January 9, 2012

The Right focus

Mainstream Republican candidates should take a page from fringe contenders on campaign issues.

The past week saw a striking development in the Republican presidential contest that will likely have a substantial effect on today’s crucial New Hampshire primary. Two candidates long relegated to the fringes of the race, Rick Santorum and Ron Paul, have become serious contenders after strong showings in last week’s Iowa caucuses. Their rapid rise is widely viewed as a sign of the large gap between ordinary Americans’ priorities and those of the GOP’s base: While most people worry about the still-weak economy, many Republicans are enthusing over the socially conservative Santorum and the libertarian Paul. However, a closer look at the two campaigns suggests that they are actually speaking to middle-class voters’ economic concerns in a way that more mainstream politicians should take note of.

Santorum’s critics ignore a theme that has arguably been just as central to his campaign as issues like abortion and homosexuality: The ongoing decline in social mobility. The promise that your station in life will not be fixed by the family you happen to be born into is a central part of the American Dream, but the evidence that our society may no longer be keeping that promise is mounting. For example, a recent study indicates that 42 percent of American sons with parents in the bottom fifth of the income distribution remained in that bracket as adults, while the same figure ranged from 23 to 30 percent for sons and daughters in the United Kingdom and Scandinavia. Santorum has mentioned studies highlighting the decrease in upward mobility in debates and is virtually the only Republican candidate to call any attention to it.

Santorum’s social conservatism has also enabled him to address a dimension of the mobility crisis that even those political figures who have taken note of it—mainly on the left—have missed: Its connection to problems in the American family. According to a 2007 Child Trends study, only 7 percent of college-educated mothers have had a child out of wedlock, while the figure for mothers without college degrees is 50 percent; divorce rates follow a similar pattern. These disparities are likely among the main causes of declining mobility: Marriage tends to significantly improve both spouses’ financial situations and children, who benefit from the stability marriage provides, are much likelier to succeed economically. Santorum’s personal stories about how growing up in a close-knit family enabled him to rise above his working-class origins, and his emphasis on the connections between social and economic hardship have enabled him to connect with aspects of voters’ lives that most politicians seem utterly unaware of.

Paul’s message might initially seem even further removed from the economic concerns of ordinary people than Santorum’s. His central message seems to be that the two main policies that most economists think would address the ongoing problems of slow growth and high unemployment—fiscal stimulus and increasing the money supply—are, at best, unwise and, at worst, tyrannical. However, Paul’s willingness to depart so radically from the elite consensus may actually reassure many voters that he feels sympathy for their plight.

Like most Americans, Republican primary voters were badly shaken by the economic collapse and have spent much of the past several years trying to understand how things could go wrong so quickly. Most Republicans have decided to credit the Obama administration with causing a meltdown that had occurred before it took office, but many may have concluded that such a dramatic crash could only be caused by something more fundamental: a political and economic elite that is rotten to the core. Paul’s effort to distance himself from that elite by rejecting its shared assumptions has these voters convinced that he understands the seriousness of the problems they face in a way that others do not.

Critics of these candidates will likely object that neither has plausible solutions to the problems he has identified. Paul’s claims that we should abolish the Fed and return to the gold standard are rejected even by right-of-center economists, and Santorum’s proposal to eliminate the corporate tax is unlikely to address the deeply rooted social problems that he points to. However, it is precisely because their solutions are so inadequate that the rest of us should care about the forces that produced them. When important problems like declining social mobility and high unemployment are neglected, cranks and has-beens who take those problems seriously gain influence over public debate, leading more mainstream voices to echo their ideas. Those who dismissed Iowa voters as out of touch would do well to keep this point in mind.

 Ajay Ravichandran is a fourth-year in the College majoring in philosophy.