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.
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.
American truckers also face competition from Hispanics already in this country (both legally and illegally). According to the General Services Administration, about 15 percent of truckers were Hispanic males in 2004. That number was projected to rise to nearly 19 percent by 2014; the white-male share of truckers was projected to drop from nearly 66 percent to about 60 percent over the same period.
The result of such competition is that, according to a May 2011 Heartland Monitor poll, white-working-class adults are the demographic most pessimistic about their future. A May 2011 Pew poll showed a similar result. It divided the American population into nine groups based on their political philosophies. In the group dominated by white-working-class independents, who constitute about 11 percent of the electorate, only 50 percent thought that hard work would guarantee success — lower than every other group but one.
President Obama mimics Senator Santorum when he proposes to bring back manufacturing jobs by changing the tax code to discourage American companies from operating plants overseas. But he’s also proposing to increase public-private job-training partnerships through community colleges “that teach people skills that businesses are looking for right now.” One can ask what government’s role in this sort of endeavor ought to be, but at least the president talks about building a future and not just bringing back the past.
Where President Obama really steals a march on Republicans, however, is with his rhetoric about free trade. He taps into the pervasive belief that unfair competition is at the heart of economic decline. Hence his new Trade Enforcement Unit, which will investigate putatively unfair trading practices, and his call for more inspections to “prevent counterfeit or unsafe goods from crossing our borders.” These measures may be modest in their scope and largely symbolic, but they send the message that Obama understands the concerns of the working class.
To be successful with working-class voters, conservatives will need to show that they too understand. These voters increasingly feel that they are — to borrow Barack Obama’s recycling of a Bill Clinton formulation — working hard and playing by the rules but not getting ahead. Mitt Romney’s pledge to bring an action against China through the World Trade Organization over alleged currency manipulation responds to this feeling. Conservatives should also spend more time and effort detailing how government officials helped private firms such as Fannie Mae take extreme risks on the taxpayers’ dime, pushing working-class families into loans they didn’t understand and could not afford to repay.
Conservative failure to demonstrate concern for the working class, and to adopt policies that will alleviate its burden, would be a modern-day analogue to liberals’ tone-deafness on crime and patriotism in the 1970s and ’80s — a tone-deafness that helped create the Reagan Democrats in the first place.
-– Henry Olsen is a vice president of the American Enterprise Institute. This article appears in the February 20, 2012, issue of National Review.