Sen. Santorum Sounds Very Good; Remains Very Wrong

Ten minutes into his talk at the Heritage Institution about his book It Takes a Family: Conservatism and the Common Good, we were startled by how much the Senator sounded like, well, us.

That came as quite a shock. This is a man who believes society is degenerating because women now work outside the home. The man who then went on to author the welfare legislation that forced single mothers away from their children for longer hours than ever before. A man who believes that African-Americans were doing better in the 19th century than the 20th while representing a state that is 10 percent black. And the man who compares abortion to slavery.

But the fact that Santorum is one of the most ideologically conservative members of Congress, who is anti-gay, anti-choice, anti-evolution, anti-working women isn't news. That isn't what is so scary. It's the way that he is so easily capable of making all of this sound semi-rational.

At Heritage, Santorum talked about the role of the government in promoting the common good, its responsibility to protect the weak and impoverished, and the importance of community and collective responsibility. He was impressively eloquent as he delivered this impassioned speech without notes.

And yet with such similar rhetoric, we end up in very different places. But perhaps that's predictable, because Santorum's conservatism is ideology without basis in reality.

Santorum's book is based on the premise that liberals have a fundamentally different vision for the United States and understanding of its core value, freedom, than he (and the average good and God-fearing American) does. He bifurcates society into conservatives who want "freedom with responsibility" and liberals who want "no-fault, selfish freedom." Santorum writes:


The freedom talked about at our Constitutional Convention did not mean the village elders' self-centered, No-Fault Freedom. It wasn't a freedom that celebrated the individual above society. It wasn't the freedom that gave men and women blanket permission to check in and out of society whenever they wanted. It wasn't the freedom to be as selfish as I want to be … America's traditional freedom was a selfless freedom, freedom for the sake of something greater or higher than the self. American liberty meant the freedom to attend to one's duties--duties to God, to family, and to neighbors. Our founders were in the business of constructing a nation, a political community. No-Fault Freedom, a freedom from every tie and duty, provides no basis for that project: it is a principle of division and social deconstruction.
And this "no-fault freedom", Santorum argues, is responsible for the 70 percent out-of-wedlock birth rate in the African-American community (which he overstates to 80 percent), the breakdown of social capital in this country, and the weakening of the family unit.

(Despite his concern with the weakening of the family unit, Santorum failed to note that the highest divorce rates in the nation are all in red states while the lowest are in those blue states packed with liberals - Massachusetts has the lowest. And when it comes to teen births, all ten of the states with the highest rates are red ones.)

His book then goes on to propose a variety of questionable solutions to his litany of societal ills. This includes replacing "liberal" innovations like educational opportunities in prisons with preaching. Or, in yet another show of how stunningly out of touch he is with the social and economic realities of the average American family, he suggests that most families with both parents working would "confess" that both of them don't really need to work outside of the home if they could just be a bit more frugal and "honest".

As delusional as this all sounds, doesn't his cornerstone argument about the perils of "no-fault freedom" sound just a wee bit familiar? Yes, in fact, we've heard of it a number of times prior … from progressive authors.

You can read it in Robert Reich's Reason, John Schwarz's Freedom Reclaimed, or William Galston's Taking Liberty. These books all document how conservatives have distorted the word "freedom" for their own gains and how liberals have to reclaim the term and its original meaning. Their descriptions of how conservatives understand freedom sound shockingly similar to Santorum's description of how progressives understand freedom.

For example, John Schwarz begins his book:
Many of the nation's Revolutionary leaders themselves did not understand the idea of freedom as having such dominant emphasis on the individual's autonomy or on the promotion of self-interest as the prevailing free-market [Schwarz terms the prevailing view of freedom used by conservatives "free-market freedom"] view does. Nor did a succession of later presidents usually considered great, such as Abraham Lincoln or either of the Roosevelts. They instead thought of freedom primarily in terms of the individual's autonomy nested within a complex of obligations individuals have toward one another, obligations that are required for freedom to be moral… Only this [conception of freedom] is able to breathe a sense of larger meaning and purpose into our collective lives as Americans."
Wait a second -- are liberal thinkers and Rick Santorum actually agreeing on something? No, of course not. Though these liberal authors and Senator Santorum seem to be saying the same thing, our words lead us in very different directions and to very different visions. Everyone reading this site knows that Rick Santorum's interpretation of returning to the founders' understanding of freedom is antithetical to everything progressives believe.

The "family" in his book title is only a family in the most traditional sense - a mother, father, and as many children as possible. There is no room in his plan to reclaim traditional liberty for gay parents, single parents, or even adults who choose not to have children. There is no room for parents who both must work as they struggle to get out of poverty. There is no room for parents who both work because they choose to. His vision for America is truly an exclusive one. The political community that his vision of liberty supports does not actually extend to every American and certainly does not create programs that would improve the lives of every American.

But though Senator Santorum's views are scary, they are not as scary as the fact that we are not yet well equipped to stop him. If we are alarmed by Santorum's plan to remake America, we need to do what Santorum does: diagnose the problems of America and suggest solutions. His diagnosis and his solutions will become more and more palatable to the American public if we cannot provide a realistic ideology that we are capable of defending.

Today's progressive leaders have failed to define our values in a way that places us in true and discernable opposition to our conservative counterparts, though their often reprehensible policy choices should give us plenty of ammo. Recently, politicians and pundits on the left side of the spectrum have placed too much of their focus on fiddling with framing -- framing that often leaves the two sides sounding quite alike, with folks on the left sometimes seemingly capitulating as politicians try to say what we think other people want to hear.

We are different. We need to sound that way. Beyond voting Santorum out of office in 2006, we need to announce innovative and compelling plans to achieve our vision. We put together a 44-point list of ways in which Rick Santorum is wrong. What we need now is a 44-point list of progressive plans that will improve the lives of all Americans. This is our time to speak up. We can do better.
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