OP-ED | Telling the Story of the Conservative Heart
The most underreported story of the past few decades is that during that time period, across the world a billion people have been lifted out of extreme poverty, defined as living on less than $1.25 a day.
The number of people globally living in extreme poverty was cut in half between 1990 and 2010, according to the World Bank, the United Nations, and other global institutions.
We Americans should be proud of the part our ideals played in this transformational achievement.
By exporting our free market system globally — by spreading the gospel of the rule of law, entrepreneurship, and property rights — there now a billion fewer people living in starvation.
This global success story — and others like it — is what the American Enterprise Institute’s Arthur Brooks wants conservatives to focus on as they engage in policy debates with the political left — the ability for conservative ideals to transform people’s lives.
In his new book, The Conservative Heart, released this week, Brooks argues that conservatives need a message that is aspirational, not angry, not just because that is how to win an election, but also because we on the right have done a lousy job of convincing people that we care.
He also points out that while poverty has decreased globally, many here in the U.S. feel like they’re stuck — that even when they work hard, they can’t get ahead.
The answers to this morass are found on the right, Brooks says.
“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,” said Brooks in a recent interview with the Washington Post. “And on a cultural level, we stand foursquare behind faith, family, community, and work as the central pillars of a truly happy life.”
But conservatives are often their own worst enemy, Brooks says, because when we talk about the economy, instead of talking about people, we talk about taxes, debt, and fiscal responsibility.
When Pres. George H.W. Bush famously said, “Message: I care,” to voters in New Hampshire during his run for re-election in 1992, it was clear he was on the defensive, and it was clear he wasn’t delivering a winning message. Republicans were struggling to figure out how to reach voters in the post-Cold War political environment, when the focus turned sharply to domestic politics and the economy.
But, Brooks is quick to point out, he is not asking the political right to return to a message of “compassionate conservatism,” made infamous during Pres. George W. Bush’s first run for the presidency in 2000.
This term is defensive, says Brooks: “It validates those who falsely claim that conservatives are uncompassionate in the first place.”
Brooks’ own story is fascinating. He started out as a self-described liberal, and a full-time musician. He played the French horn in orchestras in the United States and Spain for a decade, but then decided to return to school to further his education.
As an undergraduate he fell in love with economics, and as he learned about incentives and market forces his thinking about social programs, and his understanding of why they don’t work to lift people out of poverty, evolved.
“To my shock, I also learned — when sharing this newfound knowledge with my musician friends — that this outlook made me a “conservative,” he says in his book.
After earning his Ph.D, Brooks focused his research on the study of happiness — and found that not only were conservatives more charitable, but they also were happier people. This was contrary to the public image of the miserly, money-focused conservative that still dominates the national narrative.
While many conservatives feel that this narrative is largely the fault of the political left and the media — witness the current frenzy over the sideshow presidential candidacy of Donald Trump — Brooks says conservatives must look inward. We must change how we talk and think about issues, he says, and to adopt an approach that focuses more on people, and less on numbers.
We also need to do a better job of pointing out how the policies of the left have failed the poor.
Look to the cities as laboratories for the progressive policies of the left — in cities like Hartford, Chicago, and Detroit, are the poor better off after decades of liberal leadership?
Conservatives offer another way — entrepreneurialism, enterprise, and education.
Those of us who care about maintaining a strong social safety net for those who need it most — and many conservatives, contrary to the left’s talking points, do care about this — can see that these safety nets are at risk because of fiscal irresponsibility.
The point isn’t to stop talking about debt and taxes. It’s to talk about these things in a way that shows the human cost of these policies. But then conservatives must pivot to an aspirational message — one that focuses on the value and empowering nature of work, and on self-reliance and ethical living.
No one ever realized the American Dream through greater income redistribution.
We — none of us, whether on the right or the left — can promise equality of outcome. We can work harder at achieving a greater equality of opportunity — which is why the “new right’s” focus on issues like criminal justice and educational reform is so important.
“It is conservatives who stand for true hope, a hope that returns power and agency back into the hands of ordinary people,” says Brooks.
It is a message conservatives here in Connecticut, and across the country, should take to heart.
Suzanne Bates is the policy director for the Yankee Institute for Public Policy. She lives in South Windsor with her family. Follow her on Twitter @suzebates.
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