Mitt Romney and the Lost Cause

Robert E. Lee surrenders to Ulysses S. Grant in 1865, nearly 150 years ago. Image via ThinkStock.

As the good people of South Carolina consider whether or not to essentially coronate Mitt Romney as the GOP candidate for President, one of the biggest things on some minds will be the war. I don’t mean the one that’s ending in Iraq or the one that’s still going on in Afghanistan. I mean the one that started there, at Fort Sumter: The Civil War. They’re still mad about it.

Recently, I was down in the lovely city of Charleston, and I took a guided tour. One of the most interesting moments occurred when my guide, a thin and genial man with short, graying hair and a soft drawl, first mentioned “the war.” By way of compromise I suppose, he used the term “the War for Southern Independence” rather than the term many Carolinians prefer, “the War of Northern Aggression,” or the term most of us Yankees were taught in school, “The Civil War.”

For most Northerners, the Civil War is simply history; for many South Carolinians, the war seems like unfinished business, still raw and rankling. “Sherman and his march to the sea” is not a phrase that should be uttered in polite company.

The “Lost Cause” as they sometimes call it, and all its emotional resonance makes the charge that Newt Gingrich is leveling against Mitt Romney all the more fraught with undertones. Gingrich is calling Romney a “Massachusetts Moderate.” That’s about one mint leaf short of calling him a “Yankee Carpetbagger.” And poor Romney is sort of handcuffed in being able to defend himself.

A tourist examines fortifications near Fort Sumter, S.C.

The South is where the Tea Party lives and where the most votes for the GOP are concentrated. And South Carolina is one of the most conservative states in the nation. So Romney can’t simply defend himself with the truth and by pointing out the higher level of economic well-being that folks in liberal Massachusetts enjoy compared to the folks in conservative ol’ South Carolina. But here are the facts:

The unemployment rate:
South Carolina: 9.9 percent
Massachusetts: 7.0 percent

The real per capita personal income
South Carolina: $29,340.50
Massachusetts: $46,783.80

The percentage of the population with no health insurance
South Carolina: 20.6 percent
Massachusetts: 5.6 percent

The percentage of the state population with a bachelor’s degree or higher
South Carolina: 24.9 percent
Massachusetts: 36.7 percent

The poverty rate
South Carolina: 17 percent
Massachusetts: 10.6 percent

The incarceration rate (per 100,000 U.S. residents in 2009)
South Carolina: 512
Massachusetts: 211

The violent crimes per 100,000 population — ranking
South Carolina: No. 1
Massachusetts: No. 20

In South Carolina, the weather is better than in Massachusetts, the manners are gracious, and the food is fabulous. (I gained 22 pounds after sitting down to try the incredible shrimp and grits at Husk in Charleston.) But if you live in Massachusetts where moderate Mitt Romney once moderately governed — on average, you are much less likely to be unemployed, live in poverty, or go to jail than someone who lives in South Carolina. You make more money, are much less likely to be a victim of violent crime, and are more likely to have a college degree. Being governed by liberals actually works out pretty well.

But thanks the distant memories of war and a lingering distrust of Yankee Carpetbaggers, fanned anew by fear-mongers like Newt Gingrich, many of the good folks in South Carolina are afraid that, if they vote for Mitt Romney, they could end up being a bit more like you and me. And wouldn’t that be just awful? Because then they could end up being far more affluent, educated, and free to marry whomever they please, pray or not pray as they see fit, believe in evolution and say “Happy Holidays” at Christmas if it suits them. Your peculiar institutions just scare the dickens out of them.

So the war between the North and the South continues now, by proxy. And the good people of South Carolina are faced with the unnerving prospect of picking a general to lead them in the coming conflict who is a stone-cold Yankee banker-type. Somewhere I think, Abe Lincoln, must be smiling. Wouldn’t it be nice for Romney to echo the words of Honest Abe and say in his victory speech on primary night that the war between the states should truly be over now, because:

“We are not enemies, but friends … Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory will swell when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”

But then of course — there are still folks like Gingrich. So nevermind, I guess. Onward to Florida.