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Sunday, October 17, 2021

Column: Sanctum Santorum

The David and Goliath story of last week’s Iowa Caucus continues to frazzle political analysts, most of whom wrote off Rick Santorum’s chances early in his running. That he could come within eight votes of the Mitt Romney election-industrial complex is, in reflection of his core constituency among social conservatives, nothing short of a miracle.

One puzzle piece to this effect is a curious statement caught by Slate Magazine’s John Dickerson. He quoted one Santorum supporter, a self-identifying evangelical voter, saying this: “Everyone talks about the economy, but Santorum comes at it from a different way. If we take care of the social issues and the family, the economy will come around.”

To those who believe his campaign crested for its focus on social issues, this is a rare insight into the mind of the evangelical voter.

The first time I read that I thought it weird. When I weigh candidates, I think about their platforms as a portfolio of separate issues. There are some issues I care more about than others. In this view, issues are separate. They may intersect in various ways, but they are mostly discrete entities.

If the voter quoted above is at all representative of other social conservatives, they’re not like me. Rather than a portfolio, candidate platforms are like stories. In this alternative view, the issues are arranged in a narrative order, one issue leading to another. Issues are not discrete, but continuous like a row of dominoes. If we can get our policies on social issues like marriage, contraceptives and evolution right, only then will our approaches to budget deficits, foreign policy and education work.

I don’t highlight this difference to belittle social conservatives, as if it’s silly to think issues necessarily build on one another that way. I think it’s helpful to know that folks can not only have different positions from yours, but that they also may think about the relationship between issues differently. I also want to note that this is not new.

The German social thinker Max Weber approached issues much the same way in his 1904 sociological classic, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. His spiel was that the development of capitalism in northern Europe was largely influenced by Protestant (and in particular, Calvinist) religious ideology.

Weber’s work solved an early problem in the application of economic theory. The theory tells us that people paid higher wages will work harder because they have greater incentive. In practice, this didn’t work too well. Instead, people paid higher wages worked less because they found it easier to satisfy their wants with fewer hours. As a result, capitalism couldn’t develop simply because they were able to earn more. They needed a different reason to labor in the face of higher earnings.

According to Weber, the Reformation framed the way people approached work. All jobs, even the less glamorous of professions, elicited religious devotion in the form of a “calling.” It was this work ethic, which favored saving income in the practice of piety, that initially made capitalism possible. As the Santorum supporter might say, they let religion arrange their social relationships first, and then economic growth followed.

Whether Santorum really understands this nuance is debatable — maybe he simply picked the right issues to organize a campaign around. But he would be served well to study his success. Understanding the way people think about the relationship between issues changes how you engage their support. Instead of pitching to social conservatives the promise to prioritize social issues, the domino theory of issues will likely hold more resonance. Whichever candidate gets this point will have an edge in the general election.

You can tell RAJIV NARAYAN whether writing is his calling at rrnarayan@ucdavis.edu.

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