This review was originally posted at The Clapham Group
Families living paycheck-to-paycheck, single parent households struggling to provide access to opportunity for their children, the long and challenging road of unemployment, and aspiring college students facing overwhelming tuition rates are just some of the problems facing Americans who are seeking to achieve the “American Dream.”
Unfortunately, many Americans believe that their government doesn’t genuinely care about their success, and places specific onus on those right of center. In fact, a recent poll found that Americans are five times more likely to say that the Republican Party is not compassionate rather than compassionate (1).
Arthur Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), discusses obstacles to success and how the conservative principles of free enterprise, personal responsibility, and entrepreneurship offer the best hope and mostcompassionate solutions for the poor in his most recent work, The Conservative Heart.
Dishearteningly, many define conservatives by the policies they are against (minimum wage increase, universal healthcare and foreign aid minimums to name a few), rather than by the policies that they are for and where common ground for the common good can be found.
Interestingly, more than two thirds of Americans believe that global poverty has gotten worse rather than better; however, the truth is that global poverty has been reduced by 80 percent worldwide. And the five contributing factors that have made this a reality are tenets of conservatism, including: globalization, free trade, property rights, the rule of law and entrepreneurship.
Commenting on this phenomenon Brooks writes, “Capitalism has saved a couple of billion people and we have treated this miracle like a state secret.” Despite these major gains around the world, in America, the poor are staying poor and the rich are getting richer. Although advances were made with welfare reform in the 1990s, the last decade has yielded more dependence on government assistance programs while the unemployment rate has increased dramatically (3).
A classically-trained musician turned economics professor and conservative thinker, Brooks found his experiences with poverty around the world juxtaposed with his own climb up the educational ladder in America realizing that many of the solutions for poverty were at the heart of conservative ideals.
At the center of the conservative heart is the “pursuit of happiness” which is found in “faith, family, community and meaningful work,” he writes. And despite the thought that a free enterprise system is where people are free to pursue money and success, Brooks asserts that happiness is found in the work itself or “earned success” rather than material gain.
Brooks encourages free enterprise because it provides the most abundance for the most people, especially the poor. Therefore, providing opportunity for the poor is not just about attaining more material wealth; instead, it’s an opportunity to earn one’s own living no matter what the job may be.
An illustration of empowering people through meaningful work is the programs of The Doe Fund, an organization providing transition work, housing, educational and career training opportunities to people who have been in prison, homeless or with a history of substance abuse. Brooks found that the Doe Fund uniquely viewed people with value despite their past or background – each man and woman was seen as an “asset to develop” rather than “liability to manage.” This perspective is the secret “core” of the conservative movement and what American needs to bring sustaining transformation for the poor.
Brooks shared the story of an ex-con Rick Norat whose life was changed by The Doe Fund. A man, who started getting high at age eight, was raised by a single mother and was surrounded by drug dealers and addicts. He ended up homeless eating out of trashcans. His life was full of shame and hopelessness and following his arrest he felt a sense of relief in prison from the misery he was in. From there he earned his GED and following his release was accepted into The Doe Fund.
Through their Ready, Willing and Able program he started sweeping streets, built up a savings and eventually earned a pest control license. When Norat was asked if he was “happy” he explained the thrill of being needed in his business. Norat said, “I’ve become a go-to guy for the company. I am needed. I have a purpose. Do you understand? These people need me. I’ve never had that.”
Brooks asserts that giving people the opportunities to pursue meaningful work needs to be coupled with a social justice agenda that relies on three things – values, help and hope. Values play a vital role in people’s success or sustained poverty. Brooks adds that the agenda has to include a social safety net along with practical hope to “help the poor lead lives of dignity, independence, self-reliance, and above all, work.”
In this season of debates by presidential hopefuls, it’s easy to look around and hear some conservative aspirants clinging onto what Brooks calls a “protest movement” — where rhetoric of what conservatives are against is louder than the identification of the values of the majority. Brooks encourages a shift from a conservatism being defined as a protest movement to a social movement. But warns that the only way to rebrand conservatism as a positive social movement is to show the American people what the conservative heart is rather than just the conservative mind of arguments and policies.
“Conservatives have the most effective solutions for human flourishing in our intellectual DNA. Our ideas have lifted up people all over the world. But the American people do not trust us to put those principles into practice to help those who need help right here,” Brooks writes. In order for this to change, conservatives need to share the heart of their ideas – the pursuit of happiness, solutions to poverty, the blessings of meaningful work, the fight for a social justice agenda and the need for a positive movement that is genuinely for the people.
As we’re quickly approaching the 2016 election season, conservatives must reframe how bringing about change in America is talked about. We must remember that at the root of all the issues that we’re debating over – like child welfare, education reform, immigration, and unemployment — are people. Concern for people is the center of the conservative heart. As conservatives, let’s capitalize on the good of our country, its people, and restore hope and opportunity to the idea of the American Dream by shaping policy that is motivated by the conservative heart.