THE CONSERVATIVE HEART By Arthur C. Brooks, Broadside, 246 pages, $27.99
Arthur C. Brooks is worried about the future of the conservative movement. What worries him isn’t the viability of its thought or the saliency of its policy proposals. He thinks conservatives have those mostly right. What worries him is their presentation. Conservatives, Mr. Brooks feels, too often come across as either angry and embittered or as cold and out of touch. Worse, the anger and alienation that many conservatives feel at the changes in domestic policy under President Obama exacerbate the problem. A vicious cycle, Mr. Brooks fears, could be taking shape as liberal policies make conservatives cranky and cranky conservatives become less persuasive, leading to more liberal policy making and even crankier conservatives.
“The Conservative Heart: How to Build a Fairer, Happier, and More Prosperous America” is intended to jostle conservatives out of a mindset the author believes is self-defeating and to show politicians and activists how they can communicate core values and ideas more effectively to a wider audience. As the president of the American Enterprise Institute (where I sit, unpaid, on the academic advisory board), he knows whereof he speaks. Mr. Brooks is in daily contact with GOP candidates, officeholders and strategists; nobody is better placed to understand the state of American conservatism.
The problem, Mr. Brooks argues, is a simple one. When, for example, conservatives inveigh against increasing the minimum wage, the message voters hear is that conservatives don’t care about helping poorly paid workers. What they need to hear is that conservative opposition to hiking the minimum wage comes out of a passionate concern for the well-being of those who lose their jobs when the minimum wage increases. That can’t just be boilerplate; conservatives need to highlight the inequality and lack of opportunity that so many Americans feel. And they need to offer practical solutions. As Mr. Brooks remarks about anti-poverty and social-welfare programs in general: “While conservatives have criticized those outmoded policies, they have offered little in the way of alternatives.”
Mr. Brooks goes on to give concrete examples of things conservatives can do to communicate their values to “persuadables” who are open to conservative arguments without necessarily sharing conservative political loyalties. His list of the “seven habits of highly effective conservatives” includes suggestions that conservatives speak in places where they are not expected, steal their opponents’ best arguments, sound optimistic and, as he puts it, “fight for people, not against things.”
Much of this advice boils down to the exhortation to be more like Ronald Reagan, who, Mr. Brooks reminds readers, constantly communicated a sense of generosity and warmth. “Let us make a commitment to care for the needy; to teach our children the values and the virtues handed down from our families,” Reagan told the 1980 convention. The anecdotes and jokes that sprinkled Reagan’s formal speeches and informal interactions concentrated on human truths rather than policy abstractions.
Mr. Brooks’s book, like one of Reagan’s speeches, moves from anecdote to anecdote to make its points. His story about an African immigrant in Utah who was told she couldn’t start a hair-braiding business without completing 2,000 hours of cosmetology instruction illustrates Mr. Brooks’s argument that licensing laws limit the opportunities of the poor. The story about Dallas Davis, an ex-addict in New York who found his way to self-respect and sobriety through hard work at the Doe Fund, shows that it is work and not welfare that the poor chiefly need. A vignette from a commencement ceremony for successful Doe graduates makes Mr. Brooks’s point more powerfully than any PowerPoint slide: “My name is Dallas Davis. And I am proud to say that I am standing here before you tonight with a full-time job and my own place to live, with my finances in order, with a renewed relationship with my children.”
Some economic conservatives and libertarians argue that conservatives need to stay away from moral claims, putting their arguments in economic and utilitarian terms. “The Conservative Heart” counters that this would be a terrible mistake. Conservatism, Mr. Brooks argues, depends on a moral vision but one that is neither narrow nor divisive. Conservatives, in other words, must be moral, but they cannot be moral scolds. Conservative values—particularly the belief in the merit of work and the promotion of human dignity and self-reliance—appeal to the overwhelming majority of Americans, and conservatives need to put them at the center of their message.
As a practical matter, Mr. Brooks is onto something important in this book. Developing a message that is grounded in widely acceptable moral values, attaching the message to appealing policy proposals, and projecting that message in a magnanimous way will be the high road to political success—not just in 2016 but for the long term.
Not all conservatives will think that “The Conservative Heart” speaks for them. As an alternative to raising the minimum wage, Mr. Brooks proposes expanding government programs like the Earned Income Tax Credit—an idea that is not universally beloved on the right. Critics on the left will note that the book says little about race or immigration. Even so, few readers will feel that Mr. Brooks is anything but sincere; his tributes to the dignity of work ring true, as does his anger at the ways in which well-meaning but shortsighted government policies leave too many Americans subsisting but not really living.