Reducing the size of government entitlements and winning the war on poverty are both achievable, but American Enterprise Institute President Arthur C. Brooks says it will take much stronger leadership and a change in how conservatives present their message.
Brooks is the author of “The Conservative Heart: How to Build a Fairer, Happier, and More Prosperous America.” The book makes a passionate case that big government policies are doing nothing to alleviate poverty in the U.S. and that conservative policies could have a significant impact if pursued boldly and wisely.
Brooks says the biggest problem right now is that very few people have the courage to take on entitlement reform because they fear failure or backlash, even though the need for it is fiscally obvious.
“The fact that politicians say that’s impossible is because they’re not good leaders. They’re followers is what it comes down to. The definition of leadership is inducing people to do something difficult on behalf of the whole society. Great leaders can take a country to war, yet we don’t have leaders today who can reform our entitlements?” said Brooks.
According to Brooks, the longer Washington dawdles on the issue, the bigger the problem gets.
“The creaking entitlement system that is just completely unsustainable is imperiling the safety net completely. We’re going to have austerity. Just look at Greece. That’s down the road for us at some point and the people who will suffer are not the rich. They never are. It’s always the poor. So if we love the poor, we have a responsibility to avoid austerity. That means we have to be solvent and to be solvent means we have to be fiscal conservatives,” said Brooks.
In contrast to today’s leaders who pretend issues of poverty and fiscal irresponsibility do not exist, Brooks offered a glimpse of what he thinks real leaders would do.
“We have to have real leaders who have hard conversations about what the entitlement system should look like. You don’t have to throw somebody out on the street or take away benefits that are actually earned. You simply have to have some common sense approaches to it,” said Brooks.
“The fact that we have leaders who are so poor that they can’t even broach the conversation about what the retirement age ought to be when people are living longer and longer is just more evidence that we’re incapable of doing hard things,” he added.
Brooks says fiscally conservative approaches to keeping the nation solvent and lifting people out of poverty are the right approach, but the right has a problem. He says while conservative policies are far more compassionate and encouraging than the liberal approach of government cutting a check to the poor, conservatives have allowed the left to stake the higher moral ground on such issues.
Instead, he says conservatives need to do a better job of convincing people they want them to succeed.
“Go from fighting against government institutions to fighting for people that are being held down and denied their equal rights to the pursuit of happiness and you’re going to be on track to starting a social movement and not just a protest movement,” said Brooks, referring to the tea party activists who he believes started a much needed revolt against Washington but need to do a better job of explaining what they support.
Some of that starts with taking back the true definition of hot-button political terms. Brooks says conservatives have surrendered the term social justice to the political left, when it should describe the opportunity culture small government advocates seek to advance.
“Conservatives never say social justice. Why not? We believe in social justice. We just define it differently. The way we define social justice, the way we define fairness, the way we define compassion; these are the definitions the majority of Americans shares. It’s time for us to start talking that way,” said Brooks.
“If you believe in poverty reduction like I do, you must be a fiscal conservative and you must have conservative values,” he added.
Brooks also stresses that creating opportunity means establishing a level playing field. He that means not setting burdensome hurdles for people to chase their dreams and not having politicians handing out political favors to their donors and other political cronies.
“It doesn’t matter if people vote Democrat or vote Republican. We have a moral obligation to stand up for people who need our opportunity society. One of the things that’s in the way of that is very powerful people that are gaming the system, particularly, at the corporate level, to make sure they can be in front of the line and in front of the little guys. It’s not right. We have to stand up and denounce it,” said Brooks.
But just as important as bold leadership and championing the rights of all Americans is how those messages are conveyed. In his book, Brooks lists what he calls “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective Conservatives.” He says it’s a debate strategy that helps conservatives win, with focuses on staking the moral high ground, fighting for people rather than against things, stealing good arguments, going to nontraditional audiences and more.
But he says the most urgent priority for conservative messaging is to get happy.
“Nobody wants to follow someone who’s grim, at least not for very long,” he said. “The Republican Party only wins when it’s the party of aspiration. Just ask the people who worked with Ronald Reagan. He threw away the playbook of malaise and throwing insults around and saying everybody’s stupid. He said it’s morning in America. We’re going to fight for everyone. He was a true happy warrior.”