Magazine | August 24, 2015, Issue

What Can-Do Conservatism Can’t Do

The Conservative Heart: How to Build a Fairer, Happier, and More Prosperous America, by Arthur C. Brooks (Broadside, 256 pp., $27.99)

The founding of this magazine, 60 years ago, marked the emergence of a distinctly American conservatism. William Buckley and National Review posed two questions, fundamental and connected, that conservatives have grappled with ever since. The first is about conservatism’s ends, its mission. What, exactly, are conservatives dedicated to conserving, and why do the things they wish to conserve warrant and require it? The second is about means. In our republic, how can conservatives induce citizens to wield their sovereign power so that self-government sustains rather than threatens the inheritance conservatism defends?

Among the challenges that arise from these questions, two are especially formidable. First, because it has proven difficult to achieve clarity and consensus about what conservatism is for, the easier and less contentious course is to define conservatism by what it’s against. Buckley’s famous declaration in NR’s mission statement was that in a world where liberal ideologues run “just about everything,” his publication would accept the risk of being “superfluous” by standing “athwart history, yelling Stop.” The ensuing 60 years have shown that history, more often than not, blithely or disdainfully ignores those who yell at it. And when it does listen, conservatism will indeed prove superfluous — yelling for the sake of yelling, rather than for the sake of change — without a clear, compelling account of where history should go after abandoning the path it has been following.

The second difficulty is the opposite: Rather than too reluctant or esoteric about laying out their ultimate purposes, conservatives will be too eager — and end up sacrificing principle in the process. Democracy is difficult and perilous because the path of least resistance is always to offer people what they want instead of what they need. Since liberals largely agree with John Dewey that the cure for the ailments of democracy is more democracy, this dilemma doesn’t confound them. But conservatives believe that good government is a standard distinct from democratic government, one by which the latter should be measured. Conservatives who grow tired of superfluity, however, might come to treat their countrymen’s sensibilities as the chief criterion for defining conservatism’s principles. To work in the other direction — defining conservatism’s mission in terms of justice and human nature, and then endeavoring to make their case in terms American citizens are likeliest to appreciate — is much harder.

The Conservative Heart, by Arthur C. Brooks, confronts these challenges winningly, but only somewhat persuasively. Brooks has been president of the American Enterprise Institute since 2009. Both in that capacity, and as the author of five previous books over the past decade, he has tirelessly advocated that doing good for poor people — as opposed to feeling good about one’s solicitude for them — requires a commitment to a free, dynamic economy; a limited, constitutional government; and a robust civil society, manifested especially in strong families and churches. Conservatism, in other words, rather than liberalism.

The title, “The Conservative Heart,” refers simultaneously to conservatism’s essential principles and its emotional core, its deepest longings. Brooks argues, specifically, that longings for shared prosperity and mutual respect do and should define the principles. By contrast, there’s nothing to unpack from the book’s subtitle, “How to Build a Fairer, Happier, and More Prosperous America.” This straightforward statement of purpose, however, presages qualities that make The Conservative Heart problematic as well as promising.

What’s best about the book is Brooks’s advice, which really could help conservatives win friends and influence policy. The tea-party repudiation of hope-and-change statism, he argues, was a necessary condition for conservative success, but not a sufficient one. The challenge now is for the Tea Party to “become something bigger — a transformational, majoritarian force in American politics that does not simply rebel against American decline, but reverses it.”

Achieving this goal will require better messengers and a better message. To bring about the former, The Conservative Heart codifies the advice AEI gives conservative politicians in “regular debate training and messaging seminars,” designed to “open hearts and minds so that Americans will listen to us and trust us to solve the deep problems facing our country.” Little of this guidance is fresh or startling, but what counts is that it’s sound. Conservatives would certainly advance their cause by being succinct, friendly, and optimistic. We know this to be true from the example of Ronald Reagan, the “Great Communicator,” whose rhetorical skills were indispensable to the services he rendered his cause and country.

In addition to urging conservatives to say things better, Brooks wants them to say better things. Conservatives should offer a clear “moral purpose” and “governing agenda,” directed to making America a nation where “everyone can earn their success, and where government empowers rather than restrains people who seek to strike out on their own.” This effort will require conservatives to claim, not concede, terms liberals have successfully appropriated: “fairness,” “social justice,” “compassion,” and “empathy.” Thus, “conservatives believe in fairness just as much as liberals do. We just define it differently.” The difference is that, because conservatives regard opportunity as their “sine qua non,” they should protect the safety net but “limit it to the truly indigent, and infuse it with work.” This commitment to dignity and opportunity for the poor will differentiate conservatives from liberals, most of whom “want to help the poor — they just have the wrong ideas about how to do it.”

Really? The long, impassioned antagonism between liberals and conservatives has to be more fundamental than an argument between good-hearted people, equally keen to alleviate poverty, who disagree about the best means to achieve that shared goal. Though Brooks never explicitly contends that conservatism’s meaning, or its rejection of liberalism, goes no farther down than this, he also never indicates that anything more is at stake.

If it isn’t, then the competition between Left and Right boils down to dueling versions of can-do optimism. Liberals follow Franklin Roosevelt, telling voters that by relying on government to pursue bold, persistent experimentation, we’ll have nothing to fear but fear itself. Conservatives follow the equally jaunty Reagan: Instead of trusting in activist government, we rest our confidence on Americans’ attachment to faith, family, and freedom — both political and economic.

Even Reaganite optimism carries us only so far, however. Reagan’s January 1989 farewell address, delivered amidst growing prosperity and Soviet retreat, was not simply triumphant but surprisingly wistful. He worried that the “resurgence of national pride” in the 1980s wouldn’t “count for much” or “last” in a time when families, schools, and popular entertainment failed to transmit “an unambivalent appreciation of America” to the young. “America is freedom,” Reagan said. But “freedom is special and rare. It’s fragile; it needs protection.”

This sense that conservatism’s obligations are, in important respects, tragic or even Sisyphean is simply absent from The Conservative Heart. Proclaiming — respectfully, amiably, sincerely, and enthusiastically — that a dynamic economy offers opportunity and dignity certainly makes freedom less fragile. Moreover, it’s true. So conservatives should do that.

But neither this political tactic nor any other will make freedom invulnerable. Freedom is fragile because republics are tenuous, never so sturdy that they might not fail and be replaced by anarchy, then tyranny. Sound constitutional architecture, patriotism, and prosperity diminish but cannot banish this danger. Abraham Lincoln feared that “all republics” have “an inherent and fatal weakness”: Government, “of necessity,” would prove “too strong for the liberties of its own people, or too weak to maintain its own existence.”

The permanence of this threat derives from irremediable defects in human nature. Faction, according to James Madison, was the disease “most incident to republican government,” its “causes sown in the nature of man.” The “human passions” that engender faction have “divided mankind into parties, inflamed them with mutual animosity, and rendered them much more disposed to vex and oppress each other, than to co-operate for their common good.”

Politics sounds much less daunting for Brooks than it was for Lincoln and Madison, because the people who’ll govern and be governed seem notably decent and reasonable. Brooks says that “conservatism at its best” embraces “moral assertions about what it means to be human,” the first of which is that “there is great raw material in every single person, regardless of their circumstances.” Stipulated — but there’s also great potential for evil, vanity, delusion, and folly. It’s not clear that, if human beings were as nice as Brooks posits, there would be much need for conservatism, or for politics in general.

At another point, he writes that “the formula for a happy, meaningful life is to appreciate abundance while avoiding attachment” to material things. Again, despite the good sense on offer, it’s disquieting that Brooks thinks there is something as tidy as a formula for achieving something as profound as a happy, meaningful life. Samuel Johnson advised, less cheerfully but more plausibly, that life offers more to endure than enjoy.

If so, we need more than what Brooks calls “practical hope,” the paired beliefs that it can be done and that I can do it. We also need the forbearance and resignation that will impart solace to our moral lives and stability to our politics. As Oliver Goldsmith wrote at the behest of his friend Johnson: “How small, of all that human hearts endure, / That part which laws or kings can cause or cure!”

The Conservative Heart performs two valuable services: By design, it gives conservatives smart, useful advice on how to put their best foot forward; and inadvertently, it impels conservatives to reflect on their ultimate goals and purposes. Politics imposes a hierarchy of obligations. Questions about how to win are, necessarily, subordinate to ones about why we fight. Those questions, in turn, may lead to convictions so strong that we cannot escape the conclusion that it is, in some circumstances, more honorable to risk or even accept defeat than to compromise our principles. That Brooks either fails or refuses to acknowledge such dilemmas neither disproves their existence nor prevents his book from provoking a deeper discussion on how to fight and what to fight for.

Mr. Voegeli is a senior editor of The Claremont Review of Books and the author of The Pity Party: A Mean-Spirited Diatribe against Liberal Compassion.

William Voegeli — Mr. Voegeli is a senior editor of the Claremont Review of Books.

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