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The Santorum Effect: Why Culture Debates Are Recession-Proof

Rick Santorum is right: sex and civil rights are important public policy issues.


Rick Santorum is taking his turn as the GOP hopeful giving Mitt Romney a run for his money. After pundits had all but written Santorum off, the anti-gay, anti-reproductive rights candidate made a splash in Iowa last week by coming in second in one of the closest Iowa caucuses in history. Since then, he's owned the news cycle. Horse-race analysts are ruminating his electability. Social conservatives are rallying around him. Liberal brains are exploding over his retro, extremist cultural politics; it didn't take long to unearth that Santorum would like to see a world where both sodomy and birth control are illegal.

Yet everyone admits that, like Ron Paul, Newt Gingrich, and Herman Cain before him, Santorum has little to no chance of beating Romney—or Obama. So why has he struck such a chord among GOP voters and progressives alike? Why have videos exposing his racial biases and anti-gay attitudes gone viral and inspired hashtags? It's simple: Even in a recession, social issues like sex and race are extremely resonant. And Santorum is the only candidate talking about them.


Every other GOP candidate has been advised to stick to the economy, to steer their speeches in the direction of "job creators," "out-of-control spending," and other buzzwords in order to tap into Americans' financial angst. Even Michele Bachmann, who spent a decade of her political career as a social conservative, (mostly) stayed on script and touted her Tea Party credentials on the economy. Cultural topics are Santorum's way of distinguishing himself; in an October interview, he declared that “all those issues"—sex, reproduction, gay rights—"are going to be front and center with me." Later in the interview, he owned this as his defining characteristic: "I know most presidents don’t talk about these things and maybe people don’t want us to talk about these things. But…these are important public policy issues.”

Thomas Frank famously claimed in What's the Matter with Kansas? that Republicans routinely sell religious, socially conservative voters on hot-button issues like abortion and gay marriage in order to instill economic policies that ultimately hurt the working class. But this view classifies cultural politics as silly and secondary; on the contrary, they take center stage in our daily lives. Santorum is right: Sex and civil rights are important public policy issues, affecting our family, our work and social relationships, our bedroom activities. They also don't exist in a separate world from economics; Santorum's "black people"/"blah people" controversy was in the context of a discussion of whether to give poor Americans welfare. In the last few months, Santorum has brought issues like abortion, birth control, gay rights, and racialized poverty to the surface of the GOP race. That's given Christian conservatives a candidate that speaks to their moral beliefs, and made liberals livid.

Santorum may make headway in South Carolina, but many GOP voters say they'll choose the candidate they deem most likely to win, which favors the economics-focused, relatively moderate Mitt Romney. But regardless of who faces Obama this November, the Santorum hubbub is a reminder that the issues we hold dear—issues of sex and race and civil rights—are absolutely recession-proof.

Photo via (cc) Flickr user Gage Skidmore.

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