It Takes a Democrat

Most liberals will open Senator Rick Santorum's new book, It Takes a Family, in the same spirit that we approach Dianetics or The Washingtonienne: looking for the outrageous parts. And while there's no entry for “man-on-dog” sex in the index -- apparently Santorum has thought better of his assertion last year that if the Supreme Court permitted overturned sodomy laws, such cross-species partnerships would be the next innovation in The New York Times' wedding pages -- there is enough to keep the opposition researchers at the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee busy faxing material to reporters in anticipation of Santorum's difficult race for re-election next year.

But there's more to this book than material to be mined for campaign ads and dirty jokes. It Takes a Family begs to be taken seriously -- perhaps a little too seriously, with its references to Immanuel Kant, Robert Putnam, Blackstone's Commentaries, and the films of Whit Stillman. (This last raises the intriguing prospect that there is only one degree of separation between Santorum and actress Chloë Sevigny, star of Stillman's The Last Days of Disco as well as some much racier movies. Sadly, this is more likely a ghostwriter's fingerprint; Mark Henrie, whom Santorum credits as the editor of the book, also put together a well-received collection of essays hailing Stillman as an auteur of traditionalist conservatism.)

Let's grant Santorum the respect of taking his ostentatiously serious book seriously. The title promises a direct hit on Hillary Rodham Clinton's 1995 book, It Takes a Village. “The village,” Santorum argues, is but a euphemism for “big government” run by liberal “village elders.” But beyond that redefinition of terms, Santorum doesn't engage Senator Clinton's book, except to assert that she “sounds like she shares the worries of most Americans about the moral health of the country. But when you actually look at the policies … it's little more than feel-good rhetoric masking a radical left agenda.”

If not a challenge to Clinton, then, what is the book really about? Like most politicians' manifestos, it's a jumble of half-rewritten Senate-floor statements, blandly reflective personal anecdotes, and some weak attempts to give the whole thing a theme. But its aspirations lift it above such typical remainder-table fodder. The most interesting subtheme of It Takes a Family is the attempt to work through the central intellectual challenge for modern Republican majority conservatives: how to reconcile laissez-faire economics with social conservatism.

For economic conservatives, it's not too hard to make accommodations to social conservatism for immediate political purposes. After all, most of today's ruling class are economic royalists who are willing to adopt whatever positions on abortion and gay marriage are needed to gain (and keep) power. But starting from the point of social conservatism, as Santorum does, it's much harder to incorporate the argument for economic libertarianism. The socially conservative thinkers that Santorum cites have been as worried about the disruption and moral relativism of the market as of government, as critical of Adam Smith's Enlightenment as of Jean-Jacques Rousseau's.

Santorum takes two cracks at the problem, neither of which is wholly successful. One is to frame the argument around the word “capital.” There is “moral capital,” which can only be built in a society of “mom and dad families” in which abortion, sodomy, and gay marriage are illegal. There is “social capital” in communities, “cultural capital.” Then there is real capital, and they are all interdependent. But this is pretty much empty rhetoric and is soon abandoned.

The second attempt is to argue that only in a society defined by virtue (again, “mom and dad families,” keep-it-in-your-pants, etc.) can the “freedom” that the economy needs, and that is the basic promise of America, thrive. In other words, if we stray from Santorum's morality, it will force “big government” to crack down, which in turn will be bad for the dynamic economy. But if we obey the rules, government will stay off our backs and the economy will thrive. Government here plays the role of wrathful god. While this argument apparently goes over well with Santorum's socially tolerant Wall Street campaign contributors, it's got some logical problems. The biggest problem is the strange ability right-wing government officials have to disassociate themselves from the government that pays their salary, and this is especially disconcerting when it is Santorum himself who is working to bring the force of government down on gay marriage, sex other than the mom-and-dad variety, abortion, etc.

In most other respects, Santorum is weirdly blind to the realities of economic life. His discussion of the time pressures on working families and the struggle to find enough real time with your children is quite compelling, the kind of thing that one wishes Democrats could talk more about. But his solution, which is simply that mothers should “look at the family budget” and decide that they can stay home, or even homeschool their kids, is of limited value to those who look at the budget and see two $10-an-hour jobs and a mortgage payment due. And it is particularly out of place following a chapter in which Santorum congratulates himself for his role in the welfare reform of 1996, particularly the provisions requiring poor women, usually without partners, to enter the workforce without excuses.

At various points, Santorum says that he set out to write a book about poverty. A sizable section of the book is about solutions to poverty, and to this liberal, some of them -- those that don't aggressively violate the establishment clause -- seem decidedly familiar: asset-building strategies to help poor families build a base of security; reverse commuting to get urban residents to where the jobs are; community credit unions and microlending programs to help inner-city entrepreneurs. Even the individual activists Santorum cites from his work in Pennsylvania, like Jeremy Nowak of the Reinvestment Fund, are familiar to me as people we championed when I worked for a liberal senator from neighboring New Jersey a decade ago.

Santorum's typical presentation of one of these ideas goes something like this: “The Village Elders consider a large percentage of our population to be helpless: they're not going to consider how to empower the poor to build wealth,” or “The village elders like to show they care for the poor among us simply by spending more money,” rather than investing strategically to build communities. Such statements are followed by, “that's why Senator John Corzine and I introduced ... ” or “therefore, I co-sponsored Senator Carol Moseley-Braun's amendment that would ... .” If not Corzine and Moseley-Braun, two of the most unabashedly liberal current and former senators, one has to wonder: Just who are these unreconstructed “village elders” after all?

These innovative solutions may have caused liberals some discomfort decades ago, but a dozen years after the passage of federal empowerment zones and Bill Clinton's legislation to support community banks, “empowerment” is now very much the core strategy of modern liberalism. One might be tempted to say, as Santorum does of Senator Clinton, that behind Santorum's rhetoric is a “left agenda,” but that wouldn't be fair.

That's because Santorum is prepared for this challenge. In his conclusion, he warns that “some will dismiss my ideas as an extended version of 'compassionate conservatism.'” But it is not, he insists, because of his insistence on “moral capital,” at least as defined by him. In other words, even if liberals advocate some of the same policy solutions, they are doomed simply because they are associated with the moral tolerance of liberals. And so, in the end, it is not as easy as I had hoped it would be to separate Santorum's interesting and laudable ideas on poverty and work-family balance from his mean-spirited and intolerant social views; they are wholly interdependent. Rather than compassionate conservatism, Santorum has fashioned something new: a mean-spirited, intolerant liberalism.

Mark Schmitt is a fellow at the New America Foundation, proprietor of The Decembrist blog, and a contributor to TPM Cafe.

You may also like