Good Government

Jason Reese | August 6, 2015

From the Heart

Jason Reese

When the American flag is flapping in the wind and I hear “The Star-Spangled Banner” stately playing, I pause and reflect on the Federalist Papers and how human flourishing is best encouraged via a political system with checks and balances.

Oh wait, that’s not true—because I am not a sociopath. When the flag is flying and I’m singing along with the anthem, my heart wells up, I take a deep breath, and am thankful for a country I love and my ancestors who served it.

For too often, conservatives in America have acted as if they were in fact Vulcans. So sure that we are right on the important political and economic issues of the day, we act as if a dry academic lecture, some Perot-esque charts, and a raft of numbers will sway any “rational” voter to our cause. We have denigrated those who vote “merely for emotional reasons” and act dumbfounded when liberals win because the left-leaning candidate (in pollster-speak) “cares more about people like me.”

Arthur Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute, has diagnosed this problem and proposed his solutions in his magnificent new book, The Conservative Heart: How to Build a Fairer, Happier, and More Prosperous America. Hold on now, I know what you’re thinking, and no, this is not a rehashing of the “compassionate conservatism” of the turn of the millennium (if you want that, read Michael Gerson’s Heroic Conservatism and then regret doing so). The flaw in compassionate conservatism was the surrender to the liberal lie that conservative policies are, well, heartless. So we ramped up spending, centralized education policy and tried to plant democracy in unfertile soil, only to witness the shoots choked by thorns.

Indeed, it can be said that The Conservative Heart proposes a near opposite of compassionate conservatism. Brooks introduces a vision of a movement at ease with itself and proud of the gains that free markets have produced for mankind. This revitalized conservative movement would proclaim — with a smile — that conservatism is what is best for the whole nation, especially the poor. School choice fits into this framework perfectly, but Brooks is at his best when he insists that “work is a blessing, not a punishment.”

In Brooks’ view, which has some interesting parallels to the producerist ideas of the late Christopher Lasch, harking back to 19th century American thought, conservatism should be the school in modern American thought that gives pride of place to work. I am reminded of evangelical heavyweight Russell Moore, who has slammed the idea that the Garden of Eden was a place of idleness and repose. No, Moore says, the Garden was the first workplace, where Adam and Eve were given dominion, that is, a job. Brooks seamlessly weaves in Western thought back to Aristotle concerning human flourishing (a better translation of what Jefferson was trying to say when he used the term “happiness”) and the vital role played by fulfilling work.

In what seems like a nod to Mike Rowe, Brooks destroys the snobbish idea that fulfilling work can only be done by a cognitive elite with sheepskins on the wall. One of the most compelling stories in the book tells of a former homeless addict who has found a job as a pest exterminator. The joy of the man leaps off the page when he receives an email from his boss stating that he is needed for a bed bug job immediately. The man turns to Brooks and slowly says, “I am needed. I have a purpose. Do you understand? These people need me. I’ve never had that.”

What does all this have to do with emotion? I challenge you to read the story of Rick Norat, outlined above, and not be moved. Now, a movement with candidates for office that can tell stories like Rick’s can then say, “See, this is why I will oppose the job-killing policies of the left. I want Rick and thousands like him to get their feet on that first rung of the ladder of opportunity and experience the promise of a more fulfilling life.” Now, how much more powerful is that than the following: “Raising the minimum wage will lead to a decline in economic output and an increase in costs for employers who have already risked so much to build their business, and the cost curve we learned in Economics 101 shows us what the utterly predictable outcome will be.” Sure, you may agree with the latter statement, but will it really get you up off the couch to go vote?

Chapter 5 of Brooks’ book presents an agenda for implementing these ideas that is predictably headed by education reform. It makes perfect sense that if work is a blessing, then education must be a priority. Further, as I said before, it is the policy area that best shows the difference between The Conservative Heart and compassionate conservatism. Instead of succumbing to liberal ideas on education, do what really helps the poor and aggressively push for conservative reforms—choice, charters and vocational training. The book contains many specific policy proposals that should be seriously considered, but the one thing that stands out is how conservative they are. The difference is the rhetoric that surrounds those policies.

Brooks, like our Founding Fathers and indeed Aristotle, does not think rhetoric is a trifling thing, but rather the means by which public servants communicate to the electorate both who they are and what they believe. This is important because the citizenry know that they do not know what is in store for the future. They must rely on the characters of the candidates as a guide for how a leader will respond to the policy situations as yet unforeseen.

Brooks finishes his book with a list of “the seven habits of highly effective conservatives.” I will not try to sum them up now (but seriously, read that if no other chapter), but I will live up to his injunction to “be happy” by choosing to believe that this work will have a lasting effect on the conservative movement and this country we love so well.

Jason Reese

Guest Blogger

Jason Reese (J.D., University of Oklahoma) is a partner in the Oklahoma City law firm Meyer & Leonard and a former staff attorney for the Oklahoma House of Representatives. He currently serves as president of the Oklahoma City chapter of the Federalist Society. His views are his own.

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