Being conservative in a politically correct culture has never been easy. Whether you’re a politician trying to explain a controversial sound-bite, or a voter attempting to defend your stance on a hot-button issue to co-workers, you either grow a thick skin — or learn to keep quiet.
Sadly, you get used to having your motives impugned by people who assume that no one could possibly believe what you believe. You must have some ulterior motive, right? Say, for example, we need less regulation, and you’ll be accused of shilling for some corporation. Call for more defense spending, and you’re a warmonger.
It’s an old trick, clearly designed to save the accuser from having to marshal any actual evidence for his position. But it usually works. Everyone retreats to their corners, leaving us with poorly thought-out policies that wind up helping no one.
Small wonder, then, that the phrase “compassionate conservative” entered the political lexicon at one point. The defensive character of that label is understandable, but think about it: It only resonates if you assume that conservatives lack compassion in the first place.
Yes, some of them do (you find flawed human beings on both sides of the aisle), but only the most superficial analysis could conclude that conservatism attracts only those who don’t care about their fellow citizens. In fact — irony alert — conservative solutions often spring from a genuine desire to help people.
Take welfare reform. If you criticize a huge government program that hands out checks with virtually no strings attached, opponents say you must hate the poor. On the contrary: If you care about your fellow man, you know that turning him into a passive welfare recipient robs him of his dignity and often dooms his children to a soul-deadening cycle of poverty. Making sure that welfare is a true hand-up and not a hand-out is, in fact, the true compassionate stance.
The problem is that many conservatives fail to frame the issues this way. As American Enterprise Institute President Arthur Brooks points out in his new book, “The Conservative Heart,” we need a new approach.
“The only way to set things right is for conservatives to show we care and offer a new vision for the country,” he writes. “This new vision must be guided by the optimism of opportunity. It must declare peace on a prudent, reliable safety net for those who truly need it. It must harness the tools of private entrepreneurship, acknowledge the profound value of hard work, and echo the moral clarity of the Good Samaritan.”
Mr. Brooks introduces us to people who illustrate all too well what happens when government policies run amok. Take Jestina Clayton. When she moved to Utah from Sierra Leone, she decided to pursue her piece of the American Dream by starting an African hair-braiding business for children adopted from her native land.
Jestina had been braiding hair since she was five, and the business was soon providing a steady paycheck. Then someone told her that it was illegal to do such work without a cosmetology license which would take 2,000 hours of classes and cost $16,000. And all for something she already knew how to do.
It took a lot of work and a successful lawsuit for Jestina to get her happy ending. (A federal judge ruled that such a requirement, which far exceeded the ones for many other professions, was unreasonable.) But as Mr. Brooks notes, she’s one of the lucky ones.
“Millions of Americans without her drive, grit — and the help of a law firm — have little hope to rise in America,” he writes. “Currently, all they are offered are promises that the government will stick it more to the rich through higher taxes and greater redistribution. But this will never help a poor American climb out of poverty, find a better job, and get a good education — let alone start a business.”
As conservatives, we know that our policies help provide opportunity for all. But we can never assume others know that. It’s time to take “heart” — and make sure they do.
• Ed Feulner is founder of The Heritage Foundation (www.heritage.org).