Last week, Education Secretary Arne Duncan and Federal Communications Commission Chairman Julius Genachowski gave a joint interview to tout the Obama Administration’s newest initiative: the adoption of electronic textbooks in classrooms. The two pointed out the many advantages e-readers had to offer students, from their light weight to their advanced search capabilities, built-in dictionaries, and other helpful study tools. It’s an important issue. The advantages of e-textbooks are many and real. It’s good policy.
But as a political move, the initiative is a prime example of everything Obama seems to get wrong about voters: What Americans want is not a very smart president with many good ideas about everything from electronic textbooks to emissions limits. What we want is a decently intelligent president with one solid idea. Or, to borrow Isaiah Berlin’s well-known distinction, what we want is not a fox but a hedgehog.
The big idea we’d like our hedgehog to focus on is simple: community, or the belief that we are first and foremost a We and only then a collection of I’s. And the current presidential candidate who might come closest to embodying this solid idea—my hands tremble as I type this—is Rick Santorum.
Don’t get me wrong: I think Santorum is hateful. There’s no better word to describe someone who believes that homosexuality undermines the basic tenets of society, that the Constitution grants us no right to privacy, and who advised women who became pregnant as a result of rape to “make the best of a bad situation.” Electing such a man president of the United States makes as much sense as appointing Cruella de Vil to head the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.
But there’s something about Santorum that accounts, I believe, for his recent success in the Republican primaries, something that transcends his mere appeal to the most zealous of social conservatives. In word and deed, he is largely committed to the idea that most Americans live in communities, that they’ve seen these communities battered badly by deregulation, global trade, and the other angry angels of the free market, and that no policy or political statement matters unless it’s directly geared toward restoring a sense of mutual responsibility and collective well-being.
A glance at Santorum’s record as congressman and senator supports this assertion. During his first term in the Senate, for example, he helped create the Job Access and Reverse Commute program, which puts the federal government in the business of helping low-income laborers find affordable transportation from their homes, frequently located in inner cities or rural areas, to their jobs, frequently located in more affluent suburbs. Many of his fellow Republicans insisted that such business, like all business, is better left to the private sector, but Santorum wouldn’t budge. He realized that jobs didn’t mean much if job-seekers had no way of traveling from home to workplace and that what job-seekers needed was a helping hand, not the invisible hand of the market.
Even though he’s recently opposed federal involvement in the housing market, Santorum had, when free of the attention brought about by a presidential bid, once supported it: In 2000, he wrote an article for the Notre Dame Law School’s Journal of Legislation advocating government assistance to middle- and lower-income households, be it via the Federal Housing Administration or the now-tainted Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. In 1993, he broke with his party to oppose the North American Free Trade Agreement and has frequently supported the imposition of tariffs on imported goods, from steel to honey. Even his early aversion toward Americorps, the federally funded community service program, eventually turned to unequivocal support: From mocking its participants, in 1994, as a host of kumbaya-singing hippies, he had gone to saying of them, by 2006, “these energetic, mostly young people could play an important coordinating role with community and nonprofit service organizations to help build up social capital.”
Building up social capital is precisely the point of all of the aforementioned policies. More than merely helping the needy, they all serve to give individuals a sense that government is there for them not as a service provider, not as an amorphous and dispassionate custodian, but as a manifestation of our sense of shared destiny. To build trust in government, it’s not enough to advocate policies that benefit the lives of individuals—which is precisely what Obama, more than any other president in the last five decades, attempted to do with his health-care reform. In response, he was greeted by the highest rate of voter animosity in American history—81 percent of Americans, according to a Gallup poll taken six months after Obama signed his health-care bill into law.
To repair this, the next president, whoever he may be, would have to convince Americans that he, like them, cares about building communities first and foremost; that, like Berlin’s hedgehog, should be his one big idea. Santorum fits the bill. With his serious demeanor and his sweater vests, he shares most Americans’ view that life is an irrational and shared pursuit whose ultimate goal is to stick together and care for each other. When he cries out against profanities on the airwaves, for example, he’s expressing not only some religious-tinted prudishness but also a sense of outrage, shared by many secular Americans, that an institution that once adhered to principles like the Fairness Doctrine has been corrupted by greed and government and turned into a vulgar and cynical enterprise with little concern for the public good.
On the other side of the ideological divide, we find mostly foxes, leaders whose expertise lies in knowing and caring about a great many things. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Ted Kennedy, Bill Clinton, Barack Obama—all different politicians, yet all celebrated for their penchant for policy and their belief that progressive legislation has the potential to target all society’s ills and repair them, one by one, patiently and logically. Foxes are rational animals, and they often offer good solutions to all sorts of problems.
But voters aren’t rational animals, which is why they often fail to see or support these solutions. This is why someone like Santorum resonates much better than someone like Mitt Romney: Beyond his wealth and his android-like lack of social grace, Romney is a fox through and through, a politician who takes pride in attacking issues individually and logically. That’s a great approach for a venture capitalist, a governor, a law professor. It’s a terrible approach for a president. Great presidents tend to be hedgehogs.
Leaving foreign policy aside for a minute, it takes no more than a moment or two of soul-searching to realize that this dogmatic insistence on community, this sense of sacrifice for the benefit of others, this investment in organizations dedicated to preserving the rhythms of life together is what we as Jewish voters have always been about. Beyond Republican and Democrat, beyond Israel and Iran, this is the message Jewish voters should sound out repeatedly and loudly: Community comes first.
And yet, herein lies the rub for Santorum. Once we agree on this principle, the policy prescriptions follow naturally: universal health care, the universal right to marry and adopt children regardless of sexual orientation, an end to discrimination of all stripes, strong regulation of predatory corporations seeking to corrupt everything for profit from our airwaves to our land, a mandatory or richly rewarded national service program. All we need now is someone to advocate these policies as an article of faith.
Liel Leibovitz is a senior writer for Tablet Magazine and a host of the Unorthodox podcast.