Love Your Enemies - A Review

Publishing tends to go in trends, which is not unexpected since contemporary events tend to drive the topics of discussion and publishers are attempting to gain revenue by producing quality content that deals with the themes everyone is discussing. One of the recent, recurring themes is the divided nature of our political climate. Ben Sasse’s book, Them, is a recent entry on the subject. Arthur Brooks, former president of American Enterprise Institute, has recently published the fruit of some of his research on the topic in a book entitled, Love Your Enemies.

Brooks is an economist who has spent his academic career researching happiness and charitable giving. His recent books have dealt with the idea of compassion and social healing, as in his book, The Conservative Heart. The message that Brooks comes back to is that having an ideological bias does not require despising the other side. In fact, this book highlights the reality that holding others in contempt is a recipe for continued discord and personal unhappiness. Brooks sets out in Love Your Enemies to show the science behind finding common cause and engaging in respectful dialogue. This is needed not just for personal happiness, but to help heal the bleeding wounds in the American civic culture.

The book opens by describing the culture of contempt. Brooks makes the case that this is not just a culture of disagreement, but that an essential characteristic of the political wrangling is that it hopes for the destruction of those who hold opposing views. Our political opponent is not just wrong, but also morally evil. This attitude has taken over the culture because of the popular misconception that seeking the obliteration of those that disagree is the only possible solution. In Chapter Two, Brooks shows that this just isn’t true; nice guys do not finish last necessarily, whether in love or politics.

Our political discord is significant because it largely inhibits any progress toward a common vision of good. This leads people that want action on some front or another to see authoritarian leadership as the only possible way to achieve results. It is no accident that the abuses of power in recent presidents (Bush, Obama, and Trump) are increasing in magnitude and divisiveness.

Finding a way to respect people who disagree ideologically is needed, so Brooks explores some of the concepts of moral structures, drawn from Jonathan Haidt’s remarkable book, The Righteous Mind. This research is invaluable because it helps unlock the reasons why people come at moral questions from diametrically opposed perspectives. While this doesn’t lead to agreement, it at least enhances understanding. This understanding will, in turn, help readers to begin to deconstruct irreconcilable ideas about identity, so that we can recognize the goodness that comes from identity and differentiation, but also avoid the trap of making personal identification the only significant aspect of our interactions.

Brooks also deals with the importance of stories, noting that personal stories help to break down divides, emphasizing the humanity of the individual. As Brooks notes, stories motivate compassion, statistics convince the already converted. He goes on to deal with the popular (particularly on the left) misconception that competition leads to division. Brooks astutely notes that competition nearly always requires cooperation: this is true is sports, where the rules of the game are an essential bedrock that enable the competition to exist. Politics, too, would benefit from more competition. The polarization of the two major US parties is largely due to the fact they do not have to compete for geographical regions, but can head for extremes to please the tail ends of the ideological spectrum. Brooks then concludes the body of the book by arguing that he really wants healthy disagreement in society, because it is the best way to hash out ideas and pursue the common good.

Based on his research, Brooks closes the book by proposing five rules to help undermine the culture of contempt, which I will cite here, because they are so helpful:

Rule 1. Stand up to the Man. Refuse to be used by the powerful.

Rule 2. Escape the bubble. Go where you’re not invited, and say things people don’t expect.

Rule 3. Say no to contempt. Treat others with love and respect, even when it’s difficult.

Rule 4. Disagree better. Be part of a healthy competition of ideas.

Rule 5. Tune out: Disconnect more from the unproductive debates.

Love Your Enemies is not an epoch shaping book, but it is a timely, important discussion of a major problem of our day. This is a book that should be read by people on both sides of the political spectrum, because no one (besides the cable news networks and our global political adversaries) are really happy with the status quo. The best way out of the eternal cycle of bickering we are presently experiencing is for a critical mass of individuals to begin to adopt some of the principles Brooks outlines in this book.

Note: I received a gratis copy of this volume from the publisher with no expectation of a positive review.

The Conservative Heart - A Review

The term “conservative” has taken significant hits to its credibility in the last few years as it has become identified with many things that, when examined truthfully, are not either not worth conserving or, in fact, romantic idealizations of something that never really existed. It does not help that in the American two party system “liberalism” has been claimed by Democrats on the left, which naturally leaves the opposite of that to become Republican “conservatism.”

Perhaps with a wink and a nod, we can assume that Republicans still represent something akin to fiscal conservatism (though that is highly in doubt given the most recent budget proposal). However, accepting there is a higher likelihood of fiscal conservatism on the right than the left, that leaves Republicans as the killjoys of the welfare state, more often presenting lectures on the economic infeasibility of radical redistributionism than a vision for the good of the nation. It is in the latter that a true conservatism would reside.

Arthur Brooks seeks to recapture and rehabilitate true conservatism in his book, The Conservative Heart. Among thoughtful conservatives, there is a strong desire to pursue human flourishing broadly. In fact, the vision of truth, beauty, and goodness is at the very center of traditional conservatism.

Many contemporary conservatives have lost their way and become drawn into merely not being socially progress and fiscally irresponsible. However, when your greatest argument is an appeal to the cultural sentiments of the 1950s (which were pretty hellish for people of color in these here United States) and a bunch of charts and figures that reveal the inevitable demise of a culture that is rampantly financially irresponsible, you will rapidly lose your audience.

Brooks is arguing that true conservatives need to work to regain a holistic vision of human flourishing that builds on economic reality, but focuses on a virtuous ideal of mutual flourishing of everyone in society. That is, he is arguing that conservatives reveal their heart for the well-being of all citizens our world, especially those who are at the bottom end of the economic scale.

Like most advocates of market economics, Brooks sees individual pursuit of happiness with enrichment of the common good. He addresses the futility of our current spending on welfare, but, to be clear, he favors a robust safety net. However, he argues the conservative vision for a social safety net should emphasize equipping to get out of poverty. Too often, social assistance has been structured in ways that make it difficult. At the same time, some on the political right have begun to see attacking the down and out as a winning strategy (on the left they insult “guns and religions” of the “deplorables”); this needs to be rejected by true conservatives.

Instead, Brooks argues conservatives ought to work to make work meaningful and readily accessible.  We should discuss our vision for easy access to markets, especially for the poorest of the poor. This includes rolling back unnecessary protectionist laws that are designed to disadvantage need entrants into the market; it is the poor who often lack the resources to get licenses required for jobs they often have the skills to perform. Enabling economic participation is a better path to social justice than pure redistribution: it both assists and ennobles; conservatives have that vision in their past and need to make it happen.

Ultimately, Brooks is arguing that conservatives lack vision and spend too little time communicating the bits of vision they actually have. In some ways, self-styled conservatives need to change their positions to be more consistent with their historic roots. In many other way, the same people need to spend more time working and speaking for positive outcomes rather than heaving rocks across the aisle for the people who have often captured the hearts of the needy, but have a deficient plan to assist them.

Brooks is a winsome communicator who consistently believes the very important ideas that there is a true, good, and beautiful that conservatives should be pursuing. He actually wants to see lives improve and the world made a better place, which is different than the common partisan quest for power. In short, the ideas of this book represent some of the best aspects of conservatism and provide some practical steps for real, principled conservatives to step up and begin to make changes for the better.

Note: I received a gratis copy of this volume with no expectation of a positive review.