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Does Conservatism Need an Overhaul?

By: William A. Galston, Arthur C. Brooks
January 16, 2016

In the Fall 2015 Claremont Review of Books, William A. Galston reviewed The Conservative Heart: How to Build a Fairer, Happier, and More Prosperous America, by Arthur C. Brooks. Both gentlemen have agreed to pursue here questions raised in the book and review. Dr. Brooks is president of the American Enterprise Institute, where he is also the Beth and Ravenel Curry Scholar in Free Enterprise. Dr. Galston is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, where he holds the Ezra K. Zilkha Chair in Governance Studies.


Arthur Brooks: Let me kick off this exchange with a few words of thanks. First, to Bill Galston. Every author’s hope is that a new book will spark lively conversations and tempt serious thinkers to engage with its arguments. I’m grateful that Bill spent some time with The Conservative Heart and offered such a thorough and interesting reaction. Thanks also to Bill Voegeli for convening this conversation, and to CRB for hosting it online.

Now for the fun part.


As I read and re-read your review, two major contentions stuck out as particularly interesting to me:

First, I read you as arguing that modern conservatism needs a deep ideological overhaul, not merely cosmetic tweaks, to succeed (and that The Conservative Heart leans too much on the latter).

And second, you point out that antipoverty programs are only one small component of economic policy writ large. You argue that focusing intently on helping the poor will be politically insufficient, since a larger group of middle-class voters will feel that conservatives aren’t making their lives any easier.

I’ll briefly discuss each of these points and then look forward to your thoughts.

First, let me tackle the question of substantive shifts versus cosmetic changes and what modern conservatism really needs. It’s important to avoid a false dichotomy. It is not as though the only two options available to political movements are either pasting new buzzwords on old thinking or completely gutting all priors and starting over. Rather, history shows us that successful political adjustments tend fall between these extremes.

Take both my example of Reagan-era Republicans and your example of Clinton-era Democrats. Both groups found ways to emphasize the best core aspects of their respective traditions while simultaneously reaching for renewal. Reagan was unmistakably a conservative, focused on moral values and strong leadership. Clinton was unmistakably a liberal with a passion for helping struggling people. But to his side’s built-in advantages, Reagan added vibrant optimism, tangibly new economic ideas, and an emphasis on fighting for ordinary people that the nation didn’t expect from a conservative. Conversely, while retaining the natural tonal strengths of the left, Clinton declared peace on free enterprise and the end of welfare as we knew it.

I think The Conservative Heart puts forward a similar prescription for today’s political right. On some policy issues, the book does lay down substantive markers. I admonish purist libertarians for resisting the very idea of the safety net. Some populists would resist my calls to expand the Earned Income Tax Credit. Many moderate conservatives and centrists reject my hostility towards minimum wage hikes and towards entitlements that extend upward into the upper-middle class.

Very few readers, I think, would come away with all their policy preconceptions completely unchallenged.

But on a broader level, you’re right that I don’t use The Conservative Heart to demand a radical policy platform re-write. Instead, I situate some specific suggestions inside an urgent plea for a broader sea change in tone, approach, and mentality. The book calls conservatives to rediscover our very best principles and then apply them in creative, new ways to an area that we’ve previously neglected. That is much more than a marketing tweak.

Let me turn towards your second main point—the idea that fighting poverty is a distraction from the more important issues of middle-class economics.

I should state up front that my Catholic faith weighs heavily on this question for me. Catholics are taught to have a preference for the poor, and to be especially sure to look out for the most vulnerable members of our society. Even if fighting for poor people brought conservatives zero votes, my moral duty would still call me to advocate for them.

In The Conservative Heart, my primary goal was not to play crafty political chess, but to empower conservatives to become better, happier people who can live their values more fully by sharing free enterprise with the people who need it the most.

Happily, however, I do assert that doing the right thing would in this case likely bring a political payoff. To explain why, let me rewind to 2012.

Remember the NBC exit poll that asked voters which of four criteria mattered most to them? Gov. Romney actually defeated President Obama among voters whose top criterion was a President who “shares my values,” “is a strong leader,” and even “has a vision for the future.” The only criterion where the Republican lost was on “Cares about people like me." But the President absolutely thrashed him on that battlefield, 81% to 18%.

And this enormous, costly empathy gap didn’t seem to originate from an insufficient focus on the middle class. Romney studiously aimed his campaign at those voters, even declaring bluntly on national television his campaign was “not concerned about the very poor” but rather “focused on middle-income Americans.”

Loyal Democrats are free to argue that conservative policies are just inherently unappealing to middle-class voters; that Romney’s rhetoric was correctly directed but just insufficient when paired with these toxic ideas. But the other polled criteria seem to belie this hypothesis—remember, majorities of voters preferred Romney's vision for the country as a whole. So does the obvious fact that middle-class Americans as a whole were big fans of President Reagan (and regularly support Republicans at many levels).

Vast swaths of middle-class voters are not, I propose, permanently allergic to conservatism per se. The more likely allergen is candidates and political movements that fail to signal true leadership by standing up for people who need them. Even to voters who are not personally poor, empathy for struggling people seems to send a telling signal about the posture of a leader's heart.

Let me close with a quick aside. I think your contrast with the “triangulation” executed by President Clinton and the Democratic Leadership Council is instructive. The Democratic Party of the 1990s had to pivot away from statist economics and towards free enterprise. Free enterprise was simply too self-evidently successful and too widely approved by the voters for them to do otherwise.

So the fact that progressives found success adopting this tenet of conservative thought is no reason for conservatives to pivot away from it. It wasn’t triangulation that voters rewarded, but simply moving from wrong to right. Far from a reason to lurch left, this actually shows why conservatives must keep free enterprise front and center.


William Galston:

Dear Arthur,

We have something in common that makes possible a productive conversation. You are not interested in scoring points, and neither am I. We both see dialogue as a mode—perhaps the mode—of seeking truth. It is in that spirit that I reply.

A substantial portion of your book is addressed to the Tea Party, which you regard as a raw but promising development for the future of conservatism. I disagreed with that assessment in my review, and I continue to disagree today. Recall a key point: you omitted immigration reform from your list of what the Tea Party is against. This is no trivial oversight. As Donald Trump intuited (and a substantial body of survey research confirms), opposition to immigration reform is at the heart of the Tea Party movement.

The concern goes beyond illegal immigration. Members of this movement resent the demographic changes that five decades of immigration since the reform act of 1965 have triggered. They feel marginalized in a country they once dominated. Trump’s appeal lies in the powerful but misleading intimation that these changes can be reversed. In so doing, he has set the tone for the Republican presidential contest—and increasingly, for the conservative movement. In a recent article, Ramesh Ponnuru observes that a hardline stance on immigration is becoming a key defining element of contemporary conservatism. This was not the case in the 1980s and 1990s, as the cases of Ronald Reagan, Steve Forbes, and Jack Kemp illustrate. That it has become so today is largely attributable to the influence of the Tea Party. This is hardly an example of the shift from negation to affirmation, and from anger to hope, that you recommend. But anger intermingled with nostalgia for an irretrievable and romanticized past is the distilled essence of the Tea Party.

Speaking of Jack Kemp: I followed with interest the recent Kemp Foundation forum in which you participated. It was encouraging to see six Republican presidential candidates civilly exchanging ideas for fighting poverty and expanding opportunity. I could not help but notice, however, that Donald Trump and Ted Cruz did not bother to put in an appearance. Not only are these two men the leading candidates for their party’s presidential nomination, but also they are the darlings of the Tea Party. A recent survey showed them splitting 76 percent of the likely Republican electorate that identifies with the Tea Party movement.

There is little evidence that the members of this group care much about poverty. Instead, they are driving the political dialogue toward the issues they do care about—trade, immigration, and terrorism. Granted, these are legitimate subjects of debate, between and within the political parties. But taken together, they reflect the Tea Party’s dominant sentiment—namely, protection against what it perceives as threats. This is crucial for your agenda, because fear is the foe of generosity. Its focus is oneself and one’s family, not on anonymous Others in need of a new chance to succeed.

I agree with you that the middle class is not permanently allergic to conservatism, any more than it is allergic to liberalism. I also agree that Mitt Romney declared his intention to focus on “middle-income Americans.” His problem was that not enough of those Americans believed him. But they don’t necessarily believe Democrats either.

That’s my point. Under two administrations of opposing parties, we have just completed the tenth consecutive year in which economic growth failed to reach 3 percent. Wages have stagnated, and household incomes remain well below where they stood in the late 1990s. As long as the middle class feels stuck, the chances of galvanizing the country around a new assault on poverty are vanishingly small.

From a moral perspective, I cannot criticize your focus. But speaking practically, progress on alleviating poverty cannot be decoupled from a broader effort to restart the engine of vigorous growth whose fruits are widely shared. How best to do that is the debate that we ought to be having in this election, and it amazes me that neither party wishes to engage in it.

All the best,





Thanks for another thoughtful reply. I have three main points to offer in response.

First, I can't contend that the focus on poor and vulnerable Americans that I recommend, or my advice to craft a positive message about fighting for people (instead of merely against things), has been universally adopted on the right. Far from it, which is why I wrote TCH. I want these to be a key themes on the right, which inspire conservatives in a new way, and resonate with people who are open-minded, but who currently have a jaundiced view of the right. Like you.

Is my approach going to win the day? I don’t know. There is a real competition going on for the future of conservatism--which I think is good, because I believe in competition. On a side note, I see somewhat less ideological competition on the left today. Perhaps that worries you—but that is a conversation for another day.

Like you, I wish that all Republican candidates had attended the Kemp Foundation’s excellent forum. I wish that all the GOP candidates—and maybe even a couple of Democratic candidates—spent a big chunk of each debate fighting over who is the best suited to unleash free enterprise for marginalized Americans. But I never expected that this would automatically materialize. If the free enterprise movement were drifting inexorably towards an anti-poverty focus, I wouldn’t have needed to write TCH. I set out to offer a set of normative recommendations, not predictions.

(One side comment: A common criticism of my book from the left has been that it is just marketing—slick talk to sell old conservative ideas. This makes me extremely suspicious. It seems that when conservatives don’t talk about poverty, we are accused of not caring. When we do talk about poverty, we are accused of not really caring. Heads the left wins, tails the right loses.)

Second, it is true that Donald Trump’s arguments are at odds with mine. But I simply don’t buy the argument that Trumpism is characteristic of Tea Party supporters or conservatives in general. 

As of this writing, the latest comprehensive poll I can find that breaks voters down by ideological flavor is a national Quinnipiac survey from late December. It shows that Trump is not the overwhelming choice of the Tea Party, nor of especially conservative Republicans. Mr. Trump is earning just 27% support of self-identified Tea Partiers’ first-place votes, and the same percentage from “very conservative” voters. That’s functionally identical with the 28% that he earns among “somewhat conservative” and “moderate/liberal” respondents. So there are three in ten voters across every flavor of conservatism who prefer Mr. Trump—and seven in ten who do not.

Third, I don’t believe that immigration is baked into modern conservatism as a top priority. According to the same Quinnipiac survey, there is no subset of conservatives that ranks immigration as their primary or even secondary issue. For every group, the top three issues are terrorism, jobs, and the economy. Immigration was practically a footnote in the campaign before Mr. Trump raised it. 

So why did it become such a big deal so fast? Because it was a handy way to see what a lot of conservative activists see as the contempt elites have for basic laws and ordinary working class Americans. I am personally pro-immigration and despise the vilification of immigrants, but it is easy to see how people who are totally left behind in today’s economy could feel that President Obama cares more about undocumented immigrants than he does about them—and that many Republican leaders are nowhere to be found on this.

So my bottom line is that I believe conservatism is in play, and there is even some reasons to be optimistic. Evidence? The de facto leader of the Republican Party today is Paul Ryan, a 45-year old authentic conservative who is a true warrior for the poor and policy entrepreneur. He believes—and I agree—that conservative ideas, deployed correctly, help poor people. 

I could easily make the empirical case that Ryan is the direction the conservative movement is going, notwithstanding the temporary conflagrations in the presidential campaign. If it were the case, would you join me in celebrating that?

Thanks again for your outstanding work and careful criticism.

With warm regards,




Dear Arthur,

I’m happy to begin this reply on a note of complete agreement: Although I disagree with Paul Ryan on many important issues, he is preferable in every respect to the current front-runners for the Republican presidential nomination. If he had chosen to run for president in this cycle, conservatism would have had a worthier champion, and the tone of the race would be more civil. For better or worse, however, the basic orientation of a political party is determined by the outcome of its presidential contests. That’s why Eisenhower’s victory over Robert Taft in 1952 was so consequential, as was Reagan’s over George H. W. Bush in 1980. 

Our agreement breaks down when it comes to immigration and the Tea Party, however. In the first place, numerous surveys have found that the issue of immigration is anything but trivial in the Republican nominating contest. For example, a Fox survey released last week found that 15 percent of Republicans regarded immigration as the single most important issue in determining their vote. Immigration ranked as the third-most cited issue overall, behind only national security and the economy. (By contrast, social issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage were ranked most important by only 4 percent.) And a mountain of survey research going back at least five years has confirmed that individuals who identify with the Tea Party care more about immigration—and express more antipathy to immigrants—than does any other portion of the Republican electorate.

As for Trump, a Public Religion Research Institute survey from last November found that 69 percent of Trump’s supporters regarded immigration as a critical issues in the election, compared to 50 percent for other Republican candidates. 80 percent of Trump’s supporters view immigrants as a burden on American society; only 56 percent of the supporters of other Republican candidates agree.

I looked at the Quinnipiac survey you mentioned in your reply. You’re right: Trump gets the support of 27 percent of Tea Party identifiers. But Ted Cruz, whose stance and vehemence on immigration are hard to distinguish from Trump’s, gets 38 percent. Together, the two leading candidates are supported by nearly two-thirds of the Tea Party, compared to barely half of Republicans as a whole. Do you think it’s an accident that the two angriest voices in the Republican primary are the darlings of the Tea Party? I’m afraid that when you look at the Tea Party, you’re seeing what you wish were there rather than the reality of a nativist revolt against a rapidly diversifying population. And because this revolt began in the presidency of George W. Bush, blocked immigration reform, and nearly drove John McCain out of the 2008 presidential contest, it reflects more than antipathy to Barack Obama. As for the role of anti-immigrant sentiment in today’s conservatism, I’ll let you fight it out with Ramesh Ponnuru. But I think he’s right.

For the reasons I stated in my initial review, I believe that the issue of poverty is embedded in a larger problem—namely, the woeful performance of the U.S. economy over the past 15 years. If growth were more vigorous and its fruits more widely shared, the content and tone of today’s politics would be very different.

But let’s take poverty as a free-standing issue and ask a simple question: in our lifetime, which party has a better record of reducing poverty? To answer that question, I consulted the most issue Census Bureau publication on “Income and Poverty in the United States.” It defines poverty as money income, excluding the impact of in-kind programs such as SNAP, public housing, and Medicaid. So it largely reflects market earnings, not welfare programs.

The eight Kennedy-Johnson years witnessed by far the largest reduction in the overall poverty rate, which shrank by 9.4 percentage points between the end of the Eisenhower administration and the beginning of the Nixon administration. During those years, poverty among African Americans shrank by a stunning 20.4 points. Poverty shrank a bit more under Nixon and Ford before rising a bit under Carter.

This brings us to the Reagan years. As everyone knows, economic growth was vigorous for half of his first term and all of his second. Nevertheless, the overall rate of poverty in the United States didn’t budge between 1980 and 1988. (It went down by about a point among African Americans.) Contrast that with the eight Clinton years, when the poverty rate declined by 3.5 points overall and by a remarkable 10.9 points among African Americans.

By contrast, under both Republican and Democratic administrations, the past fifteen years have been discouraging. Overall poverty increased by 1.9 points under George W. Bush and by an additional 1.6 points during the first six years of the Obama administration. African American poverty rose by 2.2 points during the Bush years and by 1.5 points under the first African American president.

To sum up: in the past half century, we have had three episodes of rapid economic growth: the Kennedy-Johnson years, Ronald Reagan’s two terms, and Bill Clinton’s two terms. In two of those three periods, poverty declined dramatically. In the third, it barely budged. Ronald Reagan may have been a transformational president, but he failed as a poverty fighter.

I don’t think the record of the past five decades will sustain the proposition that conservatives have better ideas for fighting poverty than do liberals. Still, since the beginning of the 21st century, no party and no ideology has found the key to renewed progress against poverty. So I have a proposal: liberals should set aside their critique of Reaganism while conservatives should do the same for the welfare state. Let’s put our heads together—a process that is already beginning—and work together to give everyone a chance to participate in the American Dream.

I look forward to your reply, which I suspect will bring our exchange to an end.

All the best,





Let me start this final volley with a few last points on immigration.

In my view, the FOX News poll you cite actually helps substantiate my suspicion that immigration is not some permanent priority that is sure to define the future of conservatism. As you report, immigration (15% say it’s their top issue) comes in a distant third behind national security (43%) and economics (27%). In other words, the GOP primary voters who prioritize one of those two classic conservative issues ahead of immigration make up 70% of the electorate. And all this despite Donald Trump’s months of tireless work to elevate immigration as the key issue.

To be sure, Sen. Cruz has also wound up emphasizing the issue more than many expected. On a few substantive points, such H1-B visas, there are indications that he has changed his previous positions. But I don’t think we should lump them together because there are major differences—in tone, policy positions, philosophy, and personal experience—between Mr. Trump and Senator Cruz. The latter, for the most part, gives voice to traditionally conservative positions that are very familiar to any observer of post-Reagan American politics.

But moving beyond these specifics, there are still bigger questions at stake. We agree that the Tea Party movement, at present, is not firmly set on the particular course that I call for in The Conservative Heart. But this is not particularly surprising: If conservative activists had already unanimously chosen to “declare peace” on the safety net and focus on using free enterprise to lift up vulnerable people, I wouldn’t have written the book.

Not that I am a Panglossian and think all of my arguments will win the day any time soon, but I see numerous reasons to be at least moderately optimistic. For example, I look at the Republican governors, the number of which has swelled from 19 to 31 under President Obama. Many are pragmatic, serious, non-populists. I could plausibly argue that this is the future of the movement.

Let me close on a big-picture note of agreement. Dynamic economic growth is absolutely a vital ingredient both for fighting poverty and providing more opportunities to all Americans. Let’s look at the eras you cite as examples that Democrats do better than Republicans at translating high growth into plummeting poverty rates: the Kennedy/Johnson years and the Clinton administration.

As I note in the book, a big chunk of the poverty reduction in the Kennedy/Johnson era had already taken place by the time LBJ strode to the podium to announce the new “War on Poverty.” By that point in 1964, the rate had already dropped from 25 percent to 19.5 percent—mostly thanks to very impressive economic growth, which many mainstream economists credit in large part to the massive tax cuts that Kennedy sought and achieved.

Two years later, in 1966, when some War on Poverty programs (such as food stamps) were in place and others were still struggling to come online, the rate had fallen more, down to 14.7 percent. I think it’s reasonable to split credit between the existing economic trends that had already been working wonders and to the direct or indirect effects of some of the new programs. But a big driver of this whole era’s antipoverty engine was that a Democratic president was able to slash tax rates—i.e., successfully implement conservative economic policy.

I would submit a similar story about the Clinton-era poverty reductions. Speaking generally, I think it’s probably fair to again divide credit between very strong performance in the broader economy (whether Reagan or Clinton deserves more credit for the 1990s is a question beyond the scope of this exchange) and changes in social policy, specifically welfare reform (for which you personally deserve a lot of credit). But as we discussed earlier, the Clinton era’s successful welfare reform was a priority that a moderate Democratic president and a conservative Republican congress teamed up to push through—over the objections of hardcore progressives. So here again, to the extent that we credit the Democratic president, I would praise him for successfully implementing somewhat conservative reforms.

Thank you, Bill, for engaging so deeply with the book and joining me for this exchange. I join you wholeheartedly in your closing sentiments. This country needs nothing so much as a renewed, good-faith competition of ideas between unapologetically pro-poor conservatives and unapologetically pro-capitalism liberals. That would be a promising foundation indeed.




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