Politics & Policy

Conservatives Should Be Lovers and Fighters: Arthur Brooks on Poverty, Social Justice, and the ‘Conservative Heart’

(Portrait: Jay Wescott/AEI)

Arthur Brooks, the creative and dynamic president of the American Enterprise Institute, is the author of a new book: The Conservative Heart: How to Build a Fairer, Happier, and More Prosperous America. He talks about the themes of the book and offers a positive vision for conservatism below.

Kathryn Jean Lopez: Pope Francis talks about poverty. You talk about poverty. He’s coming to the United States in September. What would you like him to know about the “conservative heart”?

Arthur Brooks: The Holy Father is the world’s greatest advocate for social justice. I would for love him to see how American free enterprise is central to that goal and can truly be our greatest gift to the world.

Virtually everyone in America descended from immigrants, and almost all of those immigrants were of extremely modest means. They came to America not to get a better system of forced income redistribution, but to be rewarded for their hard work, no matter what their race, social class, or religion was.

While the government and social hierarchy made it impossible for my great grandparents to make a decent life for themselves in Denmark, a relatively free market in business and labor in the United States made it possible for them — orphans with an elementary-school education — to start a farm in South Dakota, worship freely, and have kids who made it into the middle class.

So while capitalism might seem, to many Europeans and South Americans, a way to entrench privilege, for us it has been the central ingredient in true social justice.


Lopez: “Conservatives have the most effective solutions for human flourishing in our intellectual DNA.” What makes you so sure?

Brooks: There are many characteristics of American conservatives — some better than others. But the one that is non-negotiable has to do with the inherent dignity of every individual and his or her right to equal opportunity. I know there are a lot of times that we don’t express this so well; occasionally maybe we even forget it a little.

But consider how our movement has changed the course of world events. Since I was a child, the percentage of the world’s population living at starvation levels has declined by 80 percent! At least 2 billion people have been pulled out of absolute poverty. It was not progressive para-state entities such as the United Nations that did this; it was American conservative ideas that spread around the world, such as globalization, free trade, property rights, rule of law, and entrepreneurship.

We should be shouting this from the rooftops.


Lopez: Why don’t people see it that way?

Brooks: Conservatives are mired in something of a political paradox. Our ideas have radically improved the lives of millions of poor people around the world. Yet here at home, we aren’t trusted to fight for poor and struggling Americans. Part of the problem is what others say about us, but let’s be honest — we have done a terrible job telling people about what free enterprise has truly accomplished. The rapid reduction of poverty driven by conservative values is among the greatest achievements in the history of mankind, but conservatives often treat it as some kind of state secret.

As a result, many ordinary people just don’t believe conservatives care about them. No matter what poll you look at, the picture is clear: We conservatives perform far worse than liberals on measures of perceived empathy and compassion. I wrote the book to illustrate the wonder of free enterprise and help conservatives say what is written on their hearts.


Lopez: Why is “social justice” language important to use and redeem?

Brooks: First, social justice is an important and beautiful concept. Among our greatest missions in life is our responsibility to take care of “the least of these, our brothers and sisters.”

Second, using terms like “social justice” to share our values might have a considerable political payoff. Some fascinating political-science research suggests that the most successful candidates are not those who double down on the qualities that voters already like about them, but the candidates who branch out. You can think of it has borrowing language from the other side. Voters believe, almost automatically, that conservatives are strong leaders with high moral character. But they don’t assume we are empathetic or compassionate. Exemplifying those values by explicitly fighting for social justice will increase the odds that our message can break through.


Lopez: Why is the Doe Fund important to know about?

Brooks: The Doe Fund, an amazing homeless shelter that I profile in the book, exemplifies an important truth about helping people build better lives. It embodies the lesson that all the material relief in the world will not build a better life unless it is combined with real hope and strong moral values.

Of course, a great deal of government effort has been spent into providing material relief. But too often, the resulting welfare state fails to help propel people back into the work force and toward earned success. The Doe Fund focuses on pairing material relief with job training and strongly emphasizes the values of hard work and earned success. Embracing and building upon the lessons from the Doe Fund will help us build a better approach to battling poverty.


Lopez: How can presidential candidates authentically and compellingly show that they have a “conservative heart” and make promises from it that they can keep?

Brooks: I have a whole chapter dedicated to this subject in the book. I call it “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective Conservatives.” The lessons outlined in that chapter emerged from the in-depth communications work my AEI colleagues and I have conducted on Capitol Hill. It’s effectively a step-by-step manual for how conservatives can better spread their message. The most important lesson outlined in the chapter is that conservatives must learn to fight for people, not against things.

Everyone can tell you what policies conservatives are against — higher taxes, Obamacare, and so on. Many fewer people can tell you whom conservatives are fighting for. It’s only through fighting for people that we can convince others that we can be trusted. It’s only through fighting for people that a political ideology can become a social movement.


Lopez: Why is work a blessing? Can you see it that way even if you don’t believe in God and blessings? How do you explain your contention that “all honest work is a sanctified pursuit” to an unbeliever?

Brooks: Work is using our talents and our passions to build up ourselves and the world around us. Hard work, understood not primarily as a means to money but as something of intrinsic value, is a medium by which we can serve others and grow in virtue.

This is a vitally important principle for those of us who are believers. But you don’t need to believe in God to believe that work is integral to living a full and meaningful life. The idea of offering up your effort and your projects for a higher purpose — that has universal resonance. It speaks to something deep in our humanity.


Lopez: How does Catholic social teaching challenge conservatives? How does the Sermon on the Mount? Are they one and the same in many ways?

Brooks: Catholic social teaching is inherently challenging — that’s the point of it. If it doesn’t make us all a little uncomfortable, it won’t help us to reach a higher level of sanctity.

Catholic social teaching is especially good for calling us to do what we already know to be right, but where we are maybe a little lazy. For conservatives, that can mean remembering the transcendental goal of work, which is personal sanctification, and of profit, which is responsible, grateful enjoyment of life and service to others.


Lopez: What is your pitch to people still reading this skeptically, not buying that conservatives care all that much about the poor and inequality?

Brooks: First, to conservative skeptics: You know our ideas are the best for helping the poor and vulnerable. These people have been left behind by progressive policies. Someone must fight for them, no matter how they vote. Don’t you want that to be us? And as a practical matter, showing the conservative heart is not just one strategy that can win politically. It is the only thing that will win.

To liberal skeptics, and to our politically non-aligned brothers and sisters: I know you are desperate to help the poor and fight inequality. You have heard over and over that conservatives hate poor people and our ideas will leave struggling people out in the cold. But ask yourself this: Given essentially a zero-percent growth rate for the bottom half of the economy over the past seven years, has life gotten better for poor people under the current policies? If we could turn conservative policies full-on toward poverty alleviation, wouldn’t it be a movement worth supporting?

— Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online.


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