Rick Perlstein: Santorum's 'Freedom' is Pretty Much Slavery





Rick Perlstein is the author of Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America.

Rick Santorum got high marks for his near-victory speech in Iowa. In the Washington Post, E.J. Dionne called it "by far the best speech Tuesday night." Santorum's address impressed me, too, but for a different reason: his astonishing endorsement of feudalism, wrapped up in a soaring tribute to something he called "freedom." A sharper illustration of the bad faith of at the heart of conservative rhetoric I never have seen in all my life.

He began by doing what conservative presidential candidates always do in this season of economic privation: talked about his family's one-time economic privation. It wasn't off the cuff. "As you know," he said, "I do not speak from notes, but there's a couple of things I want to say that are a little more emotional, so I'm going to read them as I wrote them." And what were the words he so carefully wrote to read at this, his moment of triumph? That his grandfather came to the United States from Italy in 1925: "because Mussolini had been in power now three years, and he had figured out that fascism was something that would crush his spirit and freedom and give his children something less than he wanted for them." He came because—why else?—he loved freedom....

"He left to the coal fields of Southern Pennsylvania. He worked in the mine at a company town, got paid with coupons, he used to call them."...

To put it plainly: miners like Rick Santorum's grandfather were enslaved to their companies, tied by feudal bonds to the company towns where they lived and worked. First off, quite simply, because they had no money to go elsewhere (remember, they didn't get paid in money, but in coupons only redeemable at the "single local general store"; and how can you move if you don't have cash-money?). And secondly, yet more sinisterly, corrupt accounting systems typically kept families perpetually in debt—making moving to another place of one's choosing, the basic act of a free human being, a jailing offense. There was no "freedom." No market economy. This was debt slavery....



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