Conservative values and money issues are worth less than concern for the poor.
In the waning days of the 1992 presidential campaign, President George H.W. Bush trailed Bill Clinton in the polls. The conventional wisdom was that Mr. Bush seemed too aloof from voters struggling economically. At a rally in New Hampshire, the exhausted president started what was probably the fourth campaign speech of the day by reading aloud what may have been handed to him as a stage direction: “Message: I care.”
How little things have changed for Republicans in 20 years. There is only one statistic needed to explain the outcome of the 2012 presidential election. An April YouGov.com poll—which mirrored every other poll on the subject—found that only 33% of Americans said that Mitt Romney “cares about people like me.” Only 38% said he cared about the poor.
Conservatives rightly complain that this perception was inflamed by President Obama’s class-warfare campaign theme. But perception is political reality, and over the decades many Americans have become convinced that conservatives care only about the rich and powerful.
Perhaps it doesn’t matter. If Republicans and conservatives double down on the promotion of economic growth, job creation and traditional values, Americans might turn away from softheaded concerns about “caring.” Right?
Wrong. As New York University social psychologist Jonathan Haidt has shown in his research on 132,000 Americans, care for the vulnerable is a universal moral concern in the U.S. In his best-selling 2012 book “The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion,” Mr. Haidt demonstrated that citizens across the political spectrum place a great importance on taking care of those in need and avoiding harm to the weak. By contrast, moral values such as sexual purity and respect for authority—to which conservative politicians often give greater emphasis—resonate deeply with only a minority of the population. Raw money arguments, e.g., about the dire effects of the country’s growing entitlement spending, don’t register morally at all.
Conservatives are fighting a losing battle of moral arithmetic. They hand an argument with virtually 100% public support—care for the vulnerable—to progressives, and focus instead on materialistic concerns and minority moral viewpoints.The irony is maddening. America’s poor people have been saddled with generations of disastrous progressive policy results, from welfare-induced dependency to failing schools that continue to trap millions of children.
Meanwhile, the record of free enterprise in improving the lives of the poor both here and abroad is spectacular. According to Columbia University economist Xavier Sala-i-Martin, the percentage of people in the world living on a dollar a day or less—a traditional poverty measure—has fallen by 80% since 1970. This is the greatest antipoverty achievement in world history. That achievement is not the result of philanthropy or foreign aid. It occurred because billions of souls have been able to pull themselves out of poverty thanks to global free trade, property rights, the rule of law and entrepreneurship.
The left talks a big game about helping the bottom half, but its policies are gradually ruining the economy, which will have catastrophic results once the safety net is no longer affordable. Labyrinthine regulations, punitive taxation and wage distortions destroy the ability to create private-sector jobs. Opportunities for Americans on the bottom to better their station in life are being erased.
Instead, the answer is to make improving the lives of vulnerable people the primary focus of authentically conservative policies. 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.
By making the vulnerable a primary focus, conservatives will be better able to confront some common blind spots. Corporate cronyism should be decried as every bit as noxious as statism, because it unfairly rewards the powerful and well-connected at the expense of ordinary citizens. Entrepreneurship should not to be extolled as a path to accumulating wealth but as a celebration of everyday men and women who want to build their own lives, whether they start a business and make a lot of money or not. And conservatives should instinctively welcome the immigrants who want to earn their success in America.
With this moral touchstone, conservative leaders will be able to stand before Americans who are struggling and feel marginalized and say, “We will fight for you and your family, whether you vote for us or not”—and truly mean it. In the end that approach will win. But more important, it is the right thing to do.
Mr. Brooks is president of the American Enterprise Institute and author of “The Road to Freedom” (Basic Books 2012).
A version of this article appeared March 4, 2013, on page A15 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Republicans and Their Faulty Moral Arithmetic.