American Enterprise Institute president Arthur Brooks has a new book, “The Conservative Heart: How to Build a Fairer, Happier, and More Prosperous America.” Below is the continuation of my interview with him. (Part 1 can be found here):
Your seven habits of highly effective conservatives seem like they’d be effective for promoting any popular agenda or movement. Are these rooted in business research? Psychology?
You’re right—the practical tips and tactics for effective communication that I share in the book apply well beyond politics. The research is drawn from psychology, the social sciences, and the hard sciences alike. My favorite finding is the evidence that we only get 30 seconds or so to speak before ancient parts of other people’s brains judge whether we are friend or foe. I learned that from the neuroscientist Daniela Schiller, who is a rock-and-roll drummer when she isn’t studying the fundamentals of the human brain. She’s one of many colorful characters in this book.
Can the principles in your anti-poverty success story be institutionalized and incorporated on a larger scale?
The book has a lot of case studies, such as a phenomenally successful organization in New York City called the Does Fund that serves as a homeless shelter but provides job training and education. The key principle that animates their work is the same idea that made welfare reform such a success in the 1990s. It is the simple but radical idea that work is a blessing, not a punishment.
Both political sides sometimes forget this. Some liberals argue that work is a punishment that vulnerable people should be spared. Some on the right discuss work like a punishment that “moochers” and “freeloaders” deserve to have inflicted on them. But true conservative principles say something different. Work is an opportunity to build up our lives, support our families and deploy our talents for the service of others. It is an intrinsic source of worth, earned success and dignity. When we reorient our entire safety net around rewarding work and requiring work wherever possible, we’ll have a system worthy of our American ideals.
My favorite example of optimism comes from a story you like to tell about your wife. On the way home from a disastrous school meeting about grades, she piped up: “At least he’s not cheating!” This suggests some people are hard-wired for a cheery outlook. Are conservatives naturally grumpy pessimists or do you think it’s a bad habit, which as you suggest can be broken?
Everyone seems to think of conservatives as the grumpy, stingy and generally unhappy. Most Americans in general have this impression, and the data even show that most conservatives perceive their own camp this way. But it just isn’t true. Surveys consistently show that conservatives are happier than liberals.
If we want people’s perceptions to match that reality, we have to start speaking and living like happy warriors. We know the media, the IRS and a thousand other forces probably have it out for us conservatives. But we also know that people do not want to be led by victims. Our goal should be to live right, show love and spend every ounce of our energy fighting for people who need us.