Arthur Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute, is arguably the most important conservative voice of his time. Under his leadership, AEI has become the most influential conservative think tank. His sponsorship of the reform conservative movement has changed the discussion in the GOP and influenced a flock of presidential candidates. Now he has a new book, “The Conservative Heart: How to Build a Fairer, Happier, and More Prosperous America,” which shares his insights as to how conservatives can reach skeptical voters, smash stereotypes about conservatives and recast the political playing field. He encourages conservatives to fight for people, not against things, and to frame their arguments not in abstract and materialistic terms but in personal, moral ones. He argues that capitalism is a great success story, lifting millions and millions of people out of poverty around the globe. The mission of conservatives, he says, is to bring their principles of capitalism, the worth of every individual and the joy of earned success to the country. But first, they have to get people to listen to them.
Below is Part 1 of my interview. Part 2 will run tomorrow.
Why haven’t conservatives figured out a way to talk to Americans in ways that reveal the conservative heart?
Conservatives have gotten used to making economic arguments instead of moral arguments for two reasons. First, it has been our “brand” since back in the Reagan days. After all, we’re tough minded realists, not bleeding hearts, right? Second, we assume that the left doesn’t have good economic counterarguments, given what a disaster socialism has been in almost every country. The ground seems like ours for the taking.
But all this has to change. Raising the specter of the Soviet Union has little impact on voters today, especially young people. And more importantly, after years of suffering through a brutal recession, people expect and deserve moral arguments that focus on compassion and fairness. Conservatives need to trade materialistic language for moral language. In The Conservative Heart my goal is to show readers how to change their rhetorical habits—and start to win debates.
There is a premium on very sharp rhetoric in some quadrants of the GOP. Does firing up the base make it harder for conservatives to show their heart or can you do both?
Firing up the base doesn’t have to be negative and angry. The key concept is fighting for people instead of fighting against things. The latter is oppositional: If you fight against things, people will see you as the minority, because someone else is setting the agenda. To fight for people is to set the agenda, and that’s inherently majoritarian.
Liberals have figured this out. That’s how self-identified leftists, who make up about a quarter of the population, can claim to fight for the “99%.” By contrast, people with center-right values constitute a true majority. It’s time we started talking and acting like one. That means firing up the base with aspiration, not with anger. It means fighting for those who truly need us, employing our distinctive values that we know are the best way to lift up the greatest number of our brothers and sisters.
In the Confederate flag case and gay marriage conservatives relied on religious and historical authority, and predictably lost. Are some fights just not winnable?
The good news is that mainstream conservatism did not lose when the Confederate battle flag was removed from the South Carolina capitol grounds—it won! That was a triumph of the New Right. It was two conservative Republicans, Gov. [Nikki] Haley and Sen. [Tim] Scott, who led the charge. To be sure, their unique personal stories were a source of their passion on this issue. But so was their conservative philosophy—their expansive view of human dignity and their conservative vision for a unified, compassionate America. Those ideas are the future of the New Right and they are the future of the United States.
Critics of the reform conservative movement say it’s watered-down liberalism. Why is this wrong?
Some of those critics are remembering old arguments over “compassionate conservatism.” They are right to be skeptical of that. The concept suggested that conservatives could just operate the levers of the existing welfare state better than the other side. But even beyond that, the phrase implicitly says that compassion is some unnatural appendage that needs to be stapled onto our ideas.
The new vision that I lay out in the book is different. On a policy level, our movement starts with blowing up countless government-driven barriers to earned success, like overregulation and licensing laws and minimum wage hikes that make opportunity less plentiful, and bureaucratic regimes that trap poor kids in substandard schools. And on a cultural level, we stand foursquare behind faith, family, community, and work as the central pillars of a truly happy life.
There’s nothing watered-down about any of this. This new movement is no deviation from conservative principles. On the contrary, it shows that authentic conservatism is the philosophy that best serves our fellow men and women—especially those in need.