David Brooks has a good column today about Rick Santorum and his socially conservative campaign. In it, he makes an important and often overlooked point about the cultural differences between the GOP Establishment and the people who are their most loyal voters. Excerpt:

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.

Rick Santorum, as Brooks says, really does come from a Catholic working class background — and it shows in his legislative record (Brooks says, “While in Congress, he was a leader in nearly every serious piece of antipoverty legislation”). The cultural left absolutely despises Santorum for his conservative beliefs on same-sex marriage, which he has, alas, poorly articulated in the past. Santorum has also been harsh on Wall Street culture. Unfortunately, he is a hyper-hawk, as TAC’s Daniel Larison has mercilessly but helpfully chronicled. 

Nevertheless, I do strongly agree with Brooks that Santorum “represents sensibility and a viewpoint that is being suppressed by the political system.” Back in 2005, the Pew political typology indicated that the least representative viewpoints on the American spectrum were those most people identify as generally “liberal” and generically “conservative.” The great center of American politics, according to Pew’s finding, is socially conservative but economically “liberal” in the sense of being more or less skeptical of laissez-faire capitalism, and more open to a role for government in public life. Why is it being “suppressed”? I think part of the explanation is that the people who give money to both parties, and those who are most active in partisan causes, come from the extremes. Another part of the explanation is that Republicans and Democrats have gerrymandered Congressional districts such that the kinds of candidates who come out of them have a built-in reason to hew to partisan orthodoxies.

Plus, our media discourage complex thought; a decade ago, when I used to be on cable news channels from time to time, it was deeply frustrating how unwilling those programs were to facilitate an actual exchange of ideas. You were not expected to listen to your opponent and respond thoughtfully; you were only expected to listen to your opponent for the cue that it was time to start talking, repeating your predetermined talking points. That’s the sort of thing that made for a good guest in the Crossfire-ization of cable news. In turn, this teaches viewers to see politics as tribal warfare, and to consider the other guy’s point of view only as something to be crushed.

So you get a guy like Santorum, or Huckabee, or Buchanan, and nobody really knows what to make of them. Remember how the GOP establishment media went after Huckabee as if he were some sort of hayseed, simply because he questioned the immaculate conception of finance and big business? Similarly with Buchanan. In a related way (though he’s a rather different case), this is what they’re doing with Ron Paul, who doesn’t fit neatly into the prepared categories.

I find Santorum’s foreign policy views far too radical and wrongheaded for my taste, but I would be quite pleased if Santorum and Paul did well tonight, if only because I would very much like to see a kind of conservative politics that has more to do, broadly, with Catholic social teaching than with the College Republicans. Plus, as Brooks pithily puts it, referring to the likely November showdown between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney:

The country doesn’t want an election that is Harvard Law versus Harvard Law.

That’s what it’s almost certainly going to get. Why does it have to be that way?

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