New Haven, CT - Since the GOP nomination began, political commentators have been scratching their heads wondering why Republicans aren't rallying around Mitt Romney, the one candidate who isn't a prissy religious fanatic, a bigoted neo-Confederate, or a world-historical liar and fraud. I mean, Romney has issues, but he's conspicuously not Rick Santorum, Ron Paul or Newt Gingrich. Right away, he's ahead of the game.
In its quest for answers, the commentariat alighted on a two-part theory. One, Santorum won big in early February (and half of Michigan), so he's clearly a bona fide conservative alternative to Moderate Mitt. Two, Santorum won those delegates because of a class war between factors of the Grand Old Party. White working-class Republicans are revolting against an establishment indifferent to its needs. Santorum won because he appeals to that key voting bloc.
Let's set aside the knee-slapping hilarity that is the grossly distorted view of class warfare among Republicans and take it at face value. The idea here, as far as I can tell, is that Romney can't connect with the working class because he's rich. Santorum can, because his personal history as the son of an Italian immigrant and grandson of a coal miner warms the cockles of hard-working red-state Americans.
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David Brooks, the conservative columnist, is probably responsible for this. In a January 2 column in The New York Times, he wrote that Santorum satisfied the criteria of a working-class candidate: He's patriotic, anti-elitist, family-oriented, openly religious and a balanced-budget conservative. (Brooks can't help but note that in 2006, his last year as a US Senator, Santorum campaigned around coal-mining country in a beat-up pick-up truck.) In short, Santorum has that "working-class vibe". He could win "by a landslide", Brooks said, because working-class voters are tired of Washington elites ordering them around and they are ready to support one of their own. Since January, newspapers everywhere have uncritically reported or implied that Santorum is a working-class candidate.
Unlike other leftist writers, I don't think David Brooks is a moron. I just think he doesn't know what he's talking about when it comes to class. He's in good company; most media people don't and that's to be expected. It's been a long time since American journalism completed its transformation from a gritty, inky, smokey and seedy avocation to a credentialed, highly-trained and highly compensated profession. It used to be a job for hacks scrambling for scratch. Now it's the preserve of the college-educated middle and upper-middle classes. So I don't fault Brooks for not understanding class. Only for pretending to.
Brooks tends to confuse class with demographics, status, values, sentiments and taste. Recall that "working-class vibe", as if being working class were a image to cultivate, as if being working class were an option, like choosing what kind of car to drive or shoes to wear. I suspect that class, to conservatives like Brooks, isn't a social reality at all. Instead it's an abstraction, like a language. With this language they can paint a picture of the kind of Republican they want to see in the campaign, one whose authentic conservative values overwhelm fealty to Big Business. Sadly, there is no such thing. The Republican Party has always been the party of capital. So they imagine this creature into being, and the more they do, the more class seems to be a figment of the imagination.
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Class is real of course and though there are many ways to indicate it (education tends to be the most popular) the surest is power. Yes, income tells us a lot about class, but too little is said about the role of power. If you have no capital, then you have nothing with which to survive in a free-market economy other than selling your labour for money. From the beginning, you are at a disadvantage. Part of the price of this fundamental exchange is that you partly surrender control over your time, energy and even your body. If you have a boss - a real boss - you're working class. If your dad or mom has a real boss, more so.
I'm annoyed for having to point out the obvious, but I suppose I must, because Americans live in a society in which our media does not understand class. So here it goes: Santorum's dad was a clinical psychologist. Mom was a nurse administrator. Santorum himself holds three advanced degrees, including a juris doctor. After losing his Senate seat in 2006, Santorum cashed in as a lobbyist. His net income is $3 million. He never had a working-class job, a working-class wage or a working-class boss. Gimme a break, Santorum grew up in the suburbs! Santorum is no more working class than Romney.
The candidate they deserve
A curious aspect of the conservative mind, at least as evidenced by Brooks, is that when faced with facts, it retreats into a mushy hard-to-define sphere of values and status. That's why, I think, Brooks is comfortable talking about class as long as class is a "vibe" and not something concrete like socio-economic power. And just as conservatives tend to imagine into being political creatures whose conservative principals cannot be swayed by Big Business, they tend to imagine into being a working-class voter who is not reminded every day of his disadvantage to capital every time he sells his labour for money. Sadly for conservatives of this mind, there is no such thing.
In fact, it's unclear whom Santorum is appealing to. In Michigan last week, Romney and Santorum virtually split ballots cast by voters with incomes under $75,000, which tells you they had other things on their minds. In general elections, voters tend to chose based on class (defined by income). According to Dorothy Sue Cobble in the newest issue of Dissent, voters in 2008 broke at $50,000, with those earning less voting Democratic and those earning more voting Republican. The conventional wisdom is that nonwhite working-class voters go Democrat, but that's also the case among white working-class voters, Cobble said. If you separate working-class whites in the South from counterparts nationally, you see only a 1 per cent decline for Democrats since 1950. Republican gains since then have mostly been from the middle- and upper-middle classes with the exception of white voters from all classes in the Land of Dixie.
In a way, the question of why Republicans don't like Romney is itself a product of the conservative imagination. After all, he's still the frontrunner and still the candidate most feared by the White House. Perhaps doubting Romney's electability is a way to mitigate the pain of knowing the true nature of the GOP - as the party of capital. Capital knows no loyalty, no community, no morality. In its wake, all that is solid melts into the air. Romney is exactly the candidate the party deserves. If he couldn't win in November, that wouldn't be entirely his fault, and conservatives shouldn't imagine that it's otherwise.
John Stoehr is the editor of the New Haven Advocate and a lecturer at Yale. This is part one of a two part series on Rick Santorum.
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.