Writing for the Wall Street Journal, American Enterprise Institute president Arthur C. Brooks recently suggested that the G.O.P. is way off base in their assumptions about the moral arguments that resonate most with the American people. Their focus on the economic advantages of capitalism and "values-voter" issues like abortion and gay marriage miss the mark, Brooks suggests. Instead, Republicans must convince the electorate that they are just as concerned about the plight of the poor and downtrodden as Progressives, and further that Republican policies are more effective at addressing these problems than those implemented by the Liberal nanny state.
Mr. Brooks cites several statistics indicating that the American people by and large reject the notion of compassionate conservatism. Right or wrong, Brooks writes, the perception is that Republicans don't care about the poor, and when it comes to politics, perception is reality. He is absolutely correct. But how can the GOP change this narrative? How can they combat the perception that the only people they care about are Wall Street fat cats and upwardly mobile suburban yuppies?
The answer, Brooks suggests, lies in making "improving the lives of vulnerable people the primary focus of authentically conservative policies." He explains:
"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. Defending a healthy culture of family, community and work does not mean imposing an alien "bourgeois" morality on others. It is to recognize what people need to be happy and successful – and what is most missing today in the lives of too many poor people."
Indeed, Republicans would do well to affirm that society and government have obligations to those who are unable to help themselves. America's Judeo-Christian heritage richly reflects this principle. It's not all about the individual, or even freedom for freedom's sake. When Aristotle observed that "man is by nature a political animal" he was alluding to our fundamentally contingent nature. From the moment we are born, we exist in codependent relationships. As infants and children we rely on the care and protection of others for our survival. As we age, we gradually achieve autonomy, at which point we become responsible for protecting others in our relational network, including family members, friends, and neighbors.
The American nation might be quite a large family, but it is a family nonetheless. As Americans we are bound by shared traditions, shared citizenship, and a collective embrace of the values that guided our founding. Those of us to whom much is given, as Holy Scripture dictates (and the President has reminded us), much is required. The poor and downtrodden warrant the assistance of their more fortunate neighbors. Christians above all should recognize this, since Jesus closely identifies with the poor and needy and admonishes the church to provide for them (Matt 25).
The question, then, is not whether we should help "the least of these," it's how. When Republicans object to programs touted as beneficial to the poor, they must do a better job of explaining why. Too often, the Progressive approach to social justice fails to solve the problem, and in many cases only makes matters worse. In the name of "spreading the wealth around" or "leveling the playing field" (choose your populist slogan), government power is centralized, accountability and efficacy is lost in a labyrinth of bureaucratic red tape, chronic problems are entrenched and systematized, and an unhealthy codependence is established between the government and the individual. An authentically conservative approach – a truly compassionate approach – emphasizes that efforts to help the poor should be designed to meet real needs and should focus on empowering those in need to help themselves. They should not result in a culture of perpetual, multi-generational dependence and should not discourage recipients from taking initiative and working to get off the dole. Nor should they insulate the beneficiaries of government assistance from the natural consequences of their actions. (Benevolence divorced from a guiding moral standard does more harm than good, in the end.) In short, government aid should meet the short-term needs of beneficiaries while providing a pathway to independence.
Another critical piece of the equation for Republicans seeking to alter public perception of the GOP is a question of principle. Everyone knows how Washington works. It's a quid pro quo, dog-eat-dog world unto itself, and if you aren't willing to play the political game you won't last long. This has to change. Things like principle and integrity must be more than stump speech fodder, they must lie at the heart of action. As it stands currently, politics is a vicious war, and to the victor go the spoils. Crony capitalism and the culture of "too big to fail" is standard operating procedure in Washington, regardless of what side of the aisle you sit on. Is it any wonder that more and more people have become disillusioned and disgusted by politics, that Congress' approval rating is so dismal?
The point is that it is not the place of government to have its thumb on the scale of success and opportunity in America. Government should not punish the successful nor artificially elevate the poor. What government exists for is to secure a free sphere within which every person has an equal opportunity to exercise their God-given talents for the betterment of themselves and mankind. This is the surest guarantee of the greatest possible success for the greatest number. History bears this out. Regimes based on class warfare and retributive social policies have proven to be some of the most oppressive and deadly, as our European cousins know all too well. Republicans can become better at articulating this message without betraying their core principles. The GOP is truly the party of equal opportunity for all and compassion for those in need. Progressives talk a good game, but underneath the inflammatory rhetoric is a power-hungry machine that merely wishes to prey on the emotions of the people in order to consolidate more power.
The GOP needs better messengers, no doubt, but in the end it lies with the American people to see through the gimmicks.