Opinion: Waitress Moms, College Snobs, and the Tug-of-War for Populist America

There's a left-right fight for the populist soul of America.

Over the past three years, the right-wing Tea Party seized populist rhetoric to call for throwing the government elites off the backs of liberty-loving Americans. In the past six months, the anti-corporate Occupy energy occupied the rhetoric, challenging a system to work for the 99 percent, not only the 1 percent.

This tug-of-war will play out repeatedly through the presidential election, and the debate over college education was just the most recent example.

President Obama, in a populist spirit, included in his State of the Union address a call for policy that would allow more Americans to afford college. Arguing that "higher education can't be a luxury," that it's "an economic imperative that every family in America should be able to afford," he warned the university system: "If you can't stop tuition from going up, the funding you get from taxpayers will go down."

This attention to the needs, aspirations, and resources of working-class Americans had been seen as part of the President's populist lean...which made former Senator Rick Santorum's comments all the more surprising when, over the weekend, he called the President a "snob" for believing everyone should go to college.

If you want to be very generous, you can find the agreeable kernel in Santorum's argument. There are many professions that we respect and value in America that don't require a higher education. They should be compensated and respected in ways that allow those working Americans to build solid lives. For many Americans, professional training, apprenticeship programs and real-world experiences might be a more successful route than a 2-year or 4-year academic track.

Santorum provocatively chose to go about his argument in a different way—a way that just doesn't make sense. In America, labor unions are among the most vocal advocates calling for a living wage for people who choose vocational rather than academic paths, yet Santorum would never side himself with organized labor. President Obama famously worked as a community organizer, helping local leaders, activists and neighbors—many of whom may not have had a higher education—take control of their future. But of course, Santorum would deride that work.

Surely Santorum, the graduate of multiple institutions of higher learning, knows that he's not picking a real fight here.

Colleges have their issues. Students are graduating with phenomenal debt and limited job prospects. Graduates finding themselves making choices in service of debt, not in pursuit of a better life, as described in Nick Pinto's article in The Village Voice. How one gets from that problem to demonizing college—as opposed to offering policy solutions about tuition and debt servicing—is a leap of bad faith.

On The Takeaway this morning, reporter Anna Sale described the new swing voter fad: The Waitress Mom. Twenty percent of white women work in the restaurant industry and Republicans see a chance to make inroads with them.

But this approach by Santorum will not win the Waitress Mom vote in the general election, even if he finds his improbable path out of the primary.

First of all, Waitress Moms don't want a man in a sweater vest telling them to stop using birth control. It will be hard for Santorum to start conversations with working women when he doesn't respect their role in the workplace, their equal abilities, or their right to control their own health.

Beyond that, on the economic front, Santorum just does not have a message that helps them. Instead of fixating on college though, he could advocate for an increase in minimum wage or living wage. He could talk about making health care more affordable, not undoing health care reforms. He could campaign against the foreclosure mill in order to keep families in their homes and keep communities together.

Many Waitress Moms still believe in that part of the American Dream: that they can create a better life for their children. College is one route to that dream. As is being able to afford a home (or is it snobbish to want to do that?) and raise a family by working hard and playing by the rules. That's something unions have pushed for and corporate elites have pushed against. Santorum is on the wrong side of that line.

Waitress Moms emerge into the news at the same time another server is at the center of a trending story: the report of an unapologetic member of the 1 percent who left his waitress a 1 percent tip on a $130 bill...and wrote a note on the receipt that she should get a real job.

There's Rick Santorum's real snob. You can be the Party of the 1 percent, or the Party of the People. Advice to both the banker and the presidential aspirant: instead of doling out unhelpful judgments, let's invest your skilled energy in creating an economy that works for all.