Like many present-day conservatives, Brooks was once a “liberal bohemian,” as he himself says. In fact, and impressively, he was a musician who played French horn with the Barcelona Symphony Orchestra after he dropped out of college. He eventually went on to earn university degrees, including one or two through correspondence, in economics and public policy, and to teach at the University of Syracuse. Also like many former liberal communists, he reasoned his way out of the morass and into a conservative mindset, ultimately ending up as president of the American Enterprise Institute. The AEI, he says proudly, “is the highest temple of the conservative intellectual movement.” It is an 80-year-old, highly influential Washington D.C.- based think tank that takes no government funds.
Sadly, Brooks says, millions of poor Americans think that “the American Dream is no longer within their reach and that conservatives don’t care.” But we do care, he implores, and sets out to prove that – more than compassionate conservatism, which assumes that conservatism needs the qualifier because it does not have compassion built in -- the conservative heart is real, intellectually sound, and can be effective in getting proper policies into place. The book, The Conservative Heart, is Brooks’ rough blueprint to start to get this done.
As evident from the book’s title, the plan is more ambitious than simply raising the living standards of poor Americans, most of whom have cars, cell phones and colour televisions. Truly, like everyone on the right, Brooks would like to see many, many conservative policies in place. To do this, to advance a feasible, constructive, national and long-term right-wing program -- such as put forward by the widely admired, currently quiet, Tea Party – the smaller campaign must transform itself from a protest movement into a social movement, a la the civil rights fights of the 1960s.
As for the individual -- the building block for a better America -- Brooks knows honest work, however menial, is vital. Work gives a person not just a livelihood but also a sense of dignity, and dignity, in turn, leads to happiness, and happiness, as almost every American knows, is fundamental to a good life and even good nationhood. The pursuit of happiness is entrenched in the United States Declaration of Independence, where it is listed as one of the “unalienable” rights – along with life and liberty -- given by God and to be protected by government. Though not formally a constitutional right, pursuing happiness is legally important in America.
Before you laugh at the idea of legally protecting happiness, consider recent developments in certain lower jurisdictions as well as in some other countries. According to a 2016 article in the Columbia Undergraduate Law Review, entitled “Constitutional Considerations of Happiness,” while it is true that both life and liberty are protected by the American constitution, “happiness goes unmentioned in the highest law of the land. The Declaration has no standing in the legal system of the United States; nevertheless, the pursuit of happiness has an important role in American legal history and is becoming increasingly significant internationally.” For example, protections of the pursuit of happiness are being entrenched in various state and national constitutions, “and have even been cited in some of the United States’ Supreme Court’s landmark decisions on marriage. The emergence of legal protection for considerations of happiness, despite its omission in the supreme law of the land, demonstrates this right’s power in the American consciousness.”
Of course, happiness is only possible under capitalism. An unabashed cheerleader of free enterprise, Brooks bemoans the fact that conservative proponents of the only successful economic system in human history have been put on the defensive of late. “For the past 20 years, our movement had basked in the glow of capitalism’s victory over the socialist alternative. But now, it seemed to many that the weaknesses in our economic status quo had finally come home to roost.” What he calls a “crisis of American free enterprise” is reflected in general opinions and attitudes. A survey taken five years ago found “84 percent of Americans are unaware that worldwide deprivation has fallen as dramatically as it has over the past three decades. Indeed, more than two thirds [of Americans] actually think global hunger has gotten worse, in direct contradiction of the facts. Capitalism has saved a couple of billion people and we have treated this miracle like a state secret.”
Obviously, there are a lot of components to fixing poverty in America, including understanding it as more than just a lack of material goods. Brooks argues that almost 100 percent of Americans, on both the left and the right, believe that compassion and fairness are integral to resolving the poverty crisis. And he correctly states that the issue comprises four parts: “American poverty goes far beyond financial need, as though that weren’t bad enough. Of course, many low-income Americans do enjoy great lives filled with faith, family, community and work. But on average, poor communities are disproportionately deprived of these four secrets to happiness.”
Herein lies the crux of the poverty debate between a liberal and a conservative. The former defines the problem in strictly dollar terms, and sees government as having the obligation to alleviate poverty by simply redistributing wealth. The latter defines poverty as an emptiness of the soul. Brooks does not clearly tell us how to bridge this wide divide, nor how to cease the spreading social malaise that deems God and religion are useless, the traditional family is dead, neighbors are strangers, good steady jobs are a thing of the past, and no-skill jobs are for kids.
Brooks uses intriguing examples to make his points, from third world garbage dumps to Washington D.C. slums. But first he explains how the Great Society as announced by President Lyndon Johnson on May 22, 1964 – a speech which interestingly placed pursuing happiness as the ultimate goal – only jumped on a racing freight train. In other words, the grinding poverty that Johnson bemoaned and introduced widespread programs to alleviate was being greatly lessened already, thanks to capitalism. Says Brooks: “Almost all of the decrease in poverty [after the war] took place before Johnson’s policies went into effect. It was a vibrant economy that did the trick…. As a result of this economic expansion, the poverty rate had already fallen from 25 percent in 1950 to 19.5 percent the morning Lyndon Johnson strode to the podium in 1964.”
The story of how Dallas Davis got involved in the Doe Fund’s “Willing and Able Program” is a tale of redemption that grabs your heart and does not stop squeezing. Brooks tells how Davis -- whose addiction to drugs led him, no surprise, to desperation, loneliness and prison -- gets involved when he is free in a program that offers him everything he could ever want, including sobriety, friendships, community, routine, expectations of others, and a paying job – picking up garbage. There are other examples in the book that are both fascinating and hard to believe. But Brookes, the gentle writer, does not lie. Everything he claims is backed up in 20 pages of endnotes.
I give this book five stars.
This book, like almost all books reviewed on Lynne's Likes, is available on Amazon.ca