What’s your favorite pet: Dog or cat?
What do you prefer on your hot dog: Mustard or ketchup?
Who do you like for president: Hillary or Jeb?
These are the types of polls that constantly bombard us in news reports most every day. Some are amusing and a few are mildly interesting, but rarely do they tell us anything important about big issues and how we as a county are changing and evolving.
Greg Schneiders is a friend of mine in Washington and he is a pollster with a firm called Prime Group. Greg is not the type of pollster who asks about dogs and cats or mustard and ketchup. He looks at big ideas and national trends that measure not just what people think today, but how change occurs over long periods of time. One of his important findings is that big changes are happening in our society at a much quicker pace than in the past. A few examples:
Women’s movement — Although women had been voting in some state and local elections in the U.S. as early as 1869, the constitutional amendment giving all women the right to vote did not pass until 1920 and the larger women’s movement did not really reach fruition until the 1970s or 80s — a period of 50 or 60 years.
Civil rights — The modern civil rights movement essentially began with the Montgomery bus boycott in 1955 that was led by an unknown 26-year-old Baptist preacher named Martin Luther King. Less than 10 years later, this obscure preacher had won the Nobel Peace Prize and the civil rights movement had revolutionized America. From the boycott to King’s death was only 13 years.
Marriage equality — The first stirring of the gay rights movement began in 1969 with the Stonewall Inn riots when this New York City gay bar was raided by police. The next year, the first gay pride parades were held in several cities around the country. In 2004, 35 years later, Massachusetts became the first state to legalize same-sex marriage. Within 10 years, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled it was the law of the land — 10 years.
Each of these were big changes that happened fast. And in each case, the time period for this change was dramatically reduced. Part of what makes this so interesting is we are talking about big, broad, deep and personal social change — or cultural change, if you will. And the folks who study such things tell us that social change is the hardest type of change to achieve.
Well, you may say, all of this is interesting, but what the heck does it have to do with us in South Carolina?
Consider two recent social issues in South Carolina: Marriage equality and the Confederate flag.
On Nov. 19 of last year — seven months before the U.S. Supreme court ruling — Kristin Anderson and Kayla Bennett became the first legally married same-sex couple in South Carolina.
On June 17 of this year, there was the tragic shooting of the Emanuel Nine that riveted the attention of the state, nation and the world. In less than a month, the Confederate flag was gone from the statehouse in Columbia; Alabama and other Southern states followed and Wal-Mart, eBay and most American retailers said they would no longer sell the flag and related materials. All this in less than 30 days.
How you or I feel about these issues is really not the point….the point is that most all would agree that this is radical change and that it happened very fast.
So, back to the question of what does this have to do with South Carolina? I think there are three broad lessons for all of us:
First, we need leaders who are comfortable with change. The old days of having some well-meaning local yokel leader who has hardly been more than 100 miles from the place where they were born are over. National — even global — events have a local impact and we need leaders who can see what’s coming and help us understand what these changes will mean for us.
Second, we as a state need to recognize changes and use them to our benefit. One example: in South Carolina today, large portions of our people are effectively shut out of any meaningful civic participation. Our levels of women in elected office are abysmal; 28 percent of our people are African-Americans and their talents and abilities are grossly underutilized; huge numbers of new South Carolinians, people who move here from other parts of the country, too often feel unwelcome and isolated from civic participation. We need everyone.
Third, we need to reaffirm our positive core values. After the Charleston shooting, we showed the best of who we are. We came together with a common bond of compassion and shared humanity. Other cities that had experienced similar racial incidents came apart — Charleston and South Carolina came together.
The world is changing radically and rapidly, and if we as a state can call on our innate strengths, the talents of everyone and our best values — we can be every bit as great as we want to be.
Phil Noble is a businessman in Charleston and president of the S.C. New Democrats, an independent reform group founded by former Gov. Richard Riley. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.