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Where Victors Are Victims: Santorum and Republican 'Dissent'

Recently, while cavorting with a solemn band of pastors in McKinney, Texas, presidential hopeful Rick Santorum lashed out at the “secular left” as an atheist plague distilled into the human form of President Obama and his boosters. In doing so Santorum anted up what we might call a frothy mixture of religion and politics that is the byproduct of election-year hyperbole and Republican “dissent.”
 
While hobnobbing in the friendly company of religious conservatives in the Lone Star State—and doing his fair share of ostentatious praying for the cameras, too—Santorum found his groove: “The intolerance of the left, the intolerance of the secular ideology, it is a religion unto itself, it is just not a biblical based religion, and it is the most intolerant.”
 
He then went old-school, linking the US left to sickle-wielding Commies while putting forth religious conservatives as dissident citizens: “Just like we saw from the days of the atheists of the Soviet Union, it is completely intolerant of dissent. They fear dissent. Why? Because the dissent comes from folks who use reason, common sense, and divine revelation and they want no part of any of those things.” He went on to assert secular lefties “want their world view to be imposed without question, and if you question them, you’re haters, you’re bigots, and you should be as a result of that ostracized from the public square.”
 
Such aggrieved avowals are more than hyperbolic electioneering chatter. They chime with a longstanding trend among powerful social conservatives to reposition themselves as a persecuted minority.
 
Turns out Santorum was channeling his inner Himmelfarb. Gertrude Himmelfarb is a conservative icon who blended the seemingly incompatible “common sense” and “divine intervention” into a deafening specter of political persecution. Paul Krugman recently noted Himmelfarb’s penchant to decry the erosion of Victorian values and virtues. But her influence extends even further, to her skillful sleight-of-rhetoric inversions that make the powerful appear powerless and the exalted religious authorities appear to be victimized political marginalia.
 
In Himmelfarb’s book One Nation, Two Cultures, first published in 1999—spouse of neoconservative granaddaddy Irving Kristol and mother of right-wing powerhouse William Kristol—put forth many of the arguments Republican presidential candidates are proffering today: culture, rather than class, divides America; people in the US are transforming into European-style, moral zombies; academia is a perilous pit of liberal relativism where we’re discouraged from taking firm stands rooted in faith.
 
She also argued there is a “dissident culture” that eschews pre-marital sex, home-schools their kids, turns off their smut-laden televisions, and engages politics based on these principles and practices. This is all dog-whistle music for the Christian Right, and Santorum is now blowing that whistle with all the power in his lungs. So when he yammers about Obama’s “phony ideology,” as he did recently, he’s doggedly dog-whistling to the “dissident culture.”
 
For many, such a conception of dissent is compelling, and it may galvanize more social conservatives to head to the voting booth singing Santorum. In fact, the word “dissent” has religious roots, entering English in the late 16th century as both a general expression meaning disagreement in outlook and as a specific word meaning difference of opinion in regard to religious doctrine or worship. Dissent with a capital D refers to those who actively opposed the hegemony of the Church of England in the Seventeenth Century. These Dissenters were members of Protestant denominations—primarily the Baptists Presbyterians, Quakers, and the Independents—who eventually combined to overthrow King Charles I and organized the English Commonwealth.
 
When read through this historical frame where religion is in the foreground, Himmelfarb and Santorum’s vision of dissent has some merit. However, it also circumvents a central dimension of political dissent: contesting power. After all, these people have political and institutional power as well as privileged access to immense resources. And thus the victors are cloaked as victims.
 
Santorum is more interested in converting issues of fact into articles of faith. Thus, climate change is something you either believe in or don’t, not a phenomenon that can be detected and measured. Recently, Santorum has taken to habitually imitating the infamous global-warming denier Sen. James Inhofe, dismissing climate change as a “hoax.” While on the campaign trail in Colorado, Santorum attacked Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney, essentially for taking physics and chemistry seriously, at least in previous political lives. He said his Republican rivals had “bought into the science of man-made global warming, and they bought into the remedy, both of which are bogus.” He declared, “I’ve never supported even the hoax of global warming.” Gulp.
 
This is how the slippery politicos take matters of scientific fact and contort them into political opinion. By channeling their precooked ‘beliefs’ through the filter of dissent, they can claim underdog status on the road to electoral shenaniganizing. Voters beware of pseudo-dissident citizenship designed to cull their political sympathy.

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