Santorum Goes After the Know Nothings Who Vote No, Nothing

From TPM Rick Santorum is doing his best George Wallace imitation:

TROY, MICHIGAN — Rick Santorum’s contention here Saturday that President Obama’s plan to make college more accesible is really a scheme to brainwash people into becoming liberals may have struck some outside observers as a little odd.

But for the tea party crowd gathered here as part of an Americans For Prosperity rally, Santorum’s words about higher education were right on point.

“President Obama wants everybody in America to go to college,” Santorum said. “What a snob!”

Hearing the son of a clinical psychologist who has an MBA and a JD pretend he’s some low-class working stiff filled with resentment for opportunities he never had makes me want to spit. He’s a guy who had good life opportunities appealing to people not by saying he’d work to ensure good life opportunities to more children and young adults, but by instead channeling the angry belief of many tea partiers who think “other people” get all the breaks, and then they look down on the rest of us (by which the tea partiers mean people who share the same religious, social, and political beliefs and express their social and cultural views in ways that match their own).

Back when the “left” was more inclined to systemic analysis of politics, the tea party phenomenon, in which mostly middle class people embrace a politics and set of policies that enrich the wealthy at their expense, would have been described as an example of “false consciousness.” There’s certainly an element of going against one’s economic interests among the tea partiers. But many tea partiers are comparatively comfortable, and most–while often profoundly misinformed, in no small part because many of them get their “news” from Fox–say they’re OK with smashing the federal government, even if that means there’s less help for them and their children. (Of course, they typically say they’re advocating a demolition of the New Deal and Great Society exactly because they are looking out for the interests of their children and grandchildren).

Tea partiers’ motivation is less to act in their own self-interest than to impose deprivation on others. They believe that whatever they don’t like was imposed upon them, directly or indirectly, by the federal government. They have an atomized view of society, where there are few bonds of solidarity connecting them to anyone beyond their family and people with their same racial, religious and cultural background. When they are forced to coexist with people different than them, they don’t like it, and they attribute this forced necessity to the federal government, which enshrines rights the tea partiers don’t believe exist, and by appropriating their money through taxes and spending it on stuff they don’t like and do not want and on people with whom they do not want to share.

A key to understanding the tea partiers is that they mostly don’t blame the wealthy for what they think is wrong with America. Rather, they blame what they perceive is a social and cultural elite from whom they are estranged and with whom they believe they have few shared values.

Tea partiers like those to whom Santorum is trying to appeal don’t see, and in most cases don’t care, that they’re making common cause with plutocrats like the funders of Americans for Prosperity, the Koch brothers. It’s not wealth or privilege they don’t like, it’s ostentatious displays of what they perceive as a smug sense of superiority. They don’t like someone bragging about having two Cadillacs, but since they might not mind having one Cadillac, that’s not going to bother them as much as someone who went to some fancy school–which didn’t interest them, or wasn’t available to them, dictating what they have to do, who they have to live with and how their tax dollars are spent, and on whom.

Which brings us to Santorum’s cynical college crap. Tea partiers tend to see everything that they have as something they earned all by themselves. Their kids worked hard, and if they got in to the University of Michigan, it’s because their family instilled in them good values, like hard work, and that’s how they earned their admission. If their kid applied to Michigan but didn’t get in, and instead had to go to Central Michigan University or night school at Wayne State, it’s because someone else got a spot that should have gone to their kid. Maybe it’s because of Affirmative Action (which at the same time Michigan was voting for Barack Obama it overturned in a statewide referendum), or because kids in the rich school districts get favorable treatment, or because university admissions officers value artsy-fartsy crap over common sense and practicality, or because some Indian doctor donated money to the school and that’s why his daughter got one of those spots.

If you focus not on your privations but on others’ privileges, and if you reject a solution that brings you in solidarity with people who aren’t similar to you, you’ll often favor a society where there’s less for everyone rather than buy in to (what they see as a lie) of increasing wealth and opportunity for everyone. That’s what Santorum is appealing to: A discomfort, dislike or even hatred of people of a different race, religion, cultural background or social practices and beliefs, a refusal to join together with people who are different that drives tea partiers to want to reduce the support and opportunities that should and could be available to everyone. If in the meantime, the tea partiers are essentially tools for rich people who share many of their beliefs, that doesn’t really bother them much.

As is so often the case with conservatives, there’s an irony here. The Americans for Prosperity event was in the Detroit suburb of Troy. Long ago, I coached track and cross country at one of the high schools. At the time–and it’s probably still true–it was one of the best public high schools in Michigan. On my team I had several kids go to the University of Michigan, and others who were applying to Stanford, to MIT, to University of Virginia and University of North Carolina, to Ivy’s. Just about every kid I coached was headed to college. Kids from Troy have more opportunities to go to college; they get excellent preparation in their public schools, and they generally come from comfortable families. Michigan’s median household income is $45,000, but in Troy it’s almost twice that, $87,000. And guess what’s correlated with Troy having a much-higher than average income?

That’s 57% with at least a bachelor’s degree, compared to Michigan’s statewide average of 34%.

Surely some tea partiers think Santorum’s rant against providing the opportunity for every kid to go to college is loony. But enough tea partiers disdain college enough that Santorum’s idiocy may garner him more than a few votes. Two months ago Mitt Romney said the choice for voters was between an “entitlement society” and an “opportunity society.” Rick Santorum is betting that forced to choose between an entitlement society and an opportunity society, Republican know nothings will choose “no, nothing.”

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