Two Decades Too Late
From the February 20, 2012, issue of NR.

Rick Santorum tours PGT Industries in North Venice, Fla., January 23, 2012.


Henry Olsen

About 1.8 million Americans are long-haul truckers, the people you see driving the big rigs on the Interstates. The overwhelming majority of these drivers are male. They spend countless hours away from home, leaving their wives and children alone. It should be no surprise, then, that divorce rates among long-haul truckers are much higher than the national average.

That is where the Santorum rhetorical rubber meets the road. Santorum’s worldview is centered on bringing back the classic factory dad, who works a shift and comes home every night. But if his policies succeed in luring truckers into manufacturing jobs, they will also drive up wages in the trucking industry, which would imperil the very transportation network that enables modern manufacturing. Santorum’s policies are simplistic answers to complex problems.

Santorum’s approach also ignores the changes in family and religious life among the white working class that have happened since 1980. My colleague Charles Murray’s new book, Coming Apart: The State of White America 1960–2010, documents in detail how the social and religious culture of the white working class has declined in the last few decades. The illegitimacy rate for white women with no more than a high-school education in 2008 was 44 percent, up from a mere 6 percent in 1970. Those who marry don’t always stay married: Murray finds that 33 percent of white-working-class adults between the ages of 30 and 49 who have been married have gotten a divorce, more than double the proportion in 1980. Perhaps this is to be expected, given that the white working class no longer goes to church. According to Murray, in surveys between 2006 and 2010, 59 percent of whites with no more than a high-school education and who work in low-skilled jobs claimed not to attend a religious service more than once a year. The norms of faith and family that animated the white-working-class towns of Santorum’s youth simply no longer exist.

A political strategy for today’s working class would address its current mindset. To begin with, it would recognize that Reagan Democrats are no longer Democrats. Those who are not already Republicans are likely to be independents convinced that big government is not the answer to their problems. But they do not support Republican economic policy, because they think that an unfettered market is not the answer, either.

They are buffeted by competition at home and abroad. They compete much more directly than college-educated workers with people in Mexico and Asia. When factories move overseas, the prices of consumer goods fall, but for low-skilled workers this gain is tempered by lower hourly wages in new jobs. More women have to work to make ends meet, but they can’t afford to hire immigrants to take care of their children, clean their homes, or mow their lawns. Blue-collar voters have to work harder and borrow more just to stay in place, and they do so looking over their shoulders fearful that it could all fall apart in a moment. It’s no wonder, then, that polls show a white working class increasingly distrustful of free trade and angry about illegal immigration. Both issues relate to economic competition: Free trade means you compete with foreigners living abroad, and illegal immigration means you compete with foreigners living in the United States.

These concerns are on display in the trucking industry. The North American Free Trade Agreement contains a provision permitting Mexican truckers to enter the United States and freely operate throughout the country. But this provision has never taken effect, owing to opposition from the domestic trucking industry. The industry’s leaders often cast their opposition in terms of safety concerns, but they know that Mexican truckers will accept lower wages, giving them a competitive advantage for contracts. Free trade in trucking would mean lower transportation costs, but likely at the expense of wages or jobs for American truckers.