Former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-PA) told the Value Voters:
We will never have the media on our side, ever, in this country. We will never have the elite, smart people on our side.
I know where he’s coming from with a comment like that to conservatives. He’s not saying that smart people aren’t conservative; I know a number of people who are both smart and conservative, and I respect them. And I don’t think he’s saying that only stupid people are conservatives, either, although there’s a lot of circumstantial evidence in that direction. What he’s saying is that the average voter doesn’t consider themselves to be “elite” or “smart” and therefore he can make the argument that there are more of them than there are of the pointy-headed nerds or Chablis-sipping snobs and intellectuals (which is also a dog-whistle for gays, Jews, and uppity blacks), and the average conservative is better than them. It’s its own snobbery; and it’s ironic given Mr. Santorum’s comment during the primary campaign about President Obama wanting everyone to go to college — “What a snob!”
Anti-elitism is the backbone of conservative populism. The thinking is that the “smart people” aren’t the ones who dig the ditches or work in the factories; they have no idea what an honest day’s work is like sitting in their ivory tower writing witty blog posts while Joe or Josephine the Plumber who never made it past high school but go to church every Sunday and marry people of the opposite sex are the real Americans, paying their taxes so that welfare queens can ride around in their pink Cadillacs. It makes for a great soundbite.
The problem with that argument is that given the chance, Joe or Josephine would love to have their kids or grandkids graduate from high school and go on to Harvard or the University of Florida, and if they had the chance themselves, they’d probably take some classes at the community college. And if someday they fell on hard times, they would demand that the government give them a hand, too, even if they don’t want to acknowledge it (or in this case, even know where it comes from. Speaking of smart…). It’s not that they’re hypocrites. They have the natural human instinct to try to make things better for themselves… or in some cases, just survive.
By the way, I’ve spent a lot of time in my life working with what Mr. Santorum considers to be the average conservative voter, and a lot of them were really smart. I knew carpenters and truck drivers who can talk about Shakespeare and philosophy at the grad school level. (I also know a number of smart people who can’t figure out how to work the pop-top on a can of soda.) Granted, there are a number of really stupid people out there, too, but as one of my carpenter-philosopher friends noted, “Stupid people don’t know that they’re stupid, because if they did know, they wouldn’t be stupid in the first place.”
Mr. Santorum is putting a sweater vest on the old George Wallace racist anti-intellectual outside agitator tropes, and in today’s politics, it has a certain appeal. But only to those voters who don’t know how stupid they are.
(Cross-posted at Bark Bark Woof Woof.)