Do You Really Want Your Principles to Win?
in a democratic system, the minority is by definition the opposition. Their de facto position is fighting against the ideas of the other side. Political minorities fight against something that’s more powerful than they are. And over time, their entire self-identity can become utterly reliant on acting like the principled underdog. –Arthur C Brooks, The Conservative Heart
My developmental psychology professor told a story of a female patient. The woman came to him for help with dating. She told the doctor, “I’ve been cheated, abused, and robbed by men. One after another, every one I date hurts me.” And she finished with a plea, “Please just tell me where all the good men are.”
The doctor thought a moment, then told her, “I know where they are, but I’m not going to tell you.”
The woman looked stunned. “Why not?” she asked.
“Because you don’t want a good man,” the doctor said. “You want abusive, cheating, thieving men.”
The psychologist was not cruel, just honest. We get what we seek, even if what we seek is bad for us. We attract what we want to attract, even if we say want something else.
Is the conservative activist like the woman? Do we really want to become a majority? Or do we want to remain a permanent minority panicking over possible smudges on the strict outline of our dogma?
Yesterday, I explained why we do what we do. Today, we look at how we can be more effective.
A Minority Mentality
Back in 2009 and 2010, the Tea Party had hopes. We hoped to see our principles become the majority view in America.
We watched our favorability swell from zero on February 26 to over 30 percent a year later. Then we watched our esteem drift away. Only 19 percent now say they agree with our principles.
Arthur C. Brooks contends in his new book The Conservative Heart: How to Build a Fairer, Happier, and More Prosperous America that the Tea Party can and should become a massive social movement that achieves majoritarian status.
So why hasn’t it? According to Brooks:
A key element of majoritarian status is fighting in broad terms for people instead of fighting narrowly against particular evils.
Yet, “fighting narrowly against particular evils” is exactly the only thing we’ve done. Even our work to help reform municipal courts and police practices was a fight against a particular evil because we never effectively explained why we fought. That’s probably my fault.
In my mind, abusive courts and city governments that use the police to shake down poor people for money represent the sort of government overreach the Tea Party exists to fight. But that’s still a fight against something evil. Whom were we fighting for?
We were fighting for poor people, largely African-American, who have been treated like ATM machines for little city governments. We were fighting for the dignity of our neighbors. While those neighbors have self-appointed civil rights advocates who enrich themselves while people’s lives worsen, the only group fighting against court abuse was a liberal team of lawyers called Arch City Defenders. Missouri being deep red at the state legislature level, Arch City Defenders had no hope of changing the law without help from the right.
So that’s whom we fought for: we fought for people who needed us whether they supported us or not.
But I never said it that way because I was afraid I’d turn off some of our supporters. So I deserve a lot of the blame for where we stand.
When I read Brooks’s chapter on the Tea Party, I felt like a failure. But I also felt a surge of hope radiate through my body because Brooks didn’t stop with a critique; he gave the prescription.
But first, Brooks described the crossroads at which we stand:
The Tea Party rebellion, and the conservative grassroots it has energized, thus have some choices to make: Does it want to remain at step one, settle for 19 percent support (and falling), and become a permanent political remnant—capable of setting political brushfires, but too weak to bring about real lasting change in our nation? Or does it want to make a run at majority status and build a popular social movement that changes our country forever? Do Tea Party activists want to remain little more than the guardian of fiscally conservative orthodoxy holding the Republican establishment’s feet to the fire? Or can the Tea Party become something bigger—a transformational, majoritarian force in American politics that does not simply rebel against American decline, but reverses it?
If we want to become a transformational, majoritarian force that reverses the problems of statism, we must ask ourselves whether we actually want to win. As Brooks notes, and others have noted before:
Believe it or not, not everyone wants to be in the majority. Some people prefer to belong to a “remnant,” a holdout that bravely carries the truth without compromise in the face of overwhelming opposition.
Guardians of the Orthodoxy
My fear is that we too easily see ourselves as guardians of the orthodoxy, that “remnant” tsk-tsking anyone who gets too close the walls of acceptable thought.
While the dogma must have its defenders, preaching the dogma guarantees that we remain nothing more than an irritant to the Republican establishment and a godsend to progressives.
Why? Because most people don’t care about our dogma. They care about getting through life the best they can. And it’s not their job to figure out how our orthodoxy helps them do that.
Our job is to translate our principles into broad, moral direction for our country with specific goals that will make people’s lives better. Shouting “liberty,” repeating historical chants like “give me liberty or give me death,” don’t improve anyone’s life, even the speaker’s.
There are four steps to making that transition from minority to majority and turning a protest movement into a broad-based social movement:
Launch a rebellion
Declare majoritarian values
Claim the moral high ground
Unite the country behind an agenda
We accomplished step 1 with aplomb. We didn’t stop at step 1, but we still have not moved to step 2. Instead, many of us moved to guarding the orthodoxy of anti statism about which Buckley wrote in his essay “Have You Ever Seen a Dream Walking?”
There exists a small breed of men whose passionate distrust of the state has developed into a theology of sorts, or at least into a demonology, to which they adhere as devotedly as any religious fanatic ever attempted to adhere to the will of the Lord. I do not feel contempt for the endeavor of this type. It is intellectually stimulating to discuss alternatives to municipalized streets, even as it is to speculate on whether God’s wishes would better be served if we ordered fried or scrambled eggs on this particular morning.
Buckley then describes precisely the problem Brooks talks about:
Yet conservatives must concern themselves not only with ideals, but with matters of public policy, and I mean by that something more than the commonplace that one must maneuver within the limits of conceivable action.
Buckley’s prescription for those who want to remain tablet-keepers: let them.
I repeat, I do not deplore their influence intellectually; and tactically, I worry not all.
And Brooks reminds us that we never abandon our principles:
Making the transition from a rebellion to a social movement does not mean we cease opposition to bad things. It means that we stop leading with what we are against. We lead with the people we are fighting for.
If we don’t believe in our principles, we must abandon them. But if we believe our principles are just and moral, we have a moral obligation to make the transition from rabble-rousers to a social movement.
The Next Step
If we want to become a majoritarian movement and change America for the better, we need to choose. And we need to choose soon.
Brooks’s challenge is not a mere political choice but a moral choice. In his view, we conservatives will fail our moral duty if we choose to remain tablet keepers.
Lifting vulnerable people up and giving everyone a chance to earn success is primarily a matter of compassion and fairness. And approximately 100 percent of Americans care about these things. As New York University social psychologist Jonathan Haidt has shown, virtually everybody—right and left, young and old, religious and nonreligious—has “moral taste buds” that crave the universal values of compassion and fairness.
Bringing our principles to policy is our moral duty, and we should let nothing stand in the way of that duty.
As Brooks says, we conservatives have the solution to the problems progressives claim they’re solving.
[P]rogressive politicians try to help the poor with government redistribution programs that frequently exacerbate the problem. These intrusions lower opportunity, reduce our ability to create actual private-sector work, leave more people dependent on the state, and effectively split the country into two Americas even more quickly.
Our solutions will lift people up, not keep them down. Our solutions solve problems rather than keeping a lid on rebellion.
When we are burdened with knowledge and means to promote justice, we incur the duty to take action.
If you read one book this summer, read The Conservative Heart: How to Build a Fairer, Happier, and More Prosperous America by Arthur C. Brooks, President of the American Enterprise Institute.