CHARLESTON, South Carolina — When folks talk about this bucolic, quintessentially Southern city, they often do so in terms of its vast contradictions. Its history is steeped in pride and tradition, but also the stain of American chattel slavery. It is home to the Citadel, a shining star that exemplifies the best of our nation’s scholar-warriors. But it’s also home to the Port of Charleston, from which an estimated 40 percent of African-Americans can trace their ancestors’ welcome to this country in bondage.
With that history very much part of the fabric of local culture and lore, Charleston was magnanimous last June following the killings of nine black churchgoers at the hands of a young white supremacist who interrupted a Bible study with gunfire.
To lean on a well-trod cliché, Charleston truly embodies the “Tale of Two Cities” trope.
The same could be said for the city’s voters. In the 2012 presidential election between President Barack Obama and his Republican rival Mitt Romney, 50.4 percent voted for Obama and 48 percent voted for Romney.
When the Democratic candidates vying for the presidency take the debate stage in Charleston on Sunday night, they’ll find in their base of support (and their opposition) a complicated amalgam of ideals.
Voters here want the next president to address a wide range of issues, including the growing terror threat and police brutality, but also the growing gulf between the races and anxiety over the national economy (despite the low unemployment rate, low interest rates and plunging gas prices).
MSNBC spent some time talking to some Charleston County voters, including a self-proclaimed liberal Democrat and a self-described “good ol’ boy, redneck” Republican.
“One of the things that concerns me is the polarization to the extent that neighbors are literally grouping up together according to political identity, there’s no room for middle ground or true discourse, and it’s showing up on TV, it’s showing up in our relations with one another,” said Shani Gilchrist, the Democrat and a writer who moved from Columbia to Charleston following the massacre at Mother Emanuel Church. “There was a time when you could have a debate based on your political beliefs and then go on and shake hands and have a drink together, and that’s just not happening these days as much as it used to.”
Carlton Walker, a military veteran and the self-proclaimed redneck Republican, agreed that he’s seen the aisle between liberals and conservatives widening, but sees the seeds of that cleavage in far-left politics.
“I don’t know about it being a toxic place, but I definitely see where it’s gotten farther apart. You know, I feel the left’s trying to take us into a socialized country like Europe,” Walker said. “I was raised in Charleston, my grandfather was an entrepreneur and what made the United States great is having an opportunity to start with nothing and build stuff and how, you know, where you have to work for what you get, you don’t just get a free handout.”
Walker, a real estate salesman, lamented the left “trying to give free amnesty to illegals, versus the right wanting to have order.”
“I don’t like seeing our country turn into a socialist country,” he said.
Gilchrist, a wife and mother, said one of her hopes is that the next president does more to address race relations, particularly in the wake of local and national killings of unarmed African-Americans by the police. Sunday’s debate follows a Republican debate that took place in the city of North Charleston, where last April a police officer opened fire on an unarmed black man, killing him with several gunshots to his back.
“We are in a place we haven’t been in a least 50 years as far as race relations,” Gilchrist said, adding that she would like to see whomever is elected next November address the issue of race.
“It’s almost like for so many years really since the Emancipation Proclamation so much as been swept under the rug when it comes to the way we treat each other based on the color of our skin and who actually has rights,” she said. “We went through a period of color blindness being popular, a popular term where I don’t see you as a black person or a white person or an Asian person, I see you as a person.
“But because of that we ignored so many of the underlying issues from the past couple hundred years that now they’re starting to bubble up,” she said. “It’s like somebody ripped that rug away and now we’ve got this big heap that nobody knows what do to with.”
With all of those concerns neither Gilchrist nor Walker said they have chosen a candidate — Republican or Democrat — to support. To some degree, they said they feel none of the candidates are speaking to them.
Gilchrist is leaning toward Hillary Clinton. Walker is somewhere between Donald Trump and Ted Cruz.
“I mean Hillary Clinton definitely more than Bernie Sanders for me, but I’ve been disillusioned from the beginning,” Gilchrist said. “I generally vote Democrat. But there’s just been lack of, I don’t want to say a lack of excitement, but to put it simply even to watch the Democratic debate, I don’t mean to say they’re boring, but they’re kind of boring.”
There’s no real debate, she said, “because it’s, it’s not a debate it’s candidates agreeing with each other. They’re not hashing out the way things should be stacked up to meet these issues.”
Walker said he is excited about Trump’s candidacy. But, despite agreeing with Trump that more needs to be done to keep terrorists and immigrants at bay, he thinks the real estate mogul might’ve taken the rhetoric too far.
“I was leaning toward Donald trump and then, um, probably Cruz right now,” Walker said. “One thing I like about [Trump] is he tells you exactly what he’s thinking, he’s not sugar coating anything. You have to respect the man where he comes from, he’s been bankrupt now he’s worth $10 billion. I mean a billion is a thousand million-dollars, you know what I mean? A thousand times a million is a billion, he’s got ten of those.”
During a two-hour conversation Gilchrist and Walker debated many things, including the economy, solace for refugees, federal handouts or hand-ups and the diminishing nature of good faith, bipartisan efforts.
But the pair greed on one thing — the tenor and tone of politics, the inevitable mudslinging, is not only distracting, but also destructive.
“A lot of times when you start slinging mud, it usually most of the time backfires,” Walker said. “What I want to see is what are you going to do good for us? And if you keep it like that you end up coming out on top most of the time.”
“It’s not about who wins and who loses, and that’s something that always worries me whenever I hear Donald trump go into his spiel of, you know we're not winning right now,” Gilchrist said. “It's not a game of soccer, it's not a contest for valedictorian. It's about bringing the country up so that each individual can be a productive citizen.”