people

Fight for People, not Against Things

I have known former House Speaker Newt Gingrich for many years. He is unfailingly quirky and interesting, and many of his ideas have proved visionary. Newt came to national prominence as the architect of the “Republican Revolution” of 1994, the midterm election when House Republicans won a majority for the first time in decades.

I used to teach courses in management and leadership, and now I live those subjects every day at the helm of the American Enterprise Institute. So it probably will not surprise you that I harbor a long-standing fascination with seeking out the best leadership practices. Figuring there was nobody better to ask about herding cats in Washington, D.C., than Speaker Gingrich, I asked him what was the biggest challenge he faced as the new Speaker of the House.

He didn’t respond: “The press.” Nor did he reply: “A recalcitrant president from the opposite party.” No—Newt’s biggest challenge was his own Republican members. Not their character or their principles, but their mindset. Winning a majority and actually operating like a majority turned out to be very different things. Even though the numbers now said otherwise, Republicans were still thinking like a minority.

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.

When conservatives fight against teachers’ unions, fight against Obamacare, fight against debt, spending, the expansion of government, we are not setting an agenda. We are reacting to an agenda. When this process is repeated over and over, conservatives start to forget that fighting against things is not our true goal, but merely one tactic for reaching larger goals. We let our temporary political fortunes ossify into a permanent minoritarian mindset.

This is an error. First of all, conservatives are not actually in the minority. According to Gallup, significantly more Americans identify as conservative (38 percent) than as moderate (34 percent) or liberal (24 percent). Liberals are the smallest ideological minority, yet they adroitly think and act like a majority. They claim incessantly that they’re fighting for the “99 percent.” That is inherently majoritarian language, and the public frequently rewards them with legislative majorities to match it. Paradoxically, though conservatives outnumber liberals, we have become accustomed to behaving like a minority and fighting against things.

Liberals are the smallest ideological minority, yet they adroitly think and act like a majority. They claim to represent the “99 percent.” That is inherently majoritarian language, and the public frequently rewards them with legislative majorities to match it.

Let’s return to the 1980s for a moment. Conservatives constantly invoke the memory of Ronald Reagan, an excellent president. Was it Reagan who led the conservative movement to fight against things?

The answer is no. On the contrary, Reagan understood better than anyone that a minority fights against things while a majority fights for people. He understood the dangers of limitless government, to be sure. But he always brought the conversation home to the people hurt by overreach. He didn’t pretend that most people regard the size of the government as an intrinsic philosophical evil.

Here are President Reagan’s own words, delivered at the 1980 Republican National Convention in Detroit as he made the case for his election:

Together, let us make this a new beginning. Let us make a commitment to care for the needy: to teach our children the values and the virtues handed down to us by our families …

Ours are not problems of abstract economic theory. [They] are problems of flesh and blood; problems that cause pain and destroy the moral fiber of real people who should not suffer the further indignity of being told by the government that it is all somehow their fault.

Work and family are at the center of our lives, the foundation of our dignity as a free people. When we deprive people of what they have earned, or take away their jobs, we destroy their dignity and undermine their families. … We have to move ahead, but we’re not going to leave anyone behind. Thanks to the economic policies of the Democratic Party, millions of Americans find themselves out of work. Millions more have never even had a fair chance to learn new skills, hold a decent job, or secure for themselves and their families a share in the prosperity of this nation. It is time to put America to work; to make our cities and towns resound with the confident voices of men and women of all races, nationalities, and faiths bringing home to their families a decent paycheck they can cash for honest money.

For those without skills, we’ll find a way to help them get skills. For those without job opportunities, we’ll stimulate new opportunities, particularly in the inner cities where they live. For those who have abandoned hope, we’ll restore hope and we’ll welcome them into a great national crusade to make America great again!

Notice how different this sounds from many of today’s angriest voices who scramble to claim Reagan’s mantle. His speech is strikingly positive in tenor. It is optimistic, aspirational, and resoundingly pro-people.

In this speech the word “government” shows up with prominence. That is to be expected in any policy speech. But “people” is Reagan’s most frequently repeated word. He mentions “people” 38 times in his speech. In fact, when you add in all the other times he talks about the kinds of people he is fighting for—“families,” “children,” “the needy,” “the elderly,” “immigrants,” “workers,” and so on—the number rises to 87.

Spending is mentioned just four times, “deficit” just twice, and “regulation” twice. Zero mentions of “debt.” The policy words mentioned most are “tax” (17 mentions) and “economic” (18).

When Ronald Reagan made his case to the American people, he didn’t spend a lot of time talking about what he was fighting against. He spent most of his speech talking about who he was fighting for. This is what conservatives too often forget. We spend much too much time explaining economic policy to people who just want to hear how we can improve their lives and the lives of the poor.

When Apple advertises their new devices, they don’t do it by extolling their great chips or processing speeds, or talking about the engineering problems they face. Instead, they show all the amazing things people can do with the device. Conservative communicators need to take the hint. We should stop selling chips and processors and start selling better lives.

Even when economics is not used to fight against things, explaining it generally distracts from our first-order goal. Economics runs quietly in the background, like your computer’s operating system. This is certainly important: You need to get it right or you’re in trouble.

But Republicans today have become like a bunch of computer geeks talking about “bits,” “algorithms,” and “binary values.” Most people don’t understand that stuff or much care about it. A hardworking parent isn’t interested in soldering. They just want their phones to work.

Even real-life engineers know this, by the way. When Apple advertises their new devices, they don’t do it by extolling their great chips or processing speeds, or talking about the engineering problems they face. Instead, they show all the amazing things people can do with the device. They illustrate in vivid colors how owning Apple products will make your life better. Conservative communicators need to take the hint. We should stop selling chips and processors and start selling better lives.

This lesson was a difficult pill for me to swallow. I have a Ph.D. in public policy. I’m the president of a think tank. I love to debunk myths with data and technical arguments. One of my favorite things to do on weekends is lean back in a comfy chair with a good academic study. My colleagues and I can and do spend hours carefully measuring the pros and cons of particular public policy proposals.

So if I can train myself to swap negative, technical arguments against things in exchange for positive arguments on behalf of people, anyone can.


Mr. Brooks is the President of the American Enterprise Institute. This article is excerpted from “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective Conservatives: How to Talk So Americans Will Listen,” a chapter in Brooks’ book, The Conservative Heart: How to Build a Fairer, Happier, and More Prosperous America. © 2015 by the American Enterprise Institute.