CBC sat down with Dr. Arthur Brooks, author of The Conservative Heart: How to Build a Fairer, Happier, and More Prosperous America. He is currently President of the esteemed, conservative American Enterprise Institute, former professor at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Citizenship & Public Affairs – the US News & World Report’s top-ranked public affairs school in the country, and a former professional french horn player!
Congratulations Dr. Brooks on your new book,The Conservative Heart! Can you give us an overview of your book, and what was your inspiration in writing it?
The guiding inspiration for The Conservative Heart was my own personal story of how I became a conservative. I was raised in a liberal family in Seattle, and only became a conservative later in life for one reason: I care deeply about poverty and want to help people escape it.
In my late twenties, when I was finally finishing up my B.A., I fell in love with economics. And in particular, I was captivated by the fact that traditionally “conservative” values like free enterprise, globalization, free trade, and American leadership overseas had helped billions of people around the world pull themselves out of poverty. That’s why I’m a conservative today.
But here at home, there’s a bit of a political paradox at work. Even though we conservatives are in possession of the best solutions for poverty and the best ideas for expanding access to meaningful work, we are the least trusted by citizens to fight for poor and vulnerable people. We’ve failed at communicating what is really written on our hearts. That has to change. That’s why I wrote this book.
What three takeaways would you like readers to leave with after reading your book?
First, conservatives need to stop “fighting against things” and start fighting for people. Our cause has come to be defined by the bad policies we oppose. We fight against Obamacare, we fight against tax increases, we fight against runaway spending. But merely opposing bad ideas will never be enough to transform our protest movement into a social movement and reclaim the moral high ground. We need to get beyond the specifics of particular policy fights and remember—and remind the American people—that conservatives are fighting to help them pursue their own happiness.
Second, our society and our policies must treat every single person as an asset to develop, not a liability to manage. Often, our political rhetoric tragically reduces struggling people to mere liabilities to be managed at minimal cost. On the left, this manifests itself in a view that the poor should be left to the dependence of the welfare state; on the right, it sometimes appears in claims that the poor are simply “lazy” or refuse to work. The conservative heart at its core believes that people have equal, God-given worth and dignity—and should be cultivated like the invaluable assets they are.
Third, true leaders stand up for the people who need them, not just the people who support them. You’ll sometimes hear some conservatives ask: “Why should we work hard to support the poor? They’ll never vote for us anyways!” I respond with two points. First, history’s real patriots fight for everyone who needs them, not just those who agree with them. But secondarily, doing the right thing has a political payoff. Americans want leaders who embody compassion and empathy in addition to strong, moral leadership.
I assume your idea for the title of your book was loosely taken from Russell Kirk’s seminal The Conservative Mind – an early leader of conservative Traditionalism. Do you believe there is an untenable divide between the economic and social conservatives, or do you believe there is an opportunity to reinvigorate conservative fusion in the upcoming 2016 election?
Fusionism is successful when all three pillars of the mainstream conservative agenda—free enterprise, traditional moral values, and American strength around the world—are all motivated by one core ethical principle: fighting for people with less power than us.
Fiscal conservatism will fall short if it is perceived as an outgrowth of greed. Social conservatism can’t succeed if traditional values are perceived as a tool used for excluding others. And a conservative foreign policy won’t succeed if it is rooted in fear. But when all three pillars are based in aspiration, in real hope for what human beings can accomplish when they are safe from tyranny, held to high moral standards, and free to earn their own success in a prosperous economy—that’s how conservative fusionism wins.
In your previous life, you were a public administration professor at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Citizenship & Public Affairs before becoming President of the American Enterprise Institute. From your experience, what is your assessment of university education, in regards to its utility and the current politically correct nature on campuses?
The United States has the best universities in the world. But the single greatest weakness of American higher-ed is its lack of genuine intellectual diversity. So many campuses are effectively ideological monocultures, and “political diversity” means that some professors support President Obama and others think he isn’t liberal enough.
The answer is not for conservatives to withdraw and rail against academia from outside it, but to re-engage. We need more smart conservatives to become college professors, and we need conservative students to dive into campus life, both in political groups and through acts of charity, pairing real brotherly love with the courage of their convictions.
Tell us a little more about yourself!
Impossible to pick just one. One recent favorite is the George Clooney film Up in the Air.
Favorite TV Show:
NFL football. Specifically the Seattle Seahawks.
My favorite real food is probably Spanish lentils. But I have a huge sweet tooth, so I’ll eat almost any sweets that are put in front of me. (My dentist loves me.)
I’m a huge classical music junkie, being a former professional French horn player. Two of my favorite composers are J.S. Bach and Anton Bruckner. Both made beautiful music based on a deep sense of moral purpose.
Where do you get your news from primarily?
I keep it simple: The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, and “AEI Today,” our daily newsletter on policy and politics.
If you could meet any person, dead or alive, who would it be?
St. Thomas Aquinas.
What do you do for fun?
Family activities are the best. I love hunting, fishing, riding horses, and going to concerts with my kids, and watching their gymnastics meets and bike races.
What books, authors, or conservative-themed books, influenced your political philosophy and outlook on life?
Thinking about political philosophy, I’d say The Wealth of Nations and The Theory of Moral Sentiments by Adam Smith, The Road to Serfdom by Friedrich Hayek, and The Moral Sense by my mentor James Q. Wilson.
In a broader sense, Meditations by Marcus Aurelius and The Imitation of Christ by Thomas à Kempis are among the books that’ve had a tremendous influence on my life.