For months, former senator Rick Santorum has been talking about working-class woes and promoting a working-class-friendly economic agenda, and in late January President Obama’s State of the Union speech placed working-class concerns at the center of the election debate. Nevertheless, Santorum remains in third place in the GOP race. Does this suggest that Republican efforts to address working-class angst are politically ineffective?
No, it doesn’t. The problem is twofold: Santorum has not emphasized this aspect of his campaign enough, and the agenda he has presented seems designed to resurrect an idealized past rather than to lead worried workers into a new future.
Santorum is trying to resurrect the Reagan general-election strategy of 1980 — first and foremost, to win over the conservative base on fiscal and social issues by portraying himself as a man of principle, the only candidate who will not waver. This means that for most Republican-primary voters, Santorum is a strong conservative first and an advocate of the working class a distant second, if at all.
But Santorum’s greater problem is that he is out of touch with today’s blue-collar reality. His message presumes that white-working-class voters are essentially the same as they were in 1980. Reagan Democrats in the Midwest — the Santorum target — were characterized in 1980 by their religion and their occupations. They were disproportionally Catholic, serious about their faith, and likely to work in manufacturing or live in manufacturing-dependent neighborhoods and towns.
Santorum’s Iowa victory speech made it clear that he believes these characteristics are still true of the working class. He noted that he grew up in a steel town, that his first congressional wins were in districts with abandoned steel mills, and that he won because he “shared the values of the working people” in his districts. Those values center on “faith and family”; working people “understand that when the family breaks down, the economy struggles.” Santorum’s proposals follow from these premises: support the family by tripling the child tax deduction, encourage manufacturing by giving corporations engaged in it a corporate-income-tax rate of zero, and promote religion by making public professions of faith a central part of presidential rhetoric.
But it is no longer the early 1990s, when Santorum won those congressional districts. An entire generation of working-class voters has grown up with no experience working in manufacturing, or even any expectation of doing so. Today’s white-working-class voter — whose vote is much more likely to be up for grabs than those of his black or Hispanic peers — increasingly works in industries that have mushroomed in size since the Reagan years, such as retail. Over 1 million people work for Walmart, for example, a company that few had heard of in 1980. But we can see the Santorum dilemma more acutely if we look at a classic blue-collar industry: trucking.
Trucking was deregulated by the Motor Carrier Act of 1980, leading to an explosion in the number of trucking firms and trucks on the road. Today, there are over 3 million truckers; they constitute 2 percent of American workers. Major companies, such as Federal Express, have come into existence because of the growth in trucking.