“I’m not a class-warfare guy,” Santorum tells National Review Online in reaction to Pawlenty’s remarks. “That’s the Democrats’ gig. They like to divide and play the class card. We don’t have classes in America — I don’t even like the term ‘middle class.’ People are lower income or middle income, and the dynamism of this country is that you can rise, and sometimes fall, but you are not stuck in classes [bold mine-DL]. We should not get into that kind of rhetoric, or showing some sort of prejudice.” ~Robert Costa

This isn’t quite as detached from reality as Marco Rubio’s insistence that America is the only country in the world where social mobility exists, but it is wrong all the same. Santorum’s claim can be refuted just as easily as Rubio’s was when David Frum wrote:

The sad fact is that as best we can measure, present-day America offers less upward mobility than many other advanced countries, including Denmark, Germany, Canada and Australia.

I have no great confidence that Tim Pawlenty has better answers for how to increase upward mobility in America, and I am fairly sure that Pawlenty was merely engaging in the same kind of pseudo-economic populism that Huckabee deployed in the 2008 primaries, but it is simply untrue that there is no such thing as class in America or that one cannot be “stuck” in a class. To combat Pawlenty’s rather self-serving working-class identity politics, Santorum has chosen to take refuge in a fantasy world of the classless society. My guess is that Santorum’s remarks will be welcomed by many of the same people who are also cheering Angelo Codevilla’s manifesto for resentment, which advances the idea of a sharply bifurcated society in such stark language that it makes Jon Edwards’ “Two Americas” rhetoric seem mild and optimistic by comparison. Acknowledging that class exists and admitting that they are becoming more stratified rather than less does not mean that one needs to stoke resentment and conflict between classes, but if Republicans want to appeal to most Americans living in the country as it really exists they need to start recognizing how America has changed (in some part thanks to economic policies promoted by the GOP and other followers of neoliberalism).

Social and economic opportunity in America is significantly constrained by education, and the quality of education available to people from the lower and lower-middle classes tends to be worse, which generally works to reinforce that limited opportunity. This certainly doesn’t stop upward mobility all together, but it does make it much more difficult. Social and economic stratification is happening, reflected by growing income inequality, and it is being exacerbated by changes to the U.S. economy that are raising barriers to upward mobility and by the mass immigration of poorly educated, unskilled workers that are at risk of being trapped in a perpetual underclass. As Ross has discussed recently, the selection process at highly selective colleges and universities also tends to limit access for poor and working-class white students:

But what was striking, as Russell K. Nieli pointed out last week on the conservative Web site Minding the Campus, was which whites were most disadvantaged by the process: the downscale, the rural and the working-class.

In many respects, these ought to be constituencies whose interests Santorum would want to defend, since many of them also happen to be socially and culturally conservative, but he is so preoccupied with affirming America as a land without classes and brimming with boundless opportunity that he cannot move beyond the easy point-scoring against Pawlenty’s self-promotion to see this. These are constituencies that are poorly represented overall, they are scarcely represented at all by their Republican elected officials, and they respond favorably to conservatives who can appeal to both their social conservatism and their economic interests. They would be better-served if the politicians that claim to represent them followed Prof. Deneen’s advice in his recent TAC article:

The best way is to connect explicitly the massive inequalities fostered by the new meritocratic arrangements that Connecticut enjoys with the bleeding-heart claims of its own purported liberalism and thereby—like the prophets of old—call them to account.

Presumably, Santorum would be well-suited to making arguments linking family stability and education with social and economic opportunity, and he could return to some of the ideas about Catholic social obligation that made him an advocate for anti-poverty causes. Of course, that was before he started railing against “Islamic fascism” and became obsessed with the growing menace of Venezuela. It’s a shame that one of the few national Republicans who might have actually understood and appreciated the constructive arguments Patrick Deneen, Phillip Blond and our friends at Front Porch Republic have been making for stronger social obligations feels compelled to endorse such myths.