Something curious happened in South Carolina on June 10. While Sen. Lindsay Graham easily prevailed over his challenger, Buddy Witherspoon, garnering two thirds of the vote in the Republican U.S Senate primary, the Democrats (voting on the same day) chose a candidate who everyone admits is well to the right of Graham himself. Of course, that’s not saying much. After all, Senator Graham is the man who takes pride in a “comfortable conservatism,” as he recently put it. By contrast, the conservative repast offered up by Graham’s Democratic challenger, Bob Conley, is anything but comfortable. In short, Conley is staunchly pro-life, supports Second Amendment gun rights, favors strong measures against illegal immigration, and opposes “gay marriage”; but he is also adamantly opposed to what he calls the “occupation” of Iraq, advocates the complete withdrawal of American forces from the Middle East and elsewhere, blames corporate greed for the outsourcing of American jobs, supports workers’ rights to organize, and opposes trade agreements that place the American worker (and American sovereignty) in jeopardy.
How did Conley, a 43-year-old pilot and engineer, manage to defeat his rival, Charleston attorney Michael Cone? Conley’s socially conservative, anticorporate populism played well in rural precincts, and especially in the Upcountry, where John Edwards captured sizable Democratic majorities in the 2004 presidential primary. But since South Carolina’s primaries are open to crossover voters, it is also likely that significant numbers of erstwhile Republicans have had their fill of broken Republican promises and have begun to return to the Democratic fold. If that is the case, then Conley’s victory over the centrist-liberal Cone (by a narrow margin of 1,058 votes) is yet another indicator that an historic electoral shift may be under way. Forty years ago Richard Nixon saw the writing on the wall, paid court to the mandarins of country music, retooled George Wallace’s populist rhetoric for the “Silent Majority,” and successfully engineered the realignment that eventually brought the old solid Democratic South into the Republican camp. Until recently, it looked very much as if the Republican stranglehold on the Southern conservative vote would remain in place until the Second Coming. Then came George W. Bush and the Iraq debacle, not to mention the Katrina fiasco, amnesty for illegals, and the disappearance of U.S. manufacturing down the globalist rabbit hole. And then came the 2006 congressional elections. Under the capable if erratic leadership of Howard Dean, the Democratic National Convention began to awaken from its long electoral slumber. Remarkably, centrist and even socially conservative Democrats were receiving DNC support in districts (not only in the South, but the Midwest as well) where Republicans had ruled the roost for a generation or more. More importantly, they were getting elected. And while Conley’s chances of defeating the glib and well-funded Graham may be slim, there is little doubt that the perpetually smiling senator from Central, South Carolina, is vulnerable, especially on illegal immigration.
Speaking with Conley recently in a crowded Charleston Starbucks, I asked him about his own migration out of the Republican ranks. He cast his first vote for the “Gipper” back in 1984 and remained a Republican until 1999, at which time his exit from the party “really started.” It was during that year, while living in Ft. Wayne, Indiana, that he worked for Democratic mayoral candidate Graham Richard while simultaneously supporting the Reform Party effort in neighboring Michigan. By then, his belief that the Republican Party had ever been genuinely conservative had begun to wane. Today, he is certain that, Goldwater aside, “any legacy of limited government in the [GOP] is all smoke and mirrors.” The much-vaunted conservative revolution during the Reagan years was largely a “myth,” says Conley. As for the neoconservative regime presided over by George W. Bush, whatever conservative noises it may occasionally make, its policies say otherwise. Look at the GOP’s record on immigration (legal and illegal); look at trade policy and the “unending occupation of Iraq”; consider the “bloated budgets,” the “federal takeover of education,” and the drug bill. In short, Conley emphatically insists, “We’re looking at a party of, by, and for corporate interests, [just] as it was in its genesis.”
Conley settled in North Myrtle Beach (Horry County) back in 2001, claiming as his own the state where his mother’s family has lived since well before the War of Northern Aggression (as Conley terms it). His GOP membership had lapsed, but he registered with the party once again last year for the purpose of working for the Ron Paul campaign. After the February presidential primary, he left the Republicans, signed on with the Democrats, and entered the fray against Michael Cone. Needless to say, this move rankled more than a few Republican insiders, especially in Horry County, where Republican chairman Robert Rabon publicly accused Conley of “grandstanding.” Yet his rationale for abandoning the GOP is well reasoned and convincing. And when I expressed some skepticism about the DNC’s willingness to back genuinely conservative candidates, Conley handily rattled off an impressive list of recently elected conservative Democrats: North Carolina Rep. Heath Schuler; Pennsylvania Sen. Bob Casey, Jr.; Indiana Reps. Brad Ellsworth and Joe Donnelly; Montana Sen. John Tester; Mississippi Rep. Travis Childers; Louisiana Reps. Charlie Melancon and Don Cazayoux; Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine; and Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer. Several of these men are not only social conservatives but have sound views on offshoring, free-trade agreements, states’ rights, and immigration. Melancon, for instance, strongly opposed the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA), while governor Schweitzer took an impressive states’ rights stand against the federal government’s Real ID program. “The New Democrat is the old Democrat,” argues Conley. “I’m the Democrat your grandfather voted for.”
Given the Republican record on trade policy and its purblind obeisance to the gospel of economic globalism, Conley may be right to assume that the Democratic Party is, by historical precedent at least, the more natural home for his brand of economic nationalism. During my interview with him, he repeatedly described himself as a “Jeffersonian” and grew positively indignant about the erosion of the U.S. manufacturing base. “I went to about a dozen different places to find a pair of black leather, soft-soled shoes that were not manufactured in communist China,” he recalls, pointing emphatically at his well-worn footwear. Eventually, he found a pair manufactured in the United States. “We used to have textile jobs here [in South Carolina],” he notes, recalling a time when one could buy cheap cotton dress shirts by the dozen, manufactured in places like Gastonia, where his mother grew up in a mill house. Here in Charleston, one of the busiest ports in America, foreign-made consumer goods are flowing in from every corner of the globe, “but look at what we are exporting. Our export sheet looks more like something you’d see from an agricultural colony than [from] a First World nation,” laments Conley. In this, he echoes Paul Craig Roberts, who recently pointed out that, apart from military hardware and specialized machine tools, the leading U.S. exports today are mostly farm products: corn, wheat, soybeans, hides, cotton, meat, tobacco, and rice. “Every time I drive across [the Cooper River] bridge,” adds Conley, “I see the [USS] Yorktown on one side of the harbor and all those shipping containers on the other side being unloaded from communist China. I think, look at all those fellows who were on that [flight deck] who went over there and fought . . . ; what would they think of us?”
I asked Conley for his response to the standard free-trader argument that the outcry over offshoring (or outsourcing) of American jobs is alarmist rhetoric, that in reality offshoring is “counterbalanced” by the creation of new jobs in the “high end” service sector. He sighs with a mixture of exasperation and amusement. “If [offshoring] is being ‘counterbalanced,’ why do we have Bill Gates going to Capitol Hill to continue to lobby for H-1Bs? There’s no end in sight as to how high [members of the H-1B lobby] want the cap.” He is referring, of course, to the nonimmigrant visa created by the Immigration and Nationality Act, which allows employers to bring in guest workers to fill jobs in “specialty occupations”—even when qualified American workers are available. Even if the creation of new “high end” jobs were more than just a Wall Street fantasy, Conley suggests, the loss of the American manufacturing base is a disaster waiting to happen. “When we lose our manufacturing,” Conley warns, “we’re losing our independence. What we used to refer to as the ‘arsenal of democracy’ is no longer here.” In short, we no longer have the industrial base to defend ourselves in the event of a full-scale war.
Conley’s views on foreign policy should certainly warm the cockles of paleoconservative hearts. He is convinced that the Iraqi “occupation” was a mistake from the beginning. Saddam Hussein, he quips, was at least “an equal-opportunity oppressor.” Once there was a thriving Christian community in Iraq. “Saddam’s foreign minister was a Catholic . . . and now we’ve witnessed the decimation of that ancient Christian population.” Though he mentioned no timetable, he would like to see a complete withdrawal of U.S. forces from the Middle East. “There’s not going to be any stability there until the American arsonist that struck the match and started the fire leaves the neighborhood.” He advocates a similar withdrawal from Europe and from South Korea. Regarding the latter, he notes, “They have twice the population and 40 times the economy of North Korea. It’s been 47 years since Eisenhower left office. Last year we exported fewer than 40,000 vehicles to South Korea and imported 800,000. . . . I think they have a good enough economy that they can afford to buy a few boots and a few bullets and defend themselves. It’s time to bring our boys home.”
In spite of his surprising victory over Cone, Conley remains a virtual unknown to South Carolina voters, while the well-funded Graham with his unctuous Sunday-school charm seems to have become a permanent fixture on the national news-talk circuit (dolled up, as one pundit has noted, with “more make-up than Tammy Faye Bakker”). Yet Conley’s conviction that Graham can be beaten or at least seriously damaged is infectious. In the first place, Graham has aligned himself so closely with the hopelessly inept John McCain that his fortunes are likely to rise or fall with those of the senator from Arizona: “[Graham is] out of touch. He’s out there gallivanting with McCain as his personal valet and bagboy. Just turn on the tube. If you see Senator McCain, you’re going to see Señor Grahamnesty.” Even more potentially damaging for Graham is his “bipartisan” willingness to compromise on illegal immigration. Against the will of a majority of South Carolinians he backed the failed Kennedy-McCain Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act (2007) and (claims Conley) has since then voted an additional seven times “to import more foreign nationals to take [American] jobs.” Conley also believes that Graham is vulnerable on his support for the PATRIOT Act and his failure to “step up” and defend the Marriage Protection Act approved by the House of Representatives in 2004. The purpose of the act was to strip the federal courts of any jurisdiction over the Defense of Marriage Act (1996), thus returning questions of marriage to state courts and legislators, but after its passage by a substantial majority (233-194), it died in the Senate Judiciary Committee, of which Graham was a member.
Even if “Flattop Bob” (a nickname derived from his signature military haircut) fails to unseat Graham, there is a good possibility that he will make a respectable showing and survive to fight another day, whether as a Democrat or as a third-party candidate. For the time being, he is proud to call himself a Democrat in the old Southern tradition. Perhaps this is simply a measure of his disgust at “being so used and abused by these Rockefeller Republicans who have no more use for us paleos today than they did for Bob Taft.” Back in the Reagan years, says Conley, the GOP “gave us a seat on the bus; then they moved us populist, traditional Christian values, middle-class folks to the back seat; then they gave us a two-by-four on the bumper; and then they took our seat and started dragging us on a chain. How much longer is it going to be before folks cut the chain?” The problem, of course, is that the same worm has eaten away the substance of both major American political parties. Each is now irrevocably the instrument of the transnationalists who control the markets and the media, none of whom have the slightest interest in serving the genuine interests of the American people. Indeed, it is highly questionable whether there any longer exists, in any significant sense, an “American people.” Conley speaks of a Jeffersonian America, a decentralized republic of thriving “townships” and sturdy, vigilant citizens zealous for their liberties. This is at once a noble ideal and, at this late date, a crippling fantasy. The dismantling of the American imperium will not, I am afraid, take place under the auspices of either the Republican or the Democratic parties. For the purpose of the American political duopoly is not to generate real change but to neutralize it. However, I fervently hope that Bob Conley and his like prove me wrong.