What planet does presidential wannabe Rick Santorum live on? When it comes to grasping the situation of America’s hard-hit workaday majority, this sweater-vested ultra-right-winger is further out than Pluto.
In a recent debate, Santorum assailed a tax plan proposed by front-runner Mitt Romney. It wasn’t the plan’s details that caused Rick to stamp his tiny feet, but Romney’s expressed intent to help the “middle class.”
Tut-tut, chided the ideologically-pure Santorum, Republicans mustn’t use such language, for it creates an impression of class warfare. After all, he lectured: “There are no classes in America. We don’t put people in classes.”
Sure, Rick – today’s jobless economy, a national epidemic of union busting and wage knockdowns, absurd tax giveaways to the super-rich, the ongoing Wall Street bailout, inexcusable corporate subsides, rising poverty, the slashing of anti-poverty programs and a decade of falling incomes for the vast majority, while the elite 1 percent makes off with triple-digit increases in its wealth – there’s no class war happening. Just close your eyes, hum a happy tune ... and live on Pluto.
Meanwhile, in the same week that Santorum spoke, the Pew Research Center released a new survey showing how far removed he is from regular people’s experience and concerns. Two-thirds of Americans see “strong conflicts” between the rich and poor in our country, a stark division between those few who have wealth, power and security, and the vast majority who don’t. The few do not have the same objectives as the many, and the survey found that this class separation – yes, class – is the No. 1 source of social tension in America today.
Interestingly for the far-out Santorum, not only do 73 percent of Democrats and 68 percent of independents agree, but so do 55 percent of Republicans.
One of the hidebound myths in our culture is the Horatio Alger fantasy: You might be born poor, Bucko, but America’s the land of upward mobility – anyone with grit and gumption can scramble from the very bottom of the economic ladder all the way to the top.
At last, though, this musty myth is being dispelled, as everyone from academics to Wall Street protesters are proving that it simply isn’t true. Even prominent politicos are catching on. As one said last fall, “(Movement) up into the middle income is actually greater ... in Europe than it is in America.”
That’s no liberal talking, it’s Rick Santorum! The same guy who now says, “There are no classes in America,” was at least visiting reality just a few months ago.
While GOP leaders still try to dismiss the issue of income inequality, the mobility issue goes to the very core of America’s identity – it’s too big to deny or ignore. John Bridgeland, a former Bush aide who now heads a policy group called Opportunity Nation, says bluntly that Republicans “will feel a need to talk about a lack of mobility – a lack of access to the American Dream.”
Many recent studies confirm that our country has developed a class “stickiness” that is alarmingly dangerous to our social unity. A Pew research report finds that about 62 percent of Americans born on the top rungs of the economic ladder stay there as adults, and 65 percent born on the bottom rungs remain stuck there for life. In a ranking of nine affluent countries, Canada was tops in upward mobility and the U.S. was last.
America won’t offer a true opportunity for upward mobility unless we restore a unity of purpose among all of our people – and we can’t achieve that as long as top corporate and governmental leaders deliberately widen the chasm separating the rich from the rest of us.
Jim Hightower is a national radio commentator, columnist and author.