Do conservative politicians need to have more heart? Do they just need to find snappy, appealing slogans to describe their existing economic policies? That’s the argument, apparently, in Arthur C. Brooks’ new book, The Conservative Heart. I’m no conservative myself, so I hope conservatives listen to Brooks. Because his argument just doesn’t match reality.
SAGLRROILYBYGTH will not be surprised to hear that I don’t really know what I’m talking about. I haven’t read Brooks’ new book. Based on the recent review by N. Gregory Mankiw in the New York Times, though, I feel justified in saying nertz to Brooks’ diagnosis.
Both Brooks and Mankiw hail from the free-market-conservative American Enterprise Institute. According to Mankiw, Brooks thinks that conservatives do not have a problem with policy. Rather, they have a problem with publicity.
As Mankiew recounts, President Obama is able to rally support for a minimum-wage hike by saying simply, “It’s time to give America a raise.”
Free-market conservatives, on the other hand, mumble through a complicated but correct four-point rebuttal. By the end, Brooks thinks, Americans just aren’t listening.
This Casssandresque portrait of market conservatives might be flattering to conservatives, but it just doesn’t match political reality. It’s not that overly nerdy conservatives lose their audiences mid-way. Rather, the public never even starts listening.
The problem for conservatives is not that they have too much Spock and not enough Kirk. Conservatives’ main problem has not been their overly logical public image. Rather, conservatives have struggled and failed to portray themselves as something different from their elitist, racist twentieth-century roots.
They need to do more to overcome their twentieth-century history. There are plenty of non-white conservatives out there, but they tend to think that voting for the GOP will be a betrayal. With good reason: This year, GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump insults Mexicans and Mexican-Americans. Last year, ham-handed GOP leaders denounced a voter-registration drive in Ferguson, Missouri.
It is not only these recent events that work against conservatism. Conservatism in the United States has always been perceived (with plenty of justification) as a movement of elite white racists. As I argued in my recent book about twentieth-century conservatism, by the end of the century conservative activists tried to refute their reputation for racism. It didn’t work.
When conservative leaders denied their racism, non-white voters did not believe them. In 1974-75, for example, most of the leaders of the conservative school boycott movement in Kanawha County, West Virginia adamantly denied that they were racist. Folks such as Avis Hill pointed out that he went to church with lots of African Americans. Conservative teachers such as Karl Priest pointed out that he coached a mixed-race basketball team.
Nevertheless, local African American leaders were not impressed. The Reverend Ronald English, for example, conceded that most of his African American friends and congregants were just as conservative as the book protesters. But because of the legacy of conservative activism; because of the presence of a weak and wilted Ku Klux Klan in support of the boycott; because many of the authors of the “offensive” books were African Americans, very few African Americans supported the conservative boycotters.
This legacy continues. In spite of Mr. Brooks’ recommendations, non-white voters—even staunchly conservative ones—will hate to vote for the party of white racism, even if those GOP leaders speak from the heart.
What should conservatives do?
They need to do more than simply insist that they are no longer racist. This will involve promoting non-white leaders such as Bobby Jindal, Nikki Haley, and Ben Carson. This will involve policing their own ranks to prevent any winking at old-fashioned white racism. This will involve highlighting cross-racial areas of conservative agreement on cultural issues such as abortion, same-sex marriage, and creationism.
Can it work? It can and has. When President Reagan appealed to working-class ethnic whites, he swept into the White House with the support of such “Reagan Democrats.” The next big conservative winner will do something similar. He (or she) will undercut the traditional lock between non-white voters and the Democratic Party. He or she will speak from the heart, for sure, but that heart will have to prove somehow that it has had an authentic conversion. Otherwise, voters just won’t listen.