If you have not read The Conservative Heart, How to Build a Fairer, Happier, and More Prosperous America, by Arthur C. Brooks, buy a copy and read it now. Brooks’ work will be of interest to most as a “how to” primer for election messaging. Conservative candidates, who too often get their clocks cleaned on messaging, need to listen to what Brooks has to say. The author is more ambitious than that, however, striving for no less than the elusive secret sauce to enable conservatives to fashion a new governing majority for America.
A New Conservative Movement
Arthur Brooks is the head of the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington think tank where some of best public policy minds in the country work. His book takes a fresh look at a question that has stumped conservatives for years: how can we change the perception of voters that conservatives do not care about the poor and disadvantaged?
Mitt Romney taught conservatives why they need to be concerned about this perception when he wrote off “the 47%” who receive payments from the government. The Presidential candidate was generalizing about millions of potential voters, and in a single moment caught on hidden video perpetuated the perception that members of his party care little about regular people. How many of those 47% might have been interested in Mr. Romney’s message if he had not sounded like he was writing them off? How many of the other 53% of Americans had their votes affected by their perception of Mr. Romney’s attitude? I am one who still hopes that policy still matters for some persuadable voters in elections, but only a fool would think that undecided voters will listen to the message of a candidate they do not like. It is for conservatives who are tired of losing elections that Brooks has written this book.
Brooks rejects the ideas of the past, in which it was suggested that conservatives adopt liberal policies in order to appear more compassionate. No changes in conservative principles are needed to demonstrate compassion, Brooks argues, because conservative policies are already based on compassion for all people, including the poor. Instead, Brooks wants conservatives to take the time to understand their principles better, and that will help them to explain to the public why they should trust conservatives to govern.
Brooks leads the reader on a philosophical journey to find the conservative heart. This is not a gimmick or artifice; Brooks finds the conservative heart in the speeches and writings of conservative politicians, the writings of philosophers, interviews with thoughtful people, and things he has learned from his own life experience. What emerges is a better understanding of the values on which conservative policies are based. Brooks hopes that these values are shared by a solid majority of Americans and for that reason will form the basis of a new governing majority in America if conservatives explain their connection to conservative policies.
The New Social Movement
Brooks encourages conservatives to begin a social movement to transform America. He sees the Tea Party as the vehicle for this conservative change, but his message could be delivered to anyone who shares the broad conservative principles outlined in his book.
Brooks admires the Tea Party because it “tapped into the frustrations of millions of ordinary Americans, inspiring many to get involved politically, brush up on the U.S. Constitution, and organize demonstrations.” But Brooks views the Tea Party as a movement only in its infancy; he is convinced that the Tea Party movement can achieve a governing majority based on conservative policies if it follows his plan. According to Brooks, a movement works in stages, and the Tea Party movement is currently in stage one, which he calls the “rebellion” stage. To reach a governing majority, the movement must go through three more stages: announce an agenda based on majoritarian values; declare the moral high ground; and unite the country behind their agenda. These additional steps will turn the Tea Party into a majoritarian social movement capable of winning elections and changing America in a major way.
A “rebellion,” Brooks says, is a “protest movement” that is “inherently oppositional”. By its nature, this first stage is limited in what it can achieve because it is fighting “against” an agenda set by someone else—the majority. Being against things feels so good that some may prefer it, and Brooks wishes them well. For those who would like to see a governing majority implement conservative policies, however, it will be necessary to identify a conservative agenda explained in terms of helping people. Why? Because this is how to convert people to the conservative cause.
Brooks’ ideas boil down to the premise that a governing majority can be built around majoritarian values. It is beyond dispute that every culture is predicated on shared values, and some values are more deeply held than others. Brooks makes no attempt to list the values on which conservative policies are based, but he touches on some of them in his search for the conservative heart. When the conservative agenda is articulated in terms of conservative values, Brooks believes that Americans will recognize a kinship between what they believe and what conservatives believe. This is because the essential values underlying the conservative cause are majoritarian values. This becomes obfuscated through the culture wars and political misdirection, but if the Tea Party will lead with an agenda that emphasizes the conservative heart, Brooks contends that it will start a movement that will carry a majority behind its candidates:
The Tea Party must dedicate itself to the positive fruits of its principles. The power of free enterprise will help Americans escape poverty and dependency by creating good paying jobs, restoring upward mobility, and creating a new culture of values. These are the values that animate the conservative heart. The Tea Party can show the conservative heart to America.
Americans need to see the Tea Party as the vanguard of a new right that fights for the whole country. The grass roots should consider themselves heroes on behalf of those left behind in the Obama economy—whether they support Tea Party leaders or not. The conservative social movement can’t dismiss as moochers people who can’t find jobs and have to take government help. On the contrary, these are precisely the people who need our help. It isn’t ordinary citizens who are to blame, but the architects of disastrous economic policies that have destroyed opportunities for independence. The Tea Party can fight for all the people in this country.
Brooks frequently refers to the conviction in the Declaration of Independence that men are “endowed by their Creator with . . . inalienable rights . . . to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Perhaps the most useful discussion found in The Conservative Heart is its analysis of the relationship between work and “the pursuit of happiness”. This provides an example of how Brooks contrasts the values of conservatives and progressives.
Conservatives want policies that encourage work so that every person has an opportunity to participate and contribute in our society. These policies are based on the values of personal responsibility, economic opportunity that comes with having an entry level job on the resume instead of a dead end history of being on assistance year after year, and the means to pursue happiness for the people who value working and earning over personal decline. Progressives do not share these values. They treat work as punishment; it makes no difference to them whether the unemployed get their paycheck from the government or from a private employer from whom they earned it. Brooks quotes Vice President Biden’s reference to “dead end” jobs to show the condescension of progressives for jobs that they deem not worthy, compared to conservatives, which treat all jobs as a blessing, especially compared to a government handout. The progressive is not compassionate because he treats the unemployed as objects to be managed with money, not human beings who would be better off if they were able to earn a living, become responsible for their own support and that of their family, and have the opportunity to climb the economic ladder.
Something The Public Can Believe In
Arthur Brooks would like to see conservatives fashion an agenda that leads with a statement of conviction: we have proposals designed to help all the people, and our first priority is to help the most vulnerable among us. Conservatives can identify many proposals at the local, state and federal level where their policies will help the poor and middle classes directly. While conservative policies usually help all the people, the emphasis on their effect on the poor is important, according to Brooks, because the perception that conservatives care will help persuade voters to trust conservatives to govern because of shared values. This will help win elections. Conservatives should be interested in that message.
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Bob Loewen is the chairman of the California Policy Center.