Conservatives are often known as a reserved, stiff-upper-lip lot. However, in his just-released book, The Conservative Heart: How to Build a Fairer, Happier, and More Prosperous America, American Enterprise Institute president Arthur C. Brooks argues that conservatives must start wearing their hearts on their sleeves if they are to convince more people—more voters—that conservatives policies can help the poorest and most vulnerable members of our community.
Brooks argues that, far too often, conservatives make esoteric policy arguments on subjects such marginal tax rates that seem either irrelevant or actually hostile to the interests of many, especially to the interests of the poor, immigrants, and young people trying to make a start in the world.
Instead, Brooks insists, conservatives must speak from their hearts and make a moral case that their policies are compassionate and fair. Such a moral case would begin from the premise that America must make opportunities available for all her citizens. A moral case will show conservatism as hopeful and helpful—rather than angry and hurtful. It will show that even when conservatives seem angry, it is only because they are angry on behalf of those who don’t share fully in what American has to offer:
When conservatives complain about a culture that is increasingly hostile to values like hard work and family formation, they are actually angry that the happiness that comes from those institutions is being denied to the people—the poor and the young—who need them most.
So, Brooks insists, it is urgent that conservatives talk about the problems of America and their policy solutions in a different way—a way that “reflects our hearts.”
I’ve seen Brooks make this case in speeches around Washington. He speaks powerfully about, for example, how so many American families suffered as median household income fell year after year following the Great Recession—and how conservatives need to show that they are genuinely and deeply concerned about these families.
Brooks lays out a moral case for conservative policies that would address all four components of what he terms the “the happiness portfolio: faith, family, community, and earned success through work.
Of the four components in the “happiness portfolio,” Brooks focuses on “earned success through work.” One might well argue that faith or family is even more fundamental than work—for example, many people are motivated to work long hours at jobs they don’t enjoy to provide for their families. If so, figuring out what to do about the increasing instability of American families might be the central challenge.
I don’t think Brooks would disagree that family or faith is most fundamental; many anecdotes in his book illustrate how people are motivated by family and faith. I suspect that Brooks puts work—and the dignity of work—at the center of his moral case for conservatism because it is more plausibly within the reach of policymakers to promote work than to boost the other components of the “happiness portfolio”—faith, family, and community. There is simply not much the government could do to get people back in the pews on Sundays, or to restore the married, two-parent family as the norm.
On the other hand, there are policies that might succeed in promoting work. Brooks offers expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), relocation vouchers for the unemployed, and the reduction of licensure requirements as examples of policy changes that could bring more people into the workforce and encourage workers to work more. Of course, not everyone agrees that these policies are the right way to promote work—for example, even among conservatives, there are many opponents of expanding the EITC.
But the debate about what policies might best promote work has to follow convincing people that promoting work is an essential goal. And, the depth of the challenge of getting people to endorse the centrality of work is powerfully illustrated by widespread perception that Jeb Bush misstepped earlier this month when he told the New Hampshire Union Leader that Americans must work more:
Workforce participation has to rise from its all-time modern lows. It means that people need to work longer hours and through their productivity gain more income for their families. That's the only way we are going to get out of this rut that we’re in.
Brooks’ arguments about the dignity and moral worth of work is not quite the same as Bush’s argument about the importance of work to raising the rate of economic growth, yet these arguments have much in common. The fact that Bush’s comment was so widely seen as a gaffe shows how far conservatives are from convincing the public that work has a central moral purpose, and thus why Brooks’ arguments about how conservatives might go about speaking convincingly of the moral dignity of work are so important—and so why The Conservative Heart is important reading.