Sunday, 2 August 2015

Why conservatives need to be more Santa Claus...

"When you look at the data, it turns out the conservatives give about 30 percent more. And incidentally, conservative-headed families make slightly less money."

American conservative thinker, Arthur C Brooks, has written a book urging us (conservatives that is) to change the manner in which we present ourselves to the world. The book - “The Conservative Heart: How to Build a Fairer, Happier, and More Prosperous America.” - reopens an important argument about conservatism, one that was glibly but tellingly set out by P J O'Rourke:

I have only one firm belief about the American political system, and that is this: God is a Republican and Santa Claus is a Democrat.

God is an elderly or, at any rate, middle aged male, a stern fellow, patriarchal rather than paternal and a great believer in rules and regulations. He holds men accountable for their actions. He has little apparent concern for the material well being of the disadvantaged. He is politically connected, socially powerful and holds the mortgage on literally everything in the world. God is difficult. God is unsentimental. It is very hard to get into God's heavenly country club.

Santa Claus is another matter. He's cute. He's nonthreatening. He's always cheerful. And he loves animals. He may know who's been naughty and who's been nice, but he never does anything about it. He gives everyone everything they want without the thought of quid pro quo. He works hard for charities, and he's famously generous to the poor. Santa Claus is preferable to God in every way but one: There is no such thing as Santa Claus

The message here is that conservatives are stern, judging, a little intolerant and rather rules bound. In reviewing Brooks' book, Greg Mankiw makes more of less the same observation:

The image problem is that conservatives too often resemble Ebenezer Scrooge. By opposing increases in the minimum wage, advocating cuts in corporate taxes, railing against excessive regulation of business and worrying about the cost of entitlement programs, they appear to care only about the rich and well-­connected.

And the answer is, to continue the O'Rourke metaphor, that conservatives should be more Santa Claus or maybe stress the other - loving and caring - aspects of God (this works better in the USA where God is a rather bigger deal than he is in British politics). The challenge still remains - conservatives are compassionate, do care, and consistently demonstrate a greater propensity for acts of compassion than 'progressives' who hide behind that Clement Attlee position:

"Charity is a cold grey loveless thing. If a rich man wants to help the poor, he should pay his taxes gladly, not dole out money at a whim."

This is entirely the difference between conservatives - the Good Right as Tim Montgomerie has campaigned - and 'progressives'. The latter believe it is right for the act of compassion to be nationalised, for it to become part of the state's purpose whereas conservatives see this as people rejecting their responsibility to care. I recall my Mum complaining - back in the 1980s - about the lack of volunteers and her explaining that people thought that the government or the council should provide this as paid work "because we pay our taxes".

It is this very position - the pushing aside of private acts of compassion, the corporatising of charity and the suppression of voluntary leadership - that has helped damage and atomise our society. The very things that progressives claim to support are harmed by the crowding out from an overweening state. This isn't just the £13 billion or so in government funding spent through charitable and 'voluntary' organisations but the manner in which regulation stifles that voluntary initiative. As the team from Joseph Rowntree Foundation looking at loneliness discovered, we feel we need "permission to care" and that "regulation kills kindness". At the time I wrote:

That professionals in the employ of the Council, the NHS or their satellite agencies (are) needed to allow people to look out for their neighbour. In this I saw a dead culture - one murdered by the good intentions of public agencies. That we might not be allowed to pop in on Mr & Mrs Jones to make sure they're OK, maybe make them a cuppa and have a chat for half and hour. Unless we've undertaken the official "befriending" course, got the required clearances from the state and been attached to an organisation that "delivers" looking out for the neighbours.

It isn't enough however for conservatives to challenge the progressives' corruption of care and compassion - this is too close to semantics and reminds the listener of the contested word games of political spin. We need to make that challenge but, at the same time, talk about different subjects than those we're used to talking about. In Mankiw's review of "The Conservative Heart", he reminds us of the tough love, pull yourself up by your own bootstraps aspect of conservative policy-making and comments that the typical policy agenda for conservatives seems doomed to be condemned by the left as "attempts to further enrich the already successful while gutting the social safety net for those most in need".

This might be a gross and inaccurate caricature of the conservative policy platform but it works as a critique because it's easy to cast such policies as 'uncaring' - even when (as has been the case with the American left especially) those very same policies are pursued by self-described progressives. In the UK there has been - until this year's proposals for reforming in-work benefits - a pretty consistent approach to welfare with the emphasis on wielding a stick to incentivise people into getting a job. The Labour Party's rhetoric is different but the policy programme - a combination of tightening entitlement rules, training programmes and workfare - remains essentially unchanged.

Conservatives need - and this is the point of Brooks' book - to start talking from the heart about subjects like poverty, achievement, aspiration and what various commenters call the three rules. Finish school, get and keep a job, get married and stay married:

The 2001 Census data clearly show that dropping out of high school, staying single, having children without a spouse, working only part time or not working at all substantially increase the chances of long-term poverty. Certain behaviors are a recipe for success. Among those who finish high school, get married, have children only within a marriage and go to work, the odds of long-term poverty are virtually nil.

Moreover, while these behaviours matter, we are also in the position to support people in achieving that exit from poverty. But what we can't do is ignore the reality of poverty and the fact that, in terms of society's expectations, there are many people who are in that condition. And in talking about poverty we need to reposition the debate as being about genuine material want not the preferred progressive line of focusing on inequality (and in describing inequality as poverty, a view which is manifestly nonsense).

What is most interesting about the Brooks manifesto is that is isn't about policy but about heart. This is where the progressive left has regularly trumped centre and right wing politics - their arguments are framed in terms of the excluded, the vulnerable and the oppressed. The programmes of the established state are characterised as failing these groups whereas a progressive state wouldn't not do so. Other than promises of more funding, however, there is little substance to the progressive programme but this doesn't matter since the appeal is based on describing how the vulnerable, excluded and oppressed are failed, not on a policy platform proposing solutions to these groups' predicament.

In the end conservative politicians need to learn how to use the anecdotes of caring and to do so consistently. Here's Marco Rubio getting the heart thing right:

Many nights growing up I would hear my father’s keys at the door as he came home after another 16-hour day. Many mornings, I woke up just as my mother got home from the overnight shift at Kmart. When you’re young and in a hurry, the meaning of moments like this escape you. Now, as my children get older, I understand it better. My dad used to tell us — (SPEAKING IN SPANISH) — ‘in this country, you’ll be able to accomplish all the things we never could’. A few years ago, I noticed a bartender behind the portable bar in the back of the ballroom. I remembered my father, who worked as many years as a banquet bartender. He was grateful for the work he had, but that’s not like he wanted for us. You see, he stood behind the ball all those years so that one day I could stand behind a podium, in the front of a room.

This is a message the progressive left don't understand because their targets are always wealthy and successful people like Marco Rubio - the solution they offer is to pull those people down, to extract more cash from them so as to allow people they consider vulnerable, excluded or oppressed not to have to do what Rubio's dad did.

In the end the absolutely fundamental distinction between conservatives and progressives is that the former believe everyone has within themselves the capacity to achieve. And conservatives further believe that the duty of everyone - and of the state - is to help people achieve. This isn't always what people aspire to do but it is a chance to do the essentials right - to bring up good, honest children with the right values, to contribute to the local community, and to carry on providing for self and others through your own effort. The state's role is to support this not to replace it with government.

Conservatives can get this message across but to succeed it's not enough to rely on the uselessness of the opposition or the votes of the grumpy. We need to cultivate a little more jolliness, to be prepared to simply empathise, to give a great big Santa Claus hug to those people who are struggling. This works as an entire policy programme for the left - us conservatives can do it too in the knowledge that we really do have policies that work, that help people like Marco Rubio's dad, and that offer real hope not the false hope of the handout.


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