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Why Conservatives Are Losing the Debate—And How We Can Start Winning

My AEI colleague Jonah Goldberg recently wrote a book entitled The Tyranny of Clichés. One of the clichés is that conservatives are rigid, judgmental ideologues. Progressives, by contrast, are praised as flexible pragmatists who seek practical solutions and go wherever the data lead them.

Year after year, this tired old narrative yields an equally tired piece of advice: If conservatives want to win again, they need to forget the moralizing and deal only with facts and figures.

This is a misunderstanding. Conservatives are not too moralistic—they are not moralistic enough! When it comes to the kitchen-table policy issues that affect most American families, progressives make bold proclamations about fairness and social justice that sail by, virtually unquestioned. Conservatives, on the other hand, come across as wonky, unfeeling materialists whose primary focus is money. The left talks about the human experience while the right talks about GDP growth, tax rates, and spending levels.

This is one of the greatest political ironies of our time: in fact, it is materialistic to presume that money and the redistribution of wealth alone can solve tangled social problems. It is materialistic to conflate human dignity with one’s position on the income scale, and to assert that anyone is oppressed if others earn more than they do. But when progressives present their views to the American people, they often wrap these fundamentally materialistic premises in richly moral language. And voters reward them for it.

Conversely, deep down, conservatives tend to be moralists. Conservatism at its best is a series of courageous—and, frankly, ­subversive—moral assertions about what it means to be human. We assert that there is great raw material in every single person, regardless of their circumstances. This is a revolutionary stance! We assert that providing pathways to work and holding people to high moral standards are acts not of condescension but of brotherly love. We assert that the deep principles of justice require far more of us than simply rejiggering the distribution of wealth.

Yet when we make our case to the American people, we usually wrap these noble concepts in the hideous packaging of materialism. When we cheerlead entrepreneurship, for example, we usually heap praise on rags-to-riches outliers who are now multinational executives. Seldom do we explain that the entrepreneurial spirit is priceless because it captures the American spirit in each of our lives. We’re moralists trapped in a materialistic vocabulary. We forfeit our best territory the instant the debate begins.

Speak from the Heart

As a tangible example, take the seemingly interminable debates over minimum wage. Raising the minimum wage is a surprisingly bad instrument for achieving a worthy goal—namely, boosting the incomes of working Americans. Using the force of law to make vulnerable people artificially expensive to employ destroys job opportunities for the people who need them most urgently. Compared to more effective policies that could actually achieve the same desired end, minimum-wage hikes hurt the working poor whom they are meant to assist.

But that’s not exactly how this argument plays out in Washington.

Right out of the gate, progressives speak in moral terms. “Come on, it’s just a little bit more money. Why don’t you love poor people? You don’t think the billionaires who own Wal-Mart can afford to pay a few more dollars per hour?”

The conservative response almost always takes the form of an economics lecture. “Whether Wal-Mart can afford three bucks more is not the point. Raising the minimum wage increases the cost of labor. If you raise the cost of labor, businesses will respond by using less of it. Firms only create jobs when adding marginal workers will generate net revenue. So if you raise the minimum wage, you are pricing cheap labor out of the market. QED!”

One of these two people sounds like he has workers’ best interests in his heart. The other comes across like a mildly sociopathic economist. Instead of championing low-wage Americans, conservatives sound like tax accountants to billionaires. It’s not that the conservative’s economic case is wrong. It isn’t. But it cannot be the only, or even the primary, tool in our arsenal. When it is, our very rhetoric seems to prove the accusation that conservatives elevate economics above the human heart.

Americans are not materialists. Most find materialism noxious and ugly, as they should. They are uneasy at its presence in their own lives and they rebel against it in public life. So when conservatives present the policies America needs with materialistic language, we are placing our ideas in a box so ­unattractive that people simply don’t want to look inside. They instinctively side with moral over materialistic rhetoric, and often vote for progressive politicians as a result. But many of the policies they subsequently get are materialistic to the core. The people are left dissatisfied and convinced that both sides are awful.

Fight for People, Not against Things

In theory, there are two ways politicians could right the ship. The left could become less materialistic or the right could sound less materialistic. In my view, Americans deserve both these developments. Politics ought to be a virtuous and tireless competition for the moral high ground. But since my goal here is to celebrate and improve conservatism, let’s focus on the second task.

Center-right leaders didn’t always speak like economics professors. This trend largely started as a by-product of the conservative economics revolution of the 1970s. Before Ronald Reagan, as crazy as it sounds, you could actually be a high-level politician in America and not understand the basic laws of supply and demand. That’s how we got draconian wage and price controls under a Republican president, Richard Nixon, and the outbreak of shortages that they generated.

It was a nightmare. When OPEC imposed an oil embargo on the United States, our self-imposed price controls meant that everyone had to wait in line for fuel. I remember sitting in the backseat of my dad’s Plymouth Valiant in 1973, stuck in an endless line at the gas station. It was a Republican president who distorted markets, wasted millions of hours of Americans’ time, and led to the first time I ever heard my poor, sweet dad let fly a cuss word. (As a child, that last offense seemed like sufficient justification for Nixon’s impeachment.)

But while Nixon was busy ordering “a freeze on all prices and wages throughout the United States,” conservative intellectuals were hard at work on a very different approach. Institutions like the American Enterprise Institute and the Wall Street Journal editorial page gave birth to supply-side economics. It was a new school of thought based on the simple premise that people respond to incentives. If you make something more attractive, like work or savings, people will do more of it. And if you make something less attractive by punishing it with high tax rates, they will do relatively less of it.

In September 1974, an up-and-coming economist named Arthur Laffer sat down for drinks at the Hotel Washington with President Gerald Ford’s chief of staff and his deputy. You might have heard of these men: Their names were Don Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney. Laffer wanted to explain why Ford’s plan to impose a 5 percent tax surcharge was a bad idea. He grabbed a cloth napkin, pulled out a pen, and sketched a doodle that became known as the “Laffer Curve.” (Who writes on a cloth napkin, by the way?) It showed that when taxes are higher than a certain point, raising rates will lower revenues because people will work and earn less.

This insight helped launch the Reagan Revolution in the 1980s. It produced what was then the longest peacetime economic expansion in history. But it also sparked a new crusade on the political right to raise America’s economic literacy. People started thinking, If we can explain tax incentives with a napkin doodle, we can explain economics to everyone! Like a college sophomore home for Christmas break, Republicans became earnest explainers who would corner everyone in earshot to explain what they’d learned. To win forever, it seemed, all conservatives had to do was keep repeating that reducing marginal tax rates increases the incentive to work and stimulates growth!

This quickly turned into myopia. Republican politicians started fixating on economic expansion as an end in itself. They spoke as if growth were all that mattered, ignoring the deeper reason we care about growth in the first place—it gives more people a better shot to build their own lives. Over time, these hopeful, optimistic foot soldiers in Reagan’s revolution started focusing less on the positive things Reagan fought for and more on the things he opposed—like high taxes, high spending, regulations, and debt.

And what is the result? Conservatives stopped winning. Taxes are rising, spending is higher, regulations are growing, and our debt is skyrocketing. Meanwhile, Republicans have created a reputation for themselves as being a party of heartless Scrooges.

Start with Why

It’s time to reverse that mistake. Let’s return to the minimum-wage debate. Stop laboring to explain inflation cycles, consumption patterns, and the laws of supply and demand. Lead with your heart and offer a statement of principle.
“I believe that in America, if you work hard and play by the rules, our society should make sure you can support yourself and your family.” Now people are listening to you.

Next, pose a question. “So, what is the best way to make work pay for folks toward the bottom of the economic ladder?”

State that minimum-wage hikes would actually set back that goal. “Increasing the minimum wage would give some people raises, but many of the most vulnerable would lose their jobs! We need to fight for those people.”

Finally, step up with a superior alternative. For example, “I have a better way to make work pay. Instead of raising the minimum wage, we should expand the Earned Income Tax Credit. This supplements poor people’s paychecks without destroying their jobs. Poor Americans need and deserve this.”

This is a bit harder than blithely saying demagogic nonsense like, “Let’s give America a raise!” But if you master it, look at what you’ve accomplished. This little monologue combines several tactics, but it all started when you began with a statement of moral purpose. From the very beginning, your audience is not thinking that you seem heartless. They have the accurate impression that you genuinely care, and they’re willing to listen to the rest.

This is a useful habit for all of us, even if we never set foot on a debate stage. The next time you are about to have an argument with your significant other, don’t launch right in. Start with a statement of moral purpose: “Honey, first of all, I want you to remember how much I love you. I know you want to do what’s best for us.” Instantly, that becomes a totally different conversation. Okay, your significant other might also think you need to see a psychiatrist. But you get the idea.

No matter the topic, never start with what you want to talk about. Start with why. If you lead with your heart, you’ll have a shot at winning over everybody within earshot. Their hearts will open in response. So practice your pitch—and make it a statement of moral purpose.


Arthur C. Brooks is president of the American Enterprise Institute, where he is also the Beth and Ravenel Curry Scholar in Free Enterprise. This essay is adapted from his recent New York Times bestseller, The Conservative Heart: How to Build a Fairer, Happier, and More Prosperous America (Broadside Books), by permission of the publisher.

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