The white board in Arthur Brooks’s office is nearly filled with formulas and equations that look like they belong in a physics professor’s office. The former academic, now head of the most prominent conservative think tank in town, tells me that it’s an attempt to come up with a workable methodology for analyzing the potential decrease in charitable giving if tax deductions are capped at 28 percent, as some are now discussing. This is the American Enterprise Institute in a nutshell – brainy, research-oriented and waging the fight to make, as corny as it sounds, the country a better place. Brooks gestures to the equations on the board, “The president of AEI should be able to do that.”
Brooks who came to AEI only in 2009, is now the senior man among think tank presidents. When he came to AEI, he rewrote the mission statement, which now reads: “The American Enterprise Institute is a community of scholars and supporters committed to expanding liberty, increasing individual opportunity and strengthening free enterprise. AEI pursues these unchanging ideals through independent thinking, open debate, reasoned argument, facts and the highest standards of research and exposition. Without regard for politics or prevailing fashion, we dedicate our work to a more prosperous, safer and more democratic nation and world.”
That may sound like simply a nice aphorism for the modern conservative movement, but it animates Brooks and his philosophy, as well as his formula for restoring the conservative movement to full strength. It is not esoteric fiscal conservative theory that is central, he cautions. “There is a better reason we are in the ideas game. We believe in people.” It is the connection of conservative ideas to improving the lives of all Americans that is at the heart of AEI’s mission.
He is a happy warrior in the battle of ideas. “There are only two kinds of people,” He says. “Either you want to win or want to shut it down. The left is in the business of shutting it down. It is because they don’t have the goods.” By that he means that the left has substituted legal means (trying to subvert the First Amendment in the guise of campaign reform), legislative means and all sorts of shoddy arguments (Racism! War on women!) to try to curtail debate on the merits of the big, bureaucratic social welfare state. He warns, “What is most important on the right is not to shut down the competition of ideas.”
He contends conservatives have been going about the battle of ideas in the wrong way. Conservatives became “all juiced up” about Chief Justice John Roberts’s decision on Obamacare. Rather than engage the American people and win the battle of ideas, he says “They wanted to win on a technicality. ‘There is this terrible policy out there, but we haven’t been read our Miranda rights!’ ”
What is the key to breaching the gap between the elite circle of conservative thinkers and ordinary Americans? He begins, “The end is we have to change conventional wisdom.” If you’re battling against conventional wisdom, the conventional wisdom is going to win. That is in essence the key to President Obama’s success. He explains, “Obama has been working assiduously to change the conventional wisdom about the fairness of the American system.” And he’s been very successful. In exit polls nearly 60 percent of Americans said that the economic system is only fair to the very rich.” So what do conservatives do about that? It takes lots of institutions, communication, politicians, etc. to form a critical mass that shifts opinion. But it is also the nature of conservative arguments that have been faulty, Brooks says.
Conservatives make several mistakes in trying to shift how the public thinks about certain issues, he postulates. “They are only making material arguments. They don’t remember to make the moral arguments — the moral arguments we all share instead of the moral arguments we don’t all share.” He runs through three appeals that fall largely on deaf ears among the left and in the left-infused culture. “The first is that it is inherently moral to respect authority. The second is that loyalty to the in-group is moral. And the last is that sexual purity is moral.” Conservatives may find these self-evident, but they are facing 60 percent of Americans who don’t share these constructs. Instead, he urges conservatives to fight on the left’s turf, the turf of “fairness.”
He argues that virtually all Americans share two principles. “They demand a fair society. And they believe we should be lifting up those in poverty.” It is on these grounds, Brooks argues, conservatives can, surprisingly, win. Obama’s definition of “fairness” is income distribution, but abundant evidence shows that nearly 90 percent of Americans believe fairness is treating people according to merit.
Conservatives need to make the policy arguments not only on economic theory (we are going broke, high tax rates slow growth) but on whether they help people, are “fair” (as most Americans understand that) and help the least well-off. For example, in the education debate, don’t attack the unions; liberals will rush to protect the poor, abused teachers. Rather, make the case it is not fair to keep poor minority kids in failing schools. On the Health and Human Services mandate, don’t argue in abstractions against the great giveaway of free contraception. (You’ll be accused of waging war on women!) Instead, it is not fair to people of conscience and the church to have the government, as Brooks puts it, “pounding on their chest to force them to do it their way. It’s Soviet!”
But conservatives will surely be averse to making such arguments, won’t they? (We don’t do that sort of appeal; we operate on intellectual, largely economic arguments.) Brooks dismisses that. “No, no, you have the low ground. You’re money grubbers,” he says about those who eschew a moral appeal to fairness.
As for the appeal to lift people out of dire circumstances, one can certainly see how Mitt Romney struck out on that score. It is interesting that perhaps the most intellectual of the conservative leaders in the GOP, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), is making just that case these days, talking about the need to translate conservative ideas into pro-opportunity, pro-mobility policies that benefit not the rich but the poor. This, it would seem, is straight out of the Brooks rubric.
Brooks, the head of the premier conservative think tank, is in essence calling on conservatives to return to the Frederich Hayek tradition in which creating a better society, not economic freedom per se, is the goal. It may be unfamiliar terrain for many modern conservatives, but it is one on which they must be able to maneuver successfully.
In the Twitter age, when instantaneous reaction is the lifeblood of politics, Brooks seeks to keep his eye on the long term, what he calls the “10-year strategy.” That requires better arguments, more compelling data and the recognition that certain issues will be overtaken by events. (One can argue that if net immigration from Mexico remains at zero, the fervor about “encouraging immigration by ‘amnesty’ ” will fade. Likewise in another generation gay marriage may be a non-issue.)
The adage that conservatism is about standing athwart history shouting “Stop!” is not what animates Brooks, AEI or many of those involved in the battle of ideas. “I want to change the course of the river,” he says. Right now, no think tank is doing a better job of that.