The real meaning behind Rick Santorum’s anti-college speech

Santorum’s anti-intellectualism has a goal – creating obedient workers – obscured a paranoid style of politics.

Rick Santorum Campaigns Throughout Ohio Ahead Of Super Tuesday
Presidential hopeful Rick Santorum's statements on higher education are nothing new in the world of anti-intellectualism [GALLO/GETTY]

New Haven, CT – In 1951, a young William F Buckley scandalised the ruling class with a book called God & Man at Yale. In it, the founder of the National Review argued that Yale’s faculty embodied values that were antithetical to those of its alumni.

With elegant indignation, Buckley claimed that atheists were teaching the history of Christianity and socialists were teaching collectivist economics to the sons of Christian individualists, thus sullying the name of one of the world’s citadels of civilisation. The book, while launching Buckley’s career, also launched a new literary genre: jeremiads exposing the secret conspiracy by tenured radicals to corrupt American youth.

Rick Santorum, though he probably didn’t know it, recently paid tribute to that tradition during a rally of the Michigan Tea Party. But while Buckley hoped to protect Yale, and by implication, the principle of a formal education, from the corrosive influence of post-war ideology, Santorum hoped to protect American youth from the tyranny of Yale and its like.

And while Buckley was snobbish in his erudite and mischievous way, Santorum called President Barack Obama a snob for wanting to prepare more American students for college. We appear to have gone through the Looking Glass: A moderate Democratic president has, at least in this way, become the heir to the father of 20th century conservatism.

“There are good, decent men and women who work hard every day and put their skills to the test that aren’t taught by some liberal college professor,” Santorum said during a gathering organised by Americans for Prosperity, a political action group. “That’s why he wants you to go to college. He wants to remake you in his image.”

‘A dedicated, conscious agent’

Anti-intellectualism has a long history in the US, mostly on the right. In the 1950s, Buckley was a rare voice of sanity amid a cacophony of populist rage. At the time, conservatism was strongly associated with the John Birch Society, whose founder, Robert Welch, was so convinced that communists were hiding behind every bush that he dared call President Dwight Eisenhower, a Republican and hero of World War II, a “dedicated, conscious agent of the Communist Conspiracy”.

Sophisticated and urbane, Buckley gave this motley crew respectability, but the paranoia didn’t go away. When a Republican is president, it stays beneath the surface, but when a Democrat takes office, it finds ways to express itself.

George W Bush was a master of the populist style of anti-intellectualism. Though his real base was the ruling class, he built a coalition using the folksy rhetoric of the common man that appealed to voters already wary of multiculturalism, political correctness, atheism, immigrants, civil rights, homosexuals and what they might call other forms of liberal elitism. I say his base was the 1 per cent, but Bush’s anti-intellectualism was genuine. The president mistrusted ideas and expertise, despite being educated at Yale.


 Santorum gains momentum in US Republican race

It’s no coincidence that the populist paranoia flowered again shortly after the historic inauguration of the first African-American president of the United States. If Robert Welch believed Soviet Russian cells were secretly brainwashing Americans and that the government, while a white Republican war hero sat in the Oval Office, was “under operational control of the Communist party”, you can imagine what John Birch types believe now.

Actually, you have to imagine it. Fifty years ago, Buckley shamed Welch for cavorting with racists and lunatics, and denounced him for nearly derailing the conservative movement. Buckley died in 2008 and no one of his heft has replaced him. A result has been this endless and pointless debate over Obama’s true country of origin.

Obama wants to remake you in his image

Rick Santorum isn’t as theatrical as Donald Trump or as mean as Newt Gingrich, but he traffics in the same paranoid style. During the Tea Party rally in Michigan, he attacked first not Obama, but the idea of college. He suggested you can be good and decent without attending university (as if someone said you can’t). Goodness and decency, moreover, are victims of liberalism and liberals themselves, by implication, are bad and indecent. He cleverly chose words that wedded a religious metaphor about graven images with anxiety about Obama’s otherness. “[Obama] wants to remake you in his image.”

Translation: College is where good and decent American students go to learn sedition, atheism and communism. Essentially, getting an education in the United States turns you into a non-white alien insurgent bent on destroying capitalism and the American way.

This was the message received by some of the attendees at the rally. “It’s communism,” one of the them told a reporter from Talking Points Memo. “The professors are all teaching the kids…”

“Where does the social engineering stop?” another hastened to add. “Does it stop after we send everybody to college, or does it stop after we set their curriculum,” and said, “These are the things you’re allowed to study?”

“Does it become the Soviet Union?”

What is Santorum really saying?

Santorum has three diplomas (including a law degree) and he has explained this hypocrisy by saying college was good for him personally, but that it might not be for everyone. There is a legitimate discussion about access to college as good public policy and as a candidate trying to cast himself as champion of the working class, that would be a valuable part of his message. Even so, it’s hard to swallow this message given who Santorum is and given who sponsored that Tea Party rally.


 Battle for Republican party’s heart and soul

Santorum, no matter what he says, is not from the working class. His dad and mom were educated medical professionals who raised their family in the suburbs. Santorum knows nothing of a working-class job, wage or boss. After losing his Senate seat in 2006, he became a lobbyist. His estimated net worth is now one to three million dollars – chump change compared to the quarter-billionaire Mitt Romney, but far away from the working class.

The rally was paid for by Americans for Prosperity, a lobbying firm funded by the billionaire libertarian brothers Charles and David Koch. The Kochs have built a vast network of propagandists over the past 30 years whose aim is to convince Americans that corporate interests are their interests – small government, low taxes, deregulation.

They are also exceedingly hostile toward organised labour. Since the 1960s, they have spent hundreds of millions of dollars in anti-union efforts. Last year, they funded an advertising campaign to support Governor Scott Walker’s bid to decimate collective bargaining rights for public-sector workers in Wisconsin.

College isn’t for everyone, Santorum says. By itself, that statement isn’t political. In fact, to many working-class Americans, it makes sense. You don’t need four years of college if you’re going to apprentice yourself as a plumber.

But when you flesh out the context – a wealthy candidate with an anti-college message speaking at a gathering paid for by billionaires with a long track record of union-busting – that statement takes on a sinister cast. Collective power is the only power available to many Americans without college degrees. What is this supposedly working-class candidate really saying? 

Anti-intellectualism isn’t just about paranoia. It has utility, too. In Russia, Germany and China, it was a rationale for imprisoning, murdering or disappearing intellectuals, artists and scholars, anyone who had the power to see beyond the ideology that thugs used to mask a lust for power.

In the US, anti-intellectualism is about politics as much as it is about capitalism, because an educated worker is dangerous to those who own the capital. With education, he becomes conscious of his exploitation and may seek out ways to empower himself and others though collective action.

But if you undermine the value of that education, if you make the worker believe he’s a snob for wanting a college degree, if you persuade public opinion that collective action by workers is just the sort of thing a communist would do to destroy American values, you’d win the battle before it started.

Or as a Tea Party member told TPM: “Everybody can’t be equal,” he said. “Somebody needs to do the manual labour.”

The late George Carlin once said there’s a reason why American schools are in crisis. The ruling class doesn’t want them to improve. “They don’t want a population of citizens capable of critical thinking… That’s against their interests… You know what they want? They want obedient workers.”

John Stoehr is the editor of the New Haven Advocate and a lecturer at Yale. This is the second part of his series on Rick Santorum

Follow him on Twitter: @johnastoehr