Rick Santorum Follows the Path Reagan, Nixon, and George Wallace Laid Before Him

News Abroad


Ron Briley is a history teacher and an assistant headmaster at Sandia Preparatory School in Albuquerque, New Mexico, where he has taught for thirty years.

On the evening of February 23 in Arizona, during yet another televised presidential debate, the apparent new frontrunner for the Republican nomination Rick Santorum was the target of relentless verbal jabs from his chief rival, Mitt Romney. Santorum’s recent success in public opinion polls and Republican contests in Minnesota, Colorado, and Missouri seem to be based upon the former Pennsylvania senator’s appeal to evangelicals and social conservatives. In recent weeks, Santorum has generated considerable attention and controversy with his comments on social issues such as contraception, prenatal and health care, public education, and global warming. To a great extent, Santorum is simply applying a Republican a tactic which has been effective since the Reagan years—appeal to the so-called Reagan working-class Democrats in the Midwest who may be so swayed by social issues that they will vote against their own economic interest. It is a phenomenon well described by Thomas Frank in What’s the Matter with Kansas? (2004). The conventional wisdom in 2012 seems to be such tactics will not work in the midst of the nation’s greatest economic downturn since the Great Depression  (although the economy appears poised for a comeback). The recent Santorum surge indicates that such assumptions may be unwarranted, and those on the political Left may dismiss Santorum at their own peril.

Santorum is clever in labeling his opponents as cultural elites who have little respect for working people and their values. Nevertheless, a closer examination of Santorum’s politics reveals that his social issues have a class and economic component designed to limit opportunity for poor and working-class Americans. Santorum accuses President Obama of favoring a radical theology which places the environment before the needs of people. Yet, a closer historical reading of the Santorum agenda uncovers a radical orientation which draws inspiration from the Social Darwinism of the late nineteenth century and would deprive poor Americans of some gains they have made through the social safety net during the twentieth century.

The strategy of appealing to working-class Americans through such issues as law and order, while opposing busing and affirmative action, and ignoring the issues of health care and economic survival was, of course, perfected by Richard Nixon and well documented in Rick Perlstein’s Nixonland (2008). The Nixon strategy drew inspiration from the electoral successes of Alabama Governor George Wallace in industrial states such as Michigan, where Santorum is mounting a serious challenge to Romney. Both Wallace and Nixon were able to tap working-class discontent in the social and cultural realm. For example, during the Vietnam War era, construction workers attacked war protesters. Such actions were often interpreted as evidence for working-class support of the war effort. Another way of viewing working-class discontent is to consider that the sons of the working class were primarily the Americans being killed in the jungles of Vietnam. Resentment of protesters might be better understood as class antagonism toward those who seemed to able to avoid military service and conscription through college deferments or coveted spots in the reserves. The so-called forgotten American, many of whom constituted the white working class, often perceived themselves as victims of a liberal elite whose children did not go to Vietnam and attended private secondary schools where they could avoid busing. As their economic position deteriorated in the 1970s, the white working class, encouraged by politicians such as Nixon and Wallace, often found scapegoats in African Americans and affirmative action programs. And images of a cultural elite ignoring the lives of ordinary Americans were furthered by the identification of the 1972 George McGovern candidacy with the counterculture.

These culture wars continued into the Reagan and Clinton presidencies, but the position of the working class deteriorated under the Reagan tax policies which fostered the growing maldistribution of wealth in the country. The Reagan rhetoric may have restored national pride, but beneath celebration of victory in the Cold War were threats to the long term stability of the working and middle classes. Income inequality was further exacerbated under the tax cuts pushed by President George W. Bush. Meanwhile, the nation’s military commitments and spending were expanded to include conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan under the banner of the war on terror. Again, the burden of these policies fall primarily upon working- or middle-class Americans who have borne the brunt of the 2008 financial meltdown and military service in the Middle East. Again, elites seem to be the beneficiaries of bailouts authorized by Congress, while ordinary Americans lose their homes or have their National Guard units activated for deployment to the Middle East.

Rick Santorum has done a good job of tapping class resentment against cultural elites, and the senator, with his base in a state with a union heritage, has carefully cultivated an image drawing upon his immigrant and working-class background. He has avoided the union-busting rhetoric employed by Republican governors in Ohio and Wisconsin. It is difficult to conceive of Santorum making a Mitt Romney-like statement that he does not care about the poor.  Santorum cultivates the image of an ordinary American confronting the affluent and out of touch Romney. He also portrays President Obama as the leader of a cultural elite seeking to inflict their views upon the American people. Obama’s professorial style, and his ill-advised comment following 2008 primary losses in Pennsylvania and West Virginia that discontented whites were clinging to their guns and religion, have provided ammunition for Santorum’s posing as a populist.

Accordingly, it is essential that working-class Americans recognize that Santorum’s social policies will have serious negative impact, undermining Santorum’s reputation as a populist. For example, Santorum has made clear his discomfort as a Catholic with issues of contraception and birth control. He opposes sex education and fears that some forms of prenatal care may encourage abortions if there is a problem with the fetus. However, seeking to limit access to birth control information takes us back to the Comstock Laws of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries which essentially defined sex education as pornography. Contraception, however, could be discussed in private with one’s family physician. Accordingly, the poor who could most benefit from birth control information were denied this access as most could not afford medical visits. Poor families continued to increase in size, while the upper class engaged in family planning. It was this class system which drove Margaret Sanger to establish Planned Parenthood. Under a President Santorum, this history of inequality in health reproductive care would be perpetuated.

Santorum also expresses considerable doubts regarding public education. He has suggested that neither the federal nor state governments have a role to play in the education of our children. There are certainly problems with federal programs such as No Child Left Behind, and Santorum expresses his regret at having voted for the Bush administration legislation. Refuting the economic arguments made by Horace Mann for establishing public schools in Massachusetts during the 1850s, Santorum seems to envision no role for the state in funding public education—after all, he home schools his own children. Under a President Santorum, school funding would be placed at the local level, and the vast inequality between school neighborhoods will be perpetuated, promoting the class and racial divide in America.

Finally, Santorum argues that Obama is promoting a false theology of environmentalism based upon placing the earth above man who was charged in the biblical Book of Genesis to dominate the earth. Santorum has not directly played the race card with Obama, but these accusations of a false theology fit well with those who question the legitimacy of an Obama presidency in regard to race, religion, and place of birth. Santorum further criticizes Obama for promoting what the senator terms the fiction of global warming. The key to economic recovery for Santorum and other Republican candidates is the lifting of environmental restrictions upon business. This will supposedly allow for business expansion and hiring; certainly an appealing scenario for the working class. But in reality, they are being asked to ransom their children’s health for the promise of future jobs.

The bottom line for Santorum and his fellow Republican candidates is the panacea of individual responsibility. They are wealthy because they work hard and invest well, while the poor are responsible for their plight due to poor choices—and many of these choices regarding contraception, sexual orientation, and education would fall within the Santorum social issue agenda. Santorum’s belief in the nineteenth-century doctrine of social Darwinism disqualifies the senator as a populist. The social agenda pursued by Santorum will please many on the religious Right, but Santorum’s policies regarding birth control, health care, education, and the environment are examples of class warfare conducted against the poor in America. Yet, the clever manipulation of cultural symbols places Santorum in the tradition of Nixon, Wallace, and Reagan, posing as a champion of the people against the elite. Nevertheless, Santorum’s candidacy is nothing more than a declaration of war against America’s poor.

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