What Democrats Can Learn from Santorum About Populism
Rick Santorum—and Bruce Springsteen—could teach Democrats a few things about channeling populist rage
By Clive Crook
America has a lot to be angry about. Wall Street’s reckless incompetence has slammed the economy, wiped out the home-equity savings of much of the middle class, and thrown millions of people out of work. The bankers haven’t been punished—in some cases they’ve had their subsidies enhanced, and they’re doing better than the rest. If now isn’t the moment for a good, stiff dose of populist politics, when would be?
Populism is needed once in a while to stir politics to action. Democracy’s not democracy without demos. Suspicion of the ruling elite and occasional reprisals against it go with the franchise. You can of course have too much as well as too little; populism can express bigotry as well as demand justice. But rule out populism in all its forms, and you’re denying democracy its animating drive.
President Barack Obama reaches for populist notes—the stress on inequality, the Buffett rule, and all that—but channeling rage is a stretch for a man of his temperament. Democrats in general struggle with populism. Mitt Romney can’t do it either. Absence of passion and conviction has become his signature characteristic. It’s fallen to Rick Santorum, a much weirder politician than either Obama or Romney, to show how it’s done.
Santorum’s detractors cite his unusual opinions on the politics of gender and “artificial birth control” to paint him as extreme. But the source of Santorum’s appeal is his skill at waging class warfare, Republican-style. His grandfather was a coal miner, he explains: “Those hands dug freedom for me.” He wants to revive real jobs—blue-collar jobs—with zero corporate taxes on manufacturing. He’s a Pennsylvania guy who’s OK with declaring trade war on China. Romney, by contrast, is a plutocrat, a money guy. He’s with Wall Street, not Detroit.
Santorum combines this proletarian stance—unusual in a hard-right conservative—with more familiar elements of GOP populism: patriotism, reverence for family, hard work and self-reliance, hostility to big government, and proud religiosity (to a fault, in his case). If not for the extremism on sexual politics, it would be a potent blend even beyond the Republican Party’s social-conservative core. It’s enough, given his rival’s defects as a politician, to give Santorum a shot at the nomination.
The big puzzle, though, is that American liberals find it much harder than conservatives to be populist, even at a time like this. You’d think a country limping away from the Great Recession would be eager for a rush of liberal anti-elitism. Surely the American Left was best placed to take advantage of anger at Wall Street. Yet the main populist surge has come from the Right, in the form of the Tea Party and its new sweater-vested hero.
President Obama’s sounding off about Wall Street and inequality, and his call for higher taxes on the rich, get the Democrats only so far. An approach to taxes that Democrats advocate all the time is hard to sell as an urgent response to this particular crisis. It fails to target Wall Street malfeasance directly. Populism wants punishment. Injustice gets America’s juices flowing. Mere inequality, less so.
The Occupy movement, meanwhile, has tried to channel the righteous anger of Middle America, but it has no program. It’s too narrowly based to be populist, and too clueless to know where it’s heading. There are Tea Party candidates on ballots. There are no Occupy candidates. Scruffy, disorderly, and unserious, it can’t speak for the 99 percent. (“Mic check …” Oh, please.)
Democrats have another weakness. A muscular liberal-populist response to the Great Recession would have to take on banking and finance much more aggressively. But Democratic politicians are equally complicit in the collusion between Wall Street and Washington. The Obama administration is populated by once and future investment bankers. And the President’s reelection depends on raising super-PAC money from some of the same fat cats it should be punishing.
Liberal populism does exist, though, and it’s an instructive thing to examine. Democratic Senator Jim Webb of Virginia has been one of its rare exponents in Congress. In 2009 he proposed a one-time surtax on bonuses paid to executives in financial institutions helped by the Troubled Asset Relief Program. The measure never even reached the Senate floor. “Voting in favor of a windfall profits tax, however narrowly defined, incurs the wrath of key political donors,” Webb wrote in the Washington Post. “But voting against it would increase the anger of working people who know they are not being fairly treated. And so, after a bit of political hand-wringing, the issue disappeared from view.”
Vested interests are one clue to Democratic discomfort with populism. Here’s another. Webb’s attention to the anger of working people has led him over the years to speak up for the class he thinks the American Left has ignored—poor and middle-income whites. Liberals’ “prevailing attitude has been to ridicule whites who have the audacity to complain about their reduced status and to sneer at every aspect of the ‘redneck’ way of life,” Webb wrote in an article, “In Defense of Joe Six-Pack,” for the Wall Street Journal in 1995. It’s the kind of comment that makes many Democrats wonder if Webb is in the wrong party.
A view closer to mainstream liberal thinking is that of the New York Times’s Paul Krugman, the leading progressive commentator, who titled a recent column “Moochers Against Welfare.” The column delighted in the finding that red states benefit more from fiscal transfers than blue states. This is excellent grist for metropolitan condescension, proof that conservative voters are not just government dependents but too stupid to see it.
When prosperous liberals vote their values, not their interests, that’s enlightened. When poor conservatives do it, it’s dumb. What’s perhaps most offensive is the empathy this pathology sometimes elicits, infamously expressed by candidate Obama in 2008. “And it’s not surprising then they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy toward people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.” It’s a shame they’re that way, but we understand.
There’s one person in public life who does manage to articulate an authentically progressive populism—and makes a killing doing it. Bruce Springsteen has a new album coming out. He tells Rolling Stone it’s the first time he’s written about guys who wear ties. Wrecking Ball is a “scathing indictment of Wall Street greed and corruption.” If the Boss can do it, what’s stopping Democratic politicians? Why haven’t they cornered the market in scathing?
Liberals might take a second to notice what Springsteen has in common with Santorum and other conservative populists. There’s no sneering at Joe Six-Pack in the Springsteen canon. He’s very much a six-pack kind of guy. There’s no condescension, no questioning that America is special, that it stands for something in the world. This is an idea that much of the country holds dear—and one that a lot of progressives roll their eyes at. His song Long Walk Home, about how the country has lost its way, includes the lines:
My father said “Son, we’re lucky in this town,
It’s a beautiful place to be born.
It just wraps its arms around you,
Nobody crowds you and nobody goes it alone.
You know that flag flying over the courthouse
Means certain things are set in stone,
Who we are, what we’ll do and what we won’t.”
Of course, not many black Americans and not many women long for the lives their parents led. Not many who’ve been down a mine or shackled to the mindless drudgery of a production line see those as the only jobs worth having. Santorum, spokesman for the working stiff, is a lawyer and career politician making close to a million a year. Springsteen mocks his own “pirate’s treasure” and working-class pretensions. “It’s a sad funny ending to find yourself pretending, a rich man in a poor man’s shirt,” he sang in 1992’s Better Days.
Still, Springsteen’s message resonates because of its simplicity: America is a beautiful place to be born. Conservative populists are nostalgic for the same place, and a lot of this flag-waving country is with them.