The Republicans’ working-class hero?

March 1, 2012

YOU CAN tell how lazy the Washington press corps is when you see the transparent "spin" put out by political campaigns masquerading as insightful analysis. A case in point is the constant media references to Republican presidential contender Rick Santorum as a "blue collar" candidate courting a constituency of working-class whites who share his socially conservative views on abortion, birth control and the like.

Consider Monica Langley's February 25 Wall Street Journal puff piece on Santorum, which contends that he is seeking to:

capture both the blue-collar image he cultivates, and the evolution of the Republican Party he is courting. With an economic message and a set of conservative social beliefs that appeal especially to working-class Republicans, he is both topping national polls and testing how much influence those voters have won within his party.

Langley makes sure to reinforce the image that Santorum cultivates, sprinkling her narrative with references to the Costco card Santorum carries in his pocket, the family pick-up truck, morning Mass and reheating leftovers for breakfast with his wife and seven children, including one with special needs.

The conclusion is that Santorum, ordinary Joe that he is, can appeal to blue-collar workers in a way the stodgy, multi-millionaire, ex-hedge fund manager Mitt Romney can't.

But just as President Obama's story about being raised by his Kansas-born grandmother neglected to note that his grandmother was a bank president in Hawaii, much of the Santorum narrative is phony as well.

Although Santorum often points out that his Italian immigrant grandfather was a miner, he forgets to mention that he himself grew up in a professional family, in which his father was a clinical psychologist and his mother an administrative nurse. Before running for Congress, Santorum was a corporate lawyer.

And since being turfed out of Congress in the 2006 Democratic landslide, he has cashed in as a well-connected K Street lobbyist for a number of major industries. Between 2007 and 2010, he pulled in $3.6 million, a sum that seems modest only in comparison to Romney's wealth. He may own a pickup truck, but it's parked in the driveway of a home on five acres of land in northern Virginia, purchased for $2 million.

IT'S EASY to poke holes in Santorum's manufactured image. But that's less important than looking at the assumptions behind the punditocracy's assessment of his base of support. Is it true that blue-collar white workers are the secret to Santorum's success? Later on in the article, Langley notes:

When the thousands of interviews conducted in last year's Wall Street Journal/NBC News polls are combined into one data bloc, Americans who call themselves blue-collar workers are as likely to call themselves Republicans as Democrats. In 1990, the statistic leaned Democrat, 43 percent to 34 percent.

A new Gallup poll indicates that Mr. Santorum's rise is propelled by these conservative, white voters, beating Mr. Romney by double digits among non-college Republicans and GOP-leaning independents. Some are the same voters who drove the Tea Party surge in 2010. Inside the Santorum campaign, the target voter is dubbed: "Cracker Barrel Republican," referring to the national restaurant chain.

The Washington Post's Harold Meyerson, an avowed social democrat, argues that the GOP "base" is now split by class, with upscale voters going for Romney and "downscale" voters going for Santorum. Are white working-class voters really the bedrock of American conservatism? Why would working class voters support a party whose economic policies are crafted to serve corporate America and the very rich?

At first glance, the phenomenon of working-class conservatism shouldn't be that hard to fathom. Just as there are liberal billionaires (for example, George Soros), there are workers who are conservatives.

Even in the heyday of Democratic Party liberalism, a solid 35-40 percent of workers, including unionized workers, supported Republicans. What's more, the Republicans' "Southern strategy" of using coded appeals to racism, pioneered in the 1960s and 1970s, aimed, at least in part, to win layers of white workers to support the GOP in opposition to government spending on the undeserving poor--which was redefined to mean the Black poor.

Plus, the long-term decline of unions has also had an impact, removing an organizational center for whatever minimal expression the U.S. system affords to class politics.

For example, between 1932 and 1996, West Virginia was a reliable state for the Democratic candidate for president. Since 2000, it has voted Republican every time. The explanation for this shift has less to do with education or religion--does anyone think the state is less educated or more religious than it was in 1932?--than it does with the declining influence of the United Mineworkers union.

The Republicans' Southern strategy succeeded to a large extent in building a base for the GOP where the Democrats once had a bastion of support. But just how much the revival of conservatism since the 1970s owes its durability to working-class support is another question entirely.

One of the problems with these discussions--from both liberals and conservatives alike--is the analytical sloppiness they bring to it.

Take the example of the quote from Langley above. Who exactly are the "Cracker Barrel Republicans" that she's talking about? In two paragraphs, we move from "Americans who call themselves blue-collar workers" to "conservative, white voters" to "non-college Republicans," some of whom "drove the Tea Party surge in 2010." Taken together, this string of phrases can easily lead one to the conclusion that blue-collar workers--all of whom, presumably, are white--have shifted into the Republican camp to become the ultra-conservative base of the Tea Party.

Yet each of the groups that Langley identifies represents a different set of people.

For example, from everything we know about the Tea Party--as thoroughly documented in Paul Street's and Anthony DiMaggio's Crashing the Tea Party--this supposedly "grassroots" movement was drawn disproportionately from people with family incomes of $75,000 or more.

Most common media descriptions of the "working class" assume that education defines social class, with workers being found among the majority of the U.S. population that doesn't hold a college degree. Santorum himself provided a cartoon version of this idea when he accused President Obama of being a "snob" for promoting college access.

But there are a number of problems with equating educational level with class. Most obviously, it doesn't get at what a Marxist would consider the baseline for determining someone's class: their job and its relationship to capital.

Second, as Princeton University political scientist Larry Bartels wrote in a critique of Thomas Frank's 2004 book What's the Matter with Kansas? the non-college educated population in the U.S. pretty much mirrors the income distribution of the population as a whole. But when one considers non-college educated whites in the lowest third of income distribution, one finds they have become more likely to vote Democratic over the past few decades.

Bartels concludes that most of the white non-college-educated shift to the Republicans took place in the South, and among those in the middle and upper end of the income spectrum. In other words, the Republicans' new base of support over the last generation was much more tied to support from the middle- and upper-middle class voters in the suburbs of Atlanta, Dallas and Tampa then it was from lower-income people.

Outside the South, according to Bartels' data, support for Democrats among non-college educated whites dropped a sum total of 1 percentage point from 1952 to 2004.

Bartels even finds, in contradiction to the conventional wisdom, that over that same period, the importance to non-college educated white voters of social issues like abortion, gay rights and affirmative action has declined, while, at the same time, the importance of these issues to college-educated voters has increased.

Instead of "What's the matter with Kansas?" it seems we should be asking "What's the matter with Waukesha?"--the affluent Wisconsin county outside Milwaukee that forms the bedrock of the Republican vote in that state.

IT'S A reflection of the insularity--and, truth be told, the elitism--of the Washington/New York pundit circuit that it continues to peg support for conservatism on workers, rather on people like themselves--the educated upper middle class.

It remains to be seen whether there are enough "downscale" Republicans--if they are, indeed, Santorum's base--to carry the "culture warrior" to victory in places like Ohio. Romney's money and organization are likely to beat Santorum's appeals to faith and family.

But in the midst of all this hot air about the working class, we need to keep a few things in mind.

First, it's being expended in the context of a Republican primary. In other words, the focus is on a subset of the one-quarter to one-third of the electorate that's already identified as the most conservative. And with Republican primaries generally showing lower turnouts than they did in 2008, the impact of the most conservative voters is magnified.

Second, all of the sociological and journalistic hand-waving about "blue collar" voters misses another crucial point. The working class is not just the stereotypical "angry white males" or "security moms" about whom pollsters and pundits prattle. The working class is male and female, gay and straight, Black, white, Latino and Asian. When you widen the lens to the working class as a whole, the appeal of corporate hacks like Santorum plummets.

Finally, it's particularly galling to read all of this in the context of a national political climate in which genuine working-class issues--of income inequality, tax fairness and the political influence of the rich--have moved into the mainstream. The Occupy movement has helped to force these issues onto the national agenda and provided an easily understandable way of articulating them--"the 99 percent versus the 1 percent."

Instead of discussing these issues, and the fact that neither Romney nor Santorum--nor, for that matter, the Democrats--have much interest in addressing them, the political press acts as if working class voters' main concerns are with abortion and birth control. That's not just a sign of the media's laziness, but its complicity in the two-party establishment's marginalization of the working-class majority.

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