Rick Santorum thinks if we can just return the country to the way it was in 1965 -- before the women’s movement, the gay rights movement and the Sexual Revolution, back when women didn’t have to work outside the home, because men earned enough money to support large families -- everything will be hunky-dory.
Speaking to Alabama and Mississippi voters who felt the same way, Santorum said, “You stood with a guy ....you knew, shared your values, and was going to go out and work for you to make sure this country was free and safe and prosperous based on believing in free people and free markets and the free economy and, of course, the integrity of the family and the centrality of faith in our lives.”
Santorum believes more in economic freedom than social freedom -- most Republicans do -- but he ignores the role of free markets in destroying his 1965 paradise. For the past two years, I’ve been working on a book about the decline of industrial America, from the mid-1960s to today. One thing I hear over and over again is how easy it was to get a job in a factory back then. If you had a high school diploma and a pulse, there was a place for you on an assembly line, building cars or air conditioners or washing machine. These were men’s jobs with men’s salaries. I interviewed a Baby Boomer autoworker who hired in at the auto plant at 18, married his high-school sweetheart at 20, started a family at 22, and built the house where he still lives at 27. A former employee of the Carrier Corporation told me, “in those days, in Central New York, you could get a good job just by falling out of bed.”
This was possible in part because the economy was less free in the 1960s. Labor unions, which disrupt the free market by allowing workers to bargain collectively, were much more powerful, representing nearly 30 percent of employees in private industry. Unions were not only able to demand high wages and benefits for their members, they pressured politicians to support protectionist measures that kept foreign goods out of the United States.
Beginning with Ronald Reagan’s firing of striking air traffic controllers in 1981, the Republican Party has made war on the union movement, with remarkable success. Last year, private-sector union membership reached a 100-year low of 6.9 percent. Both Republicans and Democrats supported the North American Free Trade Agreement, which allowed hundreds of small factories to relocate to Mexico.
As it became harder to find a decent-paying job, marriage became less affordable to the working class. Marriage is seen now as an elite institution, realistic only for the well-off, well-educated middle class. Santorum ignores the fact that economic issues are social issues, and that more economic freedom has contributed to the social breakdown he deplores, and is promising to reverse.
In this month's Atlantic, Michael J. Sandel writes that "As the Cold War ended, markets and market thinking enjoyed unrivaled prestige." But "in a society where everything is for sale, life is harder for those of modest means."
Mitt Romney seems to understand better than Santorum that the solution to many of our social ills is a good job. After all, he’s the son of the man who led American Motors and the state of Michigan through their 1960s golden ages. In his first presidential campaign, he barnstormed through Michigan, promising to bring back the auto industry’s golden age.
That logical disconnect is not going to matter to Santorum voters, who are motivated more by nativist and religious zeal than by logic. In New York magazine, Jonathan Chait argued that the Republican Party of 2012 appeals to white nostalgia for a monocultural America.
Piles of recent studies have found that voters often conflate social and economic issues. What social scientists delicately call “ethnocentrism” and “racial resentment” and “ingroup solidarity” are defining attributes of conservative voting behavior, and help organize a familiar if not necessarily rational coalition of ideological interests. Doctrines like neoconservative foreign policy, supply-side economics, and climate skepticism may bear little connection to each other at the level of abstract thought. But boiled down to political sound bites and served up to the voters, they blend into an indistinguishable stew of racial, religious, cultural, and nationalistic identity.
It’s nonsense, but it’s nonsense that Santorum is expressing better than any other Republican candidate right now.
Buy this book! Ward Room blogger Edward McClelland's book, Young Mr. Obama: Chicago and the Making of a Black President , is available Amazon. Young Mr. Obama includes reporting on President Obama's earliest days in the Windy City, covering how a presumptuous young man transformed himself into presidential material. Buy it now!