Conservatives may have fiercely resented Barack Obama's "bitter clingers" remarks from 2008, but Rick Santorum's presidential campaign increasingly seems to take it for granted that Obama was right.
Ask yourself: For whose ears was Santorum's "snob" remark intended?
Surely not for actual young people facing the actual 2012 job market. They know well what the future holds for people with only high school degrees. Since the recession commenced, young Americans have surged into higher education, and especially into community colleges. According to a report last year by the American Association of Community Colleges:
Enrollments at community colleges—the largest sector of higher education with close to 44 percent of all U.S. undergraduates—have increased for eight of the past 10 years, but the prolonged recession has spurred recent dramatic enrollment spikes. From fall 2008 to fall 2009, enrollments were up an average 11 percent nationally, and from 2007-2009 enrollments increased close to 17 percent, according to AACC.
Total enrollments have grown by 1.4 million students since 2007, when the recession began, bringing the total number of credit students to about 8.2 million students. Community colleges also enroll an estimated minimum 5 million non-credit students.
Now comes the odd part: Tea Party activists are 50% more likely than the general population to have a college degree themselves.
That 40% level of college education becomes even more impressive when you recall how old Tea Party activists are: 41% of them are over 50, vs 33% for the general population.
The older you go in the population distribution, the fewer degrees you find. So a population that is 50% more likely to be over 50 years old—yet also 50% more likely to have a college degree—that's a pretty elite bunch.
So why do they hate college so much?
Rick Santorum's speech gives the answer:
"Not all folks are gifted in the same way. Some people have incredible gifts with their hands. Some people have incredible gifts and ... want to work out there making things. President Obama once said he wants everybody in America to go to college. What a snob.
There are good decent men and women who go out and work hard every day and put their skills to test that aren’t taught by some liberal college professor trying to indoctrinate them. Oh, I understand why he wants you to go to college. He wants to remake you in his image. I want to create jobs so people can remake their children into their image, not his.”
That indictment makes two points:
1) College over-educates people who are more fit to work with their hands.
2) College indoctrinates people, changing their values to more closely resemble President Obama's.
Behind the "snob" remark is a dislike for two different but inter-related groups: the less affluent (who should be working with their hands) and the young (who should be listening to their parents, not some liberal college professor).
The remark is powerful because it encapsulates in one word the most fundamental Tea Party emotions: anxiety about those economically beneath them, estrangement from those younger than them.
But the remark also illustrates the Tea Party's disconnect from reality. Except in the rarest cases, to work with one's hands in modern America is to face a lifetime of very low-wage work. (And the exceptions do things that I suspect Tea Party activists would dislike almost as much as they dislike college: artisanal cheese-making, restoration of antiques, high-end floral arrangement, etc.—and anyway people who do those things typically have at least some higher education and often quite a lot.)
And of course, the remark also and finally illustrates the utter impossibility of a modern politician saying anything the Onion did not say first.