So much time and money and digital ink has been spent in recent months trying to figure out “what went wrong” during the last election cycle. But perhaps the answer is simpler than we realize: Writing in the Wall Street Journal on Monday, AEI president Arthur C. Brooks argued that conservatives are failing to discuss an issue every voter in America cares deeply about -- namely, how to empower and improve the lives of poor people:
[T]here is only one statistic needed to explain the outcome of the 2012 presidential election. An April YouGov.com poll—which mirrored every other poll on the subject—found that only 33% of Americans said that Mitt Romney "cares about people like me." Only 38% said he cared about the poor.
Conservatives rightly complain that this perception was inflamed by President Obama's class-warfare campaign theme. But perception is political reality, and over the decades many Americans have become convinced that conservatives care only about the rich and powerful.
Perhaps it doesn't matter. If Republicans and conservatives double down on the promotion of economic growth, job creation and traditional values, Americans might turn away from softheaded concerns about "caring." Right?
Wrong. As New York University social psychologist Jonathan Haidt has shown in his research on 132,000 Americans, care for the vulnerable is a universal moral concern in the U.S. In his best-selling 2012 book "The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion," Mr. Haidt demonstrated that citizens across the political spectrum place a great importance on taking care of those in need and avoiding harm to the weak. By contrast, moral values such as sexual purity and respect for authority—to which conservative politicians often give greater emphasis—resonate deeply with only a minority of the population. Raw money arguments, e.g., about the dire effects of the country's growing entitlement spending, don't register morally at all.
Conservatives are fighting a losing battle of moral arithmetic. They hand an argument with virtually 100% public support—care for the vulnerable—to progressives, and focus instead on materialistic concerns and minority moral viewpoints.
The irony is maddening. America's poor people have been saddled with generations of disastrous progressive policy results, from welfare-induced dependency to failing schools that continue to trap millions of children.
The general consensus in America today is that Democrats “care” about the less fortunate and Republicans, for their part, do not; they seek only to protect the interests (and bank accounts) of “rich” people. Nothing could be further from the truth, of course, but this is nevertheless the world we live in. And if Republicans are hoping to win the 2016 presidential election, I think they would be wise to heed Brooks’ advice:
Some say the solution for conservatives is either to redouble the attacks on big government per se, or give up and try to build a better welfare state. Neither path is correct. Raging against government debt and tax rates that most Americans don't pay gets conservatives nowhere, and it will always be an exercise in futility to compete with liberals on government spending and transfers.
Instead, the answer is to make improving the lives of vulnerable people the primary focus of authentically conservative policies. For example, the core problem with out-of-control entitlements is not that they are costly—it is that the impending insolvency of Social Security and Medicare imperils the social safety net for the neediest citizens. Education innovation and school choice are not needed to fight rapacious unions and bureaucrats—too often the most prominent focus of conservative education concerns—but because poor children and their parents deserve better schools.
Conservatives don’t need to change their principles or ideas. According to Brooks, they need only change the way in which they articulate those principles and ideas. If anything, this would be a step in the right direction -- and one way to refute the flawed notion that because Republicans disagree with Democrats on, say, how to solve poverty in America, that doesn’t necessarily mean they don’t care deeply about the plight of poor people. We all know they do.
Now it’s just a question of showing it.