Reuters

Rick Santorum is missing the bigger picture when he tries to align himself with rural America.

Rick Santorum has a problem with cities.

“If you look at where my Republican opponent has won, it’s always in and around the cities,” he told a campaign-trail crowd over the weekend in vacation hotspot Osage Beach, Missouri, pop. 4,351. For many conservatives, that’s a cultural trouble sign—despite the fact that when Santorum says Mitt Romney wins “the areas the Democrats win, and I win the areas the Republicans win,” he’s unintentionally warning Republicans that he himself may not be so competitive in a general election.

So why is Santorum throwing cities under the bus? It’s not just to pander to rural primary voters. No matter how enthusiastic, they can’t deliver must-win states like Illinois, where two thirds of the population resides in the Chicago metropolitan area. Nor is Santorum simply speaking in code calibrated to appeal to Republicans who don’t like the kind of diversity that typifies America’s big (and heavily Democratic) cities.

The truth is subtler than that. Actually, it’s staring us in the face. But because of effective messaging by Democrats, it’s mostly just a conservative instinct instead of a fully formed campaign issue. At the level of principle, what actually bothers Republicans most about America’s big cities is the stark division between rich and poor.

Surprised? To be sure, Republicans are often less troubled than Democrats by a wide national spectrum of income and wealth. Free-market thinkers assume, on the basis of good evidence, that a society where people occupy all rungs of the economic ladder is probably a relatively freer society. Cultural conservatives tend to agree—not because they’re die-hard capitalists (though frequently they are), but because they recognize the essential role that a middle class plays in moderating and ameliorating the political consequences of substantial class disparities.

What’s politically scary about cities from a culturally conservative perspective is that Democrats have built such huge bases there by building powerful coalitions among America’s richest and poorest voters. Nowadays, the wealthy and the impoverished aren’t the most conservative of constituents when it comes to culture (even if marriage, increasingly, is a luxury good). And not just religious Republicans are concerned that the middle class is uniquely dependent on social traditionalism. This is the thesis of Coming Apart, Charles Murray’s much-discussed book on the roots of downward mobility among middle-class whites.

Even though neoconservatism made its biggest impact on the Republican party as an urban-renewal movement, Rick Santorum—like too many Republicans—is missing the most important point about the deepest implications of changing city cultures. Put bluntly, what the right fears about cities is happening everywhere, not just in states that tip Democratic because of their big cities. It’s taking root in the heartland’s metropolitan areas, too—including suburbs. A study last year authored by Stanford sociologist Sean Reardon showed that middle classes are shrinking and upper classes are self-segregating in some 90 percent of large and mid-sized metro areas, measured from 2000 to 2007. That includes red states, though you wouldn’t know it from the Republican rhetoric that makes headlines.

Dig deeper, and you will find conservatives who grasp the extent of the problem. The news media does have an interest in caricaturing Republicans’ view of the urban/rural divide, but Santorum’s use of the problem as a knock on Romney demonstrates how easy it is for Republicans to play to type.

Several thousand years ago, Socrates and Plato warned that citizens who loved money above all would divide into rich and poor, with class war and mob rule the unhappy result. That’s a message Republicans still have a chance to deliver this election cycle. But it’ll take a change in the way they think about cultural politics to do it.

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