I started Rick Santorum’s It Takes a Family: Conservatism and the Common Good.
So why am I reading and blogging about this book, when Rick Santorum is out of the race for the Republican nomination for President? First of all, I think that Santorum has valuable insights, whether or not I agree with all that he has to say. Second, I’ve been wanting to read this book ever since I first saw Santorum talk about it on C-Span, and that was long before he ran for President. In fact, he was still a Senator at the time! Santorum in that interview was criticizing individualistic conservatism and promoting a communitarian sort of conservatism, and (even though I was not yet disenchanted with conservatism) I admired that kind of outside-of-the-box thinking.
And, third, while I respect Santorum’s belief that the nuclear family and moral values are good for society, I wonder how exactly he thinks that government policy can uphold those things. When he was running for President, Santorum said that Republicans should not only focus on tax cuts, but should also support strong families. But how exactly does he think that Republicans in power can support strong families? Can they seriously turn back the clock to the 1950’s? I wanted to read this book to see where Santorum believes that the government can help families, and where he believes that the government is harming the family. I also wanted to see if his family policy encompasses more than opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage.
In my post here, I will feature and comment on three passages that stood out to me.
1. On pages ix-x, Santorum states: “I came to the uncomfortable realization that conservatives were not only reluctant to spend government dollars on the poor: they hadn’t even thought much about what might work better. I often described my conservative colleagues during that time as simply ‘cheap liberals.’ My own economically modest personal background and my faith had taught me to care for those less fortunate…”
I think that the sub-text here is that strong families can help the poor. At the same time, things that Santorum says elsewhere in my reading of this book thus far add nuance to Santorum’s argument. Santorum appears to think that strong families are good for society, period, whether or not they make people financially well-off, and the reason is that healthy families teach moral values and provide children with emotional security. Santorum acknowledges that there are rich families that are not good families, for the father is so busy that he fails to spend time with his children. And Santorum also compares immigrant Latino teens with Latino teens born in the U.S., stating that, although the immigrant Latino families are poorer, their families and moral values are stronger, and so they are less likely to engage in violence. Santorum believes that a strong economy can help families, but he does not think that money is where everything is at. (UPDATE: On page 422, Santorum states: “Poor families, after all, will most likely be healthier if they are wealthier.”)
2. On page x, Santorum states: “My district and [the welfare-reform] bill started me down the road to building up a conservative philosophy within which we could use government policies and dollars as a catalyst to renew and re-form the poor families and communities in our country.”
This passage reminded me of how some people have characterized neo-conservatism: as a belief system that holds that the government should encourage and incentivize doing the right thing, such as getting married. To some, that sort of sentiment can sound pretty patronizing and condescending!
In my reading of the book so far, I have not encountered Santorum’s policy proposals for strong families, but my impression is definitely that he wants for people to live in a certain way. He believes that couples should get married rather than live together apart from marriage, for many couples who live together end up getting a divorce. (Santorum even says that the shotgun marriages of the old days were sometimes a good thing, and that made me think of Little House on the Prairie, in which Nellie and Percival marry each other, without having known each other that long. And that turned out all right!) Santorum laments that, in inner cities, social service agencies do not encourage young couples to get married, but they simply require the father of the baby to sign a paternity establishment paper so that the authorities can come after him for child support; for Santorum, that demonstrates the agencies’ low expectations of people in the inner city. Santorum also dislikes No-Fault divorce, and he believes that two-parent families are preferable to single-parent families—-although he acknowledges that there are single-parent families that are healthy, and two-parent families that are unhealthy.
Santorum appears to want for the government to encourage marriage. At the same time, when he acknowledges that there are two-parent families that are not healthy, that makes me think that there are limits to what the government can do. The government can encourage people to get married, but can it make the couples good parents?
3. On page 16, Santorum states the following: “Liberal social policy has never put an emphasis on the family because the village elders, frankly, don’t believe in the importance of strong, traditional families…They think of society as fundamentally made up of individuals guided by elite and ‘expert’ organizations like government, not the antiquated, perhaps uneducated, independent family. The village elders want society to be individualistic, because a society composed only of individuals responds better to ‘expert’ command and control. Your father or your grandmother (or your priest or rabbi) may give you advice that contradicts the latest ‘expert’ wisdom. The village elders just don’t want such competition.”
By “village elders”, Santorum essentially means the liberal elite, which includes government, the media, academia, and other institutions. He distinguishes this elite from your liberal neighbor down the street, who may be a really good parent, and he states that there are many village elders who don’t have families of their own. Santorum also observes that even some liberals agree that the decline of the family is a serious problem, for he refers to a conversation that he had with staff at a college newspaper in which liberal students identified the breakup of the family as the greatest problem in society today. But Santorum still believes that a liberal elite is part of the problem in American society. I agree and disagree with this view. Where I agree is that I think that the entertainment industry perpetuates a cheap attitude towards sex, and I believe that this is deleterious to society. Where I disagree is that I do not accept Santorum’s characterization of the liberal elite as amoral, for I think that the liberal elite is guided by a morality, which includes helping the poor and the disadvantaged.
Where do I stand on Santorum’s statement that the village elders do not want competition from the family? I think that there is a place for expert wisdom and also for family wisdom, and yet both experts and families are flawed. Experts are not always right, as we can see from the changes in expert opinion over the years. Yet, there is something valuable in looking to studies for guidance, something that Santorum himself does in this book. And families can be repositories of prejudice, yet they can also be places to draw from the common sense and experience of one’s elders.