Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Rick Santorum, Higher Education, and the Jacksonian Politics of Liberty and Respect

by Michael Kaplan

Rick Santorum speaking at the Americans for Prosperity Michigan Forum, February 25, 2012

I’m a college professor and proud to be one. I teach American history at a technical college which is part of a state university system. I believe in the value of higher education and that it should be an option for those young, and not so young, men and women who have the desire and ability to pursue it. So now I’m going to do something that might seem bold and daring: I’m going to stand up for Rick Santorum who has taken a pounding in the liberal and establishment Republican media for his controversial views of higher education. Here’s why.

First let me say that I do have some meaningful political differences with Senator Santorum, especially on social issues. He is more socially conservative than I am. I believe that women should have access to contraception, though I agree with Santorum that it should not be a government entitlement. I believe that homosexuals should have the same rights as other Americans, but that gay and lesbian relationships should receive social and legal sanction through civil unions; I’m enough of a traditionalist to believe that marriage should be between a man and a woman. I believe in the traditional American, conservative, and Jacksonian values of hard work, self-reliance, faith, community, patriotism, personal responsibility, and American exceptionalism. Unlike Senator Santorum I believe that these values are not incompatible with sexual freedom. He does not appreciate the extent to which America’s core middle-class Jacksonian culture has been broadened, enriched and transformed in very positive and liberating ways by the Aquarian sexual revolution. That said, I’m drawn to Rick Santorum because he, more than any of the remaining candidates in this year’s presidential contest, is the strongest and most articulate champion of Jacksonian America and its idea of liberty.

The politics of conservative Jacksonian America are the politics of honor, liberty, and respect. The honor and respect due to those Americans who get up every day and do the tough and demanding jobs that make America work. The liberty of those Americans to live their lives as they choose, to be the masters of their destiny. Jacksonian politics are also identity politics: validating the heartland identity of honorable, productive, self-reliant, patriotic Americans, and validating their anger and resentment against those elites who don’t accord such Americans the respect they deserve and who are trying to limit the scope of their liberty. These are important truths about Jacksonian America that Rick Santorum clearly understands and taps into.

This helps make sense of the former Pennsylvania senator’s otherwise bizarre and confounding foot-in-the-mouth comment calling President Obama a snob for wanting all Americans to go to college. Santorum made these remarks at The Americans for Prosperity Forum in Troy, Michigan on Saturday February 25 to a very receptive audience that burst into applause as he spoke. Here is a video clip of Santorum’s comment. Here is a clip from an alternate version of the speech delivered in Chattanooga, Tennessee.

Rick Santorum is a take-no-prisoners culture warrior. That is both his strength and his weakness. His Jacksonian populism is a passionate language of the heart; there are no pale pastels for Rick, only bold colors. (See Ronald Reagan, CPAC 1975.)  “He seems to imagine America’s problems can best be described as the result of a culture war between the God-fearing conservatives and the narcissistic liberals,” David Brooks has written. This has set the tone for his 2012 presidential campaign, making for a sharp contrast with Mitt Romney. Romney, sad to say, comes across as a passionless, verbally-challenged technocrat, who hasn’t the first clue about how to connect with Jacksonian America. Which is why the “inevitable” front runner, who would be a competent manager of the economy, has been unable to close the deal with the Jacksonian conservative base of the Republican Party. In fact, while the Republican Party has since the 1960s become the party of Jacksonian America, it has not done a good job responding to its concerns about a nation that has gone astray: about an economy that no longer seems to have a place for Jacksonians who work with their hands and did not go to college; about the disintegration of traditional values, families, and communities. For many Jacksonians, including Santorum, this election is not just about reviving the economy; Santorum has offered a pro-growth and pro-family Economic Freedom Agenda. It is, more importantly, about returning America to her core values of liberty, community, Judeo-Christian morality, and limited government, which they believe are under assault by President Obama’s big government overreach symbolized by the Affordable Health Care Act otherwise known as ObamaCare. Rick Santorum has said that 2012 election is about fundamental liberty; he would not be in the presidential race were it not for ObamaCare.

If you want to understand Santorum’s “what a snob” comment, you need to place it in the context of his entire speech, which is largely an exposé of Rick Santorum’s passionate belief in American exceptionalism. Here is the C-Span video of the full 26-minute speech. Santorum gave a 55-minute version of the speech later that day at the Chattanooga Tea Party’s Liberty Forum in Tennessee.