2012-01-06 / Commentary

Workers of the world, unite!

David Brooks

OTTUMWA, Iowa — The Republican Party is the party of the white working class. This group — whites with high school degrees and maybe some college — is still the largest block in the electorate. They overwhelmingly favor Republicans.

It’s a diverse group, obviously, but its members generally share certain beliefs and experiences. The economy has been moving away from them. The ethnic makeup of the country is shifting away from them. They sense that the nation has gone astray: Marriage is in crisis; the work ethic is eroding; living standards are in danger; the elites have failed; the news media sends out messages that make it harder to raise decent kids. They face greater challenges, and they’re on their own.

The Republicans harvest their votes but have done a poor job responding to their needs. The leading lights of the party tend to be former College Republicans who have a more individualistic and even Randian worldview than most members of the working class. Most Republican presidential candidates, from George H. W. Bush to John McCain to Mitt Romney, emerge from an entirely different set of experiences.

Occasionally you get a candidate, like Tim Pawlenty, who grew up working class. But he gets sucked up by the consultants, the donors and the professional party members, and he ends up sounding like every other Republican. Other times a candidate will emerge who taps into a working-class vibe — Pat Buchanan, Mike Huckabee or Sarah Palin. But, so far, these have been flawed candidates who get buried under an avalanche of negative ads and brutal coverage.

This year, Romney is trying to establish some emotional bond with the working class by waging a hyperpatriotic campaign: I may be the son of a millionaire with a religion that makes you uncomfortable, but I love this country just like you. The strategy appears to be only a partial success.

Enter Rick Santorum.

Santorum is the grandson of a coal miner and the son of an Italian immigrant. For years, he represented the steel towns of western Pennsylvania. He has spent the past year scorned by the news media — working relentlessly, riding around in a pickup truck to more than 370 towns. He tells that story of hard work and elite disrespect with great fervor at his meetings.

His worldview is not individualistic. His book, “ It Takes a Family,” was infused with the conservative wing of Catholic social teaching. It was a broadside against Barry Goldwaterstyle conservatism in favor of one that emphasized family and social solidarity. While in Congress, he was a leader in nearly every serious piece of antipoverty legislation. On the stump, he cries, “The left has a religion, too. It’s just not based on the Bible. It’s based on the religion of self.”

Santorum does not have a secular worldview. This is not just a matter of going to church and home schooling his children. When his baby Gabriel died at childbirth, he and his wife, a neonatal nurse, spent the night in the hospital bed with the body and then took it home — praying over it and welcoming it, with their other kids, into the family. This story tends to be deeply creepy to many secular people but inspiring to many of the more devout.

He is not a representative of the corporate or financial wing of the party. Santorum certainly wants to reduce government spending (faster even than Rep. Paul Ryan). He certainly wants tax reform. But he goes out of his way in his speeches to pick fights with the “supply-siders.” He scorns the Wall Street bailouts. His economic arguments are couched as values arguments: If you want to enhance long-term competitiveness, you need to strengthen families. If companies want productive workers, they need to be embedded in wholesome communities.

It’s hard to know how his campaign will fare after a late surge he is experiencing in Iowa. These days, he is a happy and effective campaigner, but, in the past, there has been a dourness and rigidity to him. He’s been consumed by resentment over unfair media coverage. As his ally in the AIDS fight, Bono, once told a reporter, Santorum seems to have a Tourette’s syndrome that causes him to say the most unpopular thing imaginable.

But I suspect he will do better post-Iowa than most people think — before being buried under a wave of money and negative ads. And I do believe that he represents sensibility and a viewpoint that is being suppressed by the political system. Perhaps, in less rigid and ideological form, this working-class experience will someday find a champion.

If you took a working-class candidate from the right, like Santorum, and a working-class candidate from the left, like Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio, and you found a few islands of common ground, you could win this election by a landslide. The country doesn’t want an election that is Harvard Law versus Harvard Law.

DAVID BROOKS writes for The New York Times.

Return to top