What Is Rick Santorum's Problem with the Term 'Middle Class'?

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He's twice objected that it divides Americans -- a silly ideological word game we're probably doomed to endure going forward.



In American politics, praising the middle class is generally uncontroversial. But over the weekend Rick Santorum chided his GOP primary competitors, and Mitt Romney specifically, for using the formulation. Here's his complaint:

I don't think Governor Romney's plan is particularly bold, it -- or is particularly focused on where the problems are in this country. And the governor used a term earlier that I shrink from. It's one that I don't think we should be using as Republicans, "middle class." There are no classes in America. We are a country that don't allow for titles. We don't put people in classes. There may be middle-income people, but the idea that somehow or another we're going to buy into the class-warfare arguments of Barack Obama is something that should not be part of the Republican lexicon. That's their job -- divide, separate, put one group against another. That's not the language that I'll use as president. I'll use the language of bringing people together.
He has previously attacked President Obama with the same talking point. "You'll never hear the word 'class' come out of my mouth," he said. "Classes? We specifically rejected that. Look in the Constitution."

So is it true? Has Santorum really never used the term middle class? In fact, it appears on at least one of his campaign flyers, and the phrase isn't so offensive that he avoided its appearance on his Web site. The Progressive Influence notes that he also used the term while in the U.S. Senate, here, here, and here. Even so, he's used it surprisingly little over the years for a politician, so much so that it seems as though he consciously avoids the locution.

In September, a progressive blogger wondered aloud if it was a thing for conservatives to avoid the term "middle class:"

The 2008 presidential election was all about the middle-class [sic]. Americans worried about how the recession would affect the middle-class, whether or not the middle-class was in decline, and what could be done to revive the middle-class. What's strange, however, is that only one side was using the term "middle-class." Take a look at the debate transcripts. In the first presidential debate, Democratic candidate Barack Obama says "middle-class" three times. In the second presidential debate, Democratic candidate Barack Obama says "middle-class" six times. In the third presidential debate, Democratic candidate Barack Obama says "middle-class" five times. Republican candidate John McCain doesn't mention the middle-class once.

This pattern isn't just confined to 2008. Compare, for instance, Democratic Senator John Kerry and Republican president George W. Bush. Mr. Bush, like Mr. McCain, didn't use the word "middle-class" once during his acceptance of the 2000 presidential nomination. On the other hand, Mr. Kerry spoke of the "middle-class" eight times during his acceptance of the 2004 presidential nomination. The pattern continues today. In the most recent Republican primary debate, the word "middle-class" once again was nonexistent.

Republicans do seem to use synonyms for middle-class. Senator John McCain spoke about "middle-income" individuals three times during the debates. In the most recent Republican primary debate, former Senator Rick Santorum talked about the "broad middle" three times, and former Governor Tim Pawlenty used the term "middle-income" once. (President George W. Bush didn't use either term in his acceptance speech, on the other hand.) Nevertheless, there is a strange reluctance amongst the Republican Party to talk about the middle-class. Perhaps Republicans don't like the word "class." They might think it has a relationship to class warfare, even though the term "middle-class" is a very neutral word.

In my experience, most Americans hear and use the term "middle class" without thinking that anyone is implying a formal class system, let alone trying to stoke "class warfare." So I'd put this in the category of obscure talking points that some movement conservatives adopt instead of taking the time to formulate more substantive and serious critiques of their political opponents.

It is a particularly poor fit for Santorum, given that every positive story in the conservative press written about the man casts him as a "champion of the working class" with "blue collar roots." But in the same way that you'll hear the phrase "the Democrat Party" on the right, my suspicion is that now that this word choice has been aired in a presidential race, it may endure as a signaling mechanism, causing the ideological usage divide to grow by one phrase.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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