longer have carte blanche to sue teachers or districts, but the legislation does allow a process for complaints to be heard at the local level.
And even current language about what should (or should not) be taught in schools is pretty basic and something on which most reasonable people can agree: homosexuality in the context of health classes at age appropriate levels is allowed, but pornographic materials are not.
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When it comes to library content, the legislation is quite simple: let local school boards decide, with an emphasis that books should be age appropriate for the kind of school, as guided by the state Department of Education – a department overseen by a Republican elected statewide by voters, with a state Board of Education elected by the state legislature.
There is no question that the Palmetto State still has room to become an even better place, especially for a northern transplant like me. For instance, the state remains one of only two states without a hate crimes legislation bill – even as legislation has continually passed the House but has been stuck awaiting approval in the state Senate.
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However, as states across the country become more acrimonious, they should look to ruby-red South Carolina as an example of the comity, decency and bipartisan compromise needed in our American legislative process.
When progressive Democrats and MAGA Republicans can agree unanimously, in the former cradle of the Confederacy, on issues ranging from voting rights and ballot access to school curriculum, maybe, just maybe, there is hope for other states, and our leaders in Congress, too.
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