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It Takes a Family: Conservativism and the Common Good

By Rick Santorum
(Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 464 pp., $25)

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Sometimes, you really can judge a book by its cover. Rick Santorum's magnum opus, It Takes a Family, features a distinctly Hispanic-looking clan on the front cover (rendered as a stained-glass window, no less) and an African-American family on the back. This is a book willing to pander, especially to constituencies Santorum has not impressed until now. The impression is amplified by the headline on the book's July 6 press release: "Senator Rick Santorum Cuts Through 'Left' vs. 'Right' Rhetoric in New Book."

 

 

Yeah, that's Rick Santorum all right: Mr. Bipartisanship.

 

Actually, it takes only two paragraphs for Rick's book to decry "[t]he liberal news media, Hollywood, and the educational elite." And it takes only three pages for him to assert that "the greatest thorn in the liberals' side [is] the iconoclastic traditional family," he insists. In fact "[L]iberals practically despise the common man." Heck, we even hate the Amish: "[A]lmost every contemporary liberal moral and political theory is hostile to the Amish," we're told, without explanation or example.

 

As pundits have noted, Santorum's title is a riff on Hillary Clinton's book It Takes a Village, and the book sneeringly refers to liberals as "village elders." What pundits haven't noticed is that Santorum has stolen more than just her title. At key moments, he co-opts some of the liberal agenda even as he lies about it, triangulating between his conservative base and the traditionally Democratic constituencies he wants to attract.

 

The resulting approach is almost, well, Clintonian. But while the Clintons wrap their agenda in a generic "I feel your pain" compassion, Santorum bundles his ideas up in an unreasoning hatred for the left.

 

As you've no doubt heard, there's plenty of red meat for Rick's base here, including talk against abortion and secularized schools. And remember the famous Associated Press interview, in which Santorum fretted that overturning anti-sodomy laws would legalize all kinds of perversity? Well, Rick now says he was misquoted. He didn't really compare gay sex to incest -- he compared all consensual sex outside of marriage to incest. The Supreme Court, he laments, has "decided to change the zone of sexual 'privacy' from one man and one woman in marriage to consenting adults, period."

 

And of course there is endless partisan sniping about liberals and their belief in what Santorum calls "no-fault freedom." Liberals, you see, want us to pursue our own happiness and beliefs -- all the better to control us. Or as Rick puts it: "The village elders want society to be individualistic, because a society composed only of individuals respond better to 'expert' command and control."

 

Mwuhahahahahahahaha! I congratulate you for uncovering our plot, Mr. Santorum; you've been a worthy opponent. But our henchmen shall dip you into this vat of acid, while we liberals depart for our secret island hideout. Adieu.

 

Honestly, if there were much truth in this caricature, liberals never would never have gained power at all. As it is, our ideas are powerful enough that Santorum is obliged to co-opt them, especially when he wants to appeal to traditionally Democratic voting blocs.

 

Start with the book's now-famous denunciation of feminists. Santorum contends that feminists "refuse to acknowledge, much less value as equal, the essential work women have done in being the primary caregivers of the next generation. It seems to me that justice demands both fair workplace rules and proper respect for work in the home."

 

Note, however, that this last sentence could just as easily be -- and has often been -- spoken by feminists themselves. The very fact that a conservative Republican says "justice demands" gender equity is a tribute to feminism's success. Yet Santorum nonsensically accuses feminists of a "misogynistic crusade." Dizzyingly, he accuses feminists of hating women -- it's no longer enough to accuse them of hating men, apparently -- while agreeing with a key part of their agenda.

 

Indeed, after hundreds of pages of blasting liberals as baby-aborters and Amish-deporters, Santorum blithely mentions co-sponsoring bills with such noted liberals as California's Dianne Feinstein and Carol Mosley Braun of Illinois. He does so, clearly, to demonstrate his own bipartisanship. But maybe, just maybe, those partnerships prove that "village elders" aren't hell-bent on destroying all our values after all. Mosley Braun, for example, partnered with Santorum to help the urban poor find transit to reach jobs in the suburbs. How does that square with Santorum's contention that liberals deliberately designed welfare so the recipients' "dependence on government is increased"?

 

Ironically, in fact, Santorum's biggest criticism of welfare is that it is too stingy, an argument that liberal critics such as Frances Fox Piven have made for decades. Indeed, as Piven herself argues in her 1971 book Regulating the Poor, welfare benefits were often curtailed because conservatives feared rewarding people on the dole.

 

In fact, if it weren't for all the liberal-bashing, Santorum could almost be a liberal himself at times. He acknowledges that some of the Democrat's New Deal was "family friendly," because it kept Granny from starving. He supports federal funding for the arts. He makes an eloquent plea for restoring the vote to released felons -- though one suspects he's glad Florida hadn't seen the light in 2000.

 

It's no accident that Santorum sounds most liberal when talking about issues like poverty and the politics of race. Co-opting liberal positions on such issues lets conservatives off the hook.

 

Santorum credits liberals with passing the 1964 Civil Rights Act, for example, but adds: "Of course, what too many of today's black leaders have written out of the story was [that] a higher percentage of Republican senators voted for that bill than Democrats." Of course, what Santorum has written out of the story is that the Dems who voted against civil rights were from the Deep South. After the bill passed, they, and their supporters, gravitated toward Santorum's party.

 

Similarly self-serving is Santorum's explanation of why so many urban black businesses failed in the 1960s. "It's hard to place the blame on ongoing racism," he says. Instead, "what really changed the economic terrain for African-Americans was ... the arrival of liberal welfare policies, the liberal cultural [sic] of victimhood, and ... urban renewal."

 

There's no mention at all of white flight to the suburbs, a trend which had something to do with ongoing racism. The departure of millions of middle-class whites clearly had an effect on "the economic terrain" they left behind. But characteristically, Santorum blames the problems not on the money pouring out of the city, but on the welfare money coming in. How convenient for the suburbanites, who now vote Republican.

 

There is one kind of suburbanite Santorum doesn't like, though: the kind who makes his money in the entertainment biz. "Nothing makes me angrier than to think of the rich folks living in gated communities" whose violent, sexualized and crass entertainment "destroys the lives of the most vulnerable children in our nation." One wonders: Where would Republicans be without "rich folks living in gated communities"? And when did liberals take over media conglomerates like General Electric and Disney?

 

At any rate, Santorum offers the same solution to pop-culture smut as the civil libertarians do: "[D]on't buy the junk culture, and don't let your kids buy it either." While he favors rigorous enforcement of "wardrobe malfunctions," he mostly wants the culture industry to police itself: TV networks "should voluntarily restore the family hour," for example, while advertisers "should start to restrain themselves voluntarily." Welfare and education must be overhauled, gay rights must be keelhauled ... but the rights of big business? There alone must government fear to trend.

 

In the end, for all its intellectual dishonesty, Santorum's book may represent the next generation of conservative spin. Appealing to homophobia, racial resentment and distrust of government helped Republicans take power. But their job now is to consolidate power for the long term. That means broadening the party's appeal to blacks and other Democrats at least slightly -- without alienating the party's support among CEOs and fundamentalist whites. Appealing to the former group means claiming that you shared some liberal values all along; appealing to the latter means damning the liberals harder than ever.

 

Because winning re-election, at least, really does take a village.

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