Ruth Marcus
Ruth Marcus
Opinion Writer

Rick Santorum’s warfare against elites

Rick Santorum is engaging in class warfare.

Santorum accuses President Obama and Mitt Romney of that supposed transgression. Yet class warfare was at the heart of his “what a snob” attack on Obama for urging students to attend college, part of an angry broadside against “the elite in society who think that they can manage your life better than you can.”

Ruth Marcus

An editorial writer specializing in politics, the budget and other domestic issues, she also writes a weekly column and contributes to the PostPartisan blog.

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Against an elite that believes in “climate science,” Santorum said, holding his fingers in ironic quotation marks and pronouncing “science” with a marked sneer.

Against an elite that dictates what health care you should have — the “ultimate top-down, I know better than you do” approach of Obama’s health reform — and, oh by the way, of Romney’s too.

Against an elite that looks down on you for not going to some fancy college. “There are good, decent men and women who go out and work hard every day and put their skills to [the] test that aren’t taught by some liberal college professor trying to indoctrinate them,” Santorum told an Americans for Prosperity forum Saturday in Troy, Mich.

And then, ominously and weirdly, against Obama and his elitist plot to educate more Americans: “Oh, I understand why he wants you to go to college. He wants to remake you in his image,” Santorum said. “I want to create jobs so people can remake their children into their image, not his.”

The contrast with Romney is striking. Later that day, introducing her husband, Ann Romney recalled how her aunts and uncles pooled their money so that her father could go to college — and how as a high school student she worked for the company her father had founded, right there in Troy. Santorum railed against elite institutions; Romney pointed with pride to her husband’s Harvard law and business degrees.

Mitt Romney’s is the politics of noblesse oblige, the man whose governor father advised him to make money before running for office so he wouldn’t have to worry about paying the mortgage. Santorum’s is the politics of personal grievance, bristling — or at the very least appearing to bristle — with resentment toward those elites.

If Romney arrives at the political party bearing a silver spoon, Santorum comes with a deeply chiseled chip on his shoulder.

“I didn’t blow in the wind when things were popular with the elite, ’cause I don’t come from the elite,” Santorum boasted. “My grandfather was a coal miner. I grew up in public housing on VA grounds.” (Well, actually, his father was a government psychologist.) “I’m not going to let the elites come up with phony ideologies and phony ideas to rob you of your freedom and impose government control of your life.”

Of course, running against the elites has a long provenance in American politics, from Andrew Jackson to George Wallace to Sarah Palin, and politicians of both parties have tried to harness populist energy to electoral advantage. Remember Al Gore and the people versus the powerful?

And Santorum is not alone on this year’s campaign trail in trying to tap into voters’ economic and cultural insecurities. There was Newt Gingrich in Georgia the other day: “You have elites in the bureaucracy, elites in the judgeships, frankly elites in the news media, elites in the academic world and elites in politics — and they would all like to impose on us an America that none of us believe in.”

But Santorum’s brand of anti-elitism seems particularly personal: throbbing with resentment and directed squarely at Obama.

“He thinks he knows better,” Santorum said of the president earlier this month. “He thinks he’s smarter than you. He thinks he’s someone who is a privileged person who should be able to rule over all of you.”

If Romney portrays Obama as well-meaning but inept, to Santorum the president is a tyrant of dubious legitimacy.

Santorum made another revealing argument in Troy. “They say, ‘Oh, moderates. We need to worry about moderates and the issues,’ ” he said. “Folks, if you’re a moderate, issues are obviously not the most important thing to you. Otherwise you’d be in one camp or the other.”

How telling that Santorum equates moderation with indifference to issues rather than an appreciation for their nuances.

Then again, nuance is one of those elitist words. You know, something you may learn in college.

ruthmarcus@washpost.com

 
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