The Hayride

Quin Hillyer vs. Yours Truly On Rick Santorum

Quin Hillyer vs. Yours Truly On Rick Santorum
May 20
23:27 2014

Earlier today my latest American Spectator offering was published, and the current installment is about Rick Santorum and his likely 2016 presidential bid.

I’m not a particular fan of Santorum. I appreciate that he’s a passionate defender of his particular brand of conservative ideology, and I appreciate that he’s a dogged campaigner willing to do what a lot of other pols mentioned frequently as presidential contenders don’t have the stomach for. Santorum ran a campaign on pure guts and will in 2012, and he went farther than virtually anybody thought he would as the “insurgent” conservative alternative to Mitt Romney that year.

Virtually anybody, that is. Our buddy Quin Hillyer, who’s a huge Santorum supporter, points out he was the guy saying way back in 2010 that Santorum was a viable dark horse for 2012. Quin also has some ideas about a 2016 Santorum run which tend to the unique, but we’ll get to that shortly.

But back to today’s AmSpec post. I panned the idea of a 2016 Santorum run, mostly because he can serve the cause of “traditional” America more effectively outside of the political realm…

He might be thinking. He ought to think again.

Santorum is the wrong guy for 2016, and 2016 is the wrong project for Santorum, for one key reason.

Politics is downstream from culture.

Andrew Breitbart is the most famous recent purveyor of that American truism, but the Right is slowly waking up to the fact that the loss of nearly all the vehicles driving American culture to the Left has had a devastating effect on conservative electability. The loss of academia puts many if not most Millennial voters out of Republican reach. The inability to penetrate the TV, movie, and record industry outside of a few redoubts like country music makes low-information voters almost monolithically Democrat. The ghettoization of conservative media into talk radio, Fox News, and the conservative blogosphere insures that conservative politicians will be hounded by loud accusations of bigotry and worse.

Santorum knows this. If he didn’t, he wouldn’t have taken a job as the CEO of EchoLight Studios, a Christian film production company, back in June of 2013. EchoLight is one of a small but growing number of firms focused on producing cultural content extolling the virtues of traditional American culture in a sea of rot.

Hollywood-driven leftist decadence didn’t become the norm overnight. It took a decades-long onslaught to produce a culture where films like Elysium and White House Down aren’t universally rejected as scandalous anti-American propaganda, and the problem won’t be solved overnight.

One year and one Christmas film isn’t enough to change the equation. If Santorum truly wants to save America, building EchoLight into the conservative answer to Universal or Paramount would be an excellent start. He might even consider leading the company out of the “Christian” box and into a larger mission of telling the stories Hollywood won’t tell.

I then offered a couple of ideas about feature films Santorum could make that would expose the hypocrisy and cynicism of the institutional and activist Left. There is an audience for well-made movies which play the Erin Brockovich/Norma Rae/Promised Land style of storytelling back at those people, and the Left is by no means immune from the Alinskyite “make them live by their own rules” assault.

A couple of months ago at the Heritage Foundation’s Resource Bank conference in New Orleans, perhaps the best speaker was a man named Jeremy Boreing, who is Bill Whittle’s partner in Declaration Entertainment and a moviemaker in his own right. Boreing’s message was that the great failing of conservatism was its inability to properly tell a story to the public, and this failing was magnified by the fact that the conservative’s story is the best one ever told. Per Boreing, the conservative story is The Hero’s Journey – the ability of man to rise from his original circumstances, however meager, to greatness through sheer wit, will, pluck, discipline and desire. Hollywood, if it wants to make successful films, is forced to tell that story over and over again (Luke Skywalker in Star Wars, Frodo Baggins in the Lord Of The Rings) and is then forced to apologize by way of awful sequels and leftist “message” films the studios know won’t make money. Hollywood itself is slowly dying, and not because of the loss of DVD sales – Hollywood is dying for the same reason newspapers are dying; namely that the public doesn’t want what they’re selling. Those leftist “message” films and the shlocky sequels are frequent bombs, but the people who run Hollywood are addicted to forcing them on an uninterested public.

And here is Santorum, with a movie company. The opportunity to turn EchoLight into a powerful force in reshaping American culture is one which very few people in politics will ever have, and yet he’s talking about throwing it away on a presidential run?

That makes me angry. It suggests to me that Rick Santorum is more interested in having coercive power over his fellow man by way of winning an election than he is in earning cultural power in society by way of producing art and message. Steve Jobs did more to change the world than any two-bit politician ever dreamed, and Jobs never forced anyone to do anything. That is greatness. For Santorum to ditch his opportunity to tell the greatest story ever told to a public starving for it is anything but great.

And Santorum is the wrong man for the GOP in 2016. Yes, the party should still represent social conservatives, and yes, the party should still extol traditional values like work and family. Santorum’s bona fides on those issues are solid.

But because too many conservatives take the same half-serious attitude that Santorum is showing with his 2016 flirtations about winning the culture within the culture rather than through political power, the old ways of pushing a social conservative message to the electorate in a presidential contest simply don’t work anymore. This country’s culture has been badly polluted by the same kinds of people that 60 years ago were being blacklisted by Hollywood amid the Cold War for being on the opposite side, and now it’s conservatives who must be counter-culture and revolutionary.

Revolutionaries and counter-culturalists don’t get to operate by traditional methods, and conservatives can’t just get a few statutes passed at the state legislature to fix a cultural problem. That has proven to be counterproductive over and over again. Calling for more of the same, which Santorum has a penchant for doing and seems not to have an idea how to get beyond (here’s a good example), doesn’t win elections.

You can’t just ban abortions. You have to make the country recognize the depravity and violence and lies of the abortion industry. The recently crowd-funded documentary on Kermit Gosnell will be worth more than some state law that generates pointless court cases and helps the Left raise money to keep the killing going.

You can’t just fight gay marriage. You have to promote real marriage in a country where it’s dying. Gay marriage is a mess, but it affects less than three percent of the population. Much more than that is trolling barrooms and strip clubs in a vain attempt at replacing love with sex. You have to reach those people and try to lead them to a better path to happiness and stability and family – but you can’t do it with coercion, and you can’t do it by shaming them. You have to sell them. You have to tell them stories to move the mind and heart.

The Right doesn’t know how to do these things, but many within the Republican Party are finally waking up at least to the necessity of learning, and making the attempt to reclaim the culture. Within politics, there are ways to work within what we have to produce a positive result but Santorum’s persona is not suitable to the message.

A successful 2016 Republican candidate must be able to reach those voters in the Democrat coalition who are disaffected by the shameful results of the Obama presidency, and peel them off using an approach which acknowledges their interests and then offers better ways to serve them.

Pollsters will tell you that while the notion of “big government” is a loser with the public, all the elements of “big government” remain popular. This is presented as some sort of paradox which cements the status quo in place. But that’s an untruth. What those polls suggest is the public wants the services big government provides to be provided, and that’s all. And in fact, there is a political market for that candidate who can present a vision for the supply of those services that severs them from the coercion and incompetence of the leviathan state.

This is all wrapped up in the concept we talk about all the time in these pages that our current governmental model is outdated and obsolete, and we need to build a 21st century Information Age government to match the society we live in. In any event, the GOP must find a nominee who can speak in terms to moving past the stale old debate and presenting ways to give the public the services it wants without the shoddy provider it’s accustomed to.

In other words, opening up the federal bureaucracy to the Steve Jobses of the world and asking them to innovate to create markets where incompetent systems currently reside.

The VA scandal? Why on earth aren’t our veterans being given access to the best private healthcare in the world? With what is spent on a single-payer healthcare system for veterans, surely the government could pay premiums for health insurance  – or perhaps create experimental healthcare models tailored to their needs – private companies could market to our heroes. No waiting lists, no needless deaths. No uncaring clockwatchers in the bureaucracy soaking up our money and killing our veterans with neglect.

Public education? Trash it completely. If you believe the best way to train children for the 21st century is the maintenance of a 19th century Prussian system of education crafted to build soldiers for the military, you’re a fool. The endless debates about religion in schools and now Common Core are pointless, and they thoroughly miss the mark when homeschoolers are boasting of 12-year olds who can do advanced calculus.

The Democrats are failures. They’re in office because the post-Reagan boilerplate conservative presentation is worse. Santorum, unfortunately, wears that brand. His supporters hate to admit it, and struggle desperately to excuse it, but he lost a 59-41 race as an incumbent Senator from Pennsylvania in 2006. You’re neither new nor fresh in 2016 when that is your electoral record.

Hillyer has a different take on Santorum, of course. Hillyer sees his good marks and thinks the characterization of his man as a “big-government conservative” and a SoCon scold is unfair.

The mystery, the conundrum, is why the pundits continue to repeat the same mistake of underestimating Santorum. One would think they would instead try to figure out the reasons for his successes, so they won’t be burned again.

Let’s zip through three different aspects of Santorum’s appeal: first, his new book; second, a what if look back at his 2012 campaign; and finally, very briefly, a look ahead at 2016. In the interest of full disclosure, I should note that Santorum endorsed and campaigned for me when I ran for Congress last year, but this analysis is consistent with what I’ve been writing for well over a decade.

Fortunately, Patrick Brennan already has done a great job introducing NRO readers to the essence of Blue Collar Conservatives. Wrote Brennan:

[Santorum is] tapping into a rising trend in the conservative movement: the realization that the solutions of the Reagan years don’t match up with today’s problems, and that conservatives need reform-minded ideas that focus on working Americans.

This isn’t a new idea for Santorum: In his 2005 book, he derides his deficit-obsessed GOP colleagues in the Senate as essentially “cheap liberals,” and he proudly worked on a number of anti-poverty bills while a legislator. He even turned his Senate office into a welfare-to-work program: He describes in his book how, when setting up his constituent office in depressed Harrisburg, Pa., he hired five employees who were on welfare. One of them, a single mother, risked losing her subsidized child care by taking the job, and could swing it only by finding family members who were able to help take care of her kids.

More broadly, Santorum for decades has been making the same critique of Republican rhetoric that Alabama’s Senator Jeff Sessions has finally gotten attention for pounding home in the past year or two. At the heart of his approach, as he writes in his book, is this:

We need to think about, listen to, and talk about the jobholder as well [as the entrepreneur]. If conservatives got the vote of every job creator in the country, we’d still lose. We must earn a large proportion of the votes of jobholders, because there are far more of them.

Santorum’s book is admirably replete with specific policy suggestions that fit this template of a conservatism for jobholders, along with his uniquely emphasized (and perhaps a bit too repetitive) linkage between the erosion of traditional values and the economic plight of non-professionals. This was one of the things the media missed in 2012: When Santorum spoke about social mores during his presidential battle, he did so not as a scold but, instead, almost always in the context of economics, as in his mantra that “the most effective antipoverty tool is a combination of work, education, and marriage.” His new book, in a fashion more enjoyably readable than most political manifestos, effectively explores the implications of that thesis both for policy and for politics.

It’s a fair point. Santorum isn’t without ideas, and he isn’t incorrect in saying that living social conservatism is an antidote to poverty.

My criticism is that this is no longer an effective political argument. The Left has mastered the means of its defeat. The Left will respond to Santorum’s message and demonize it as racist, because for some reason blacks and Hispanics aren’t capable of marriage, steady work and responsible parenting, and unfeeling, because to work is somehow to give in to exploitation by greedy capitalists. And these are absurdities, but given the horror of modern culture they find purchase with low-information voters.

No, you have to make a cultural argument in favor of work, education and marriage. You have to win that argument in film, on TV, in music, in art. You have to build a society through the non-coercive societal vehicles available to the public which wants what you want.

Everyone knows American culture is in swift decline. Everyone recognizes that if your children are idolizing Beyonce and Nicki Minaj rather than Condoleeza Rice and Gabby Douglas, you have a problem. But you can’t replace something, no matter how awful, with nothing.

Produce cultural content of artistic value and moral advance, and you will win the public over. I wish Santorum, and his political supporters like Quin, would recognize that his best contribution to his country lies in the opportunity he already has, rather than the one he won’t cease pursuing.

About Author

MacAoidh

MacAoidh

MacAoidh is the Gaelic spelling of Hayride publisher Scott McKay's last name. It's pronounced "Mac-AYE." McKay has published The Hayride since December 2009.

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