Arthur Brooks is president of the American Enterprise Institute, the center-right Washington think tank that has, amid a decade of turmoil inside the Republican Party, remained a sober, respected voice on matters of policy—while gradually shedding its George W. Bush-era reputation as a leading voice for pugnacious, interventionist foreign policy.
Brooks, who is stepping down in June 2019 after 10 years at the helm of AEI, has consistently struck me as the smartest figure on the American right—someone not given to bouts of provocation or hyperbole, but rather someone who speaks with equal authority on macroeconomics and family budgeting, global starvation and American giving, corporate structure and worker behavior, cultural evolution and societal happiness.
Brooks also conjures comparisons to “The Most Interesting Man in the World,” the character in the Dos Equis beer commercials. He performed as a professional French hornist before entering the world of academia. He converted to Roman Catholicism when he was 16 after a quasi-supernatural experience at the shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico. He met his future wife, who spoke no English, while touring in France—and immediately moved to Barcelona to learn Spanish and begin his courtship. He befriended the Dalai Lama during a trip to India some years ago, leading to repeated visits with one another and a joint New York Timesop-ed.
Less flashy but equally fascinating—at least in the annals of Washington— Brooks enhanced AEI’s reputation as an engine of introspection and debate, even as anti-intellectualism and lowest-common-denominator conservatism became the currency of the modern GOP. Brooks employs scholars from across the ideological spectrum, including Never-Trumpers, and unlike the rival Heritage Foundation, AEI has kept its distance from the administration.
In March, Brooks announced his impending retirement. We sat down recently to discuss the polarization of the electorate, the rise of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, and the reason he remains optimistic about America’s future. Excerpts of that conversation follow, edited for length and clarity.
POLITICO Magazine: For conservatism, for Republicanism, for the institutions of government and for the country as a whole, from your perch over the past 10 years, what went wrong?
Arthur Brooks: For me, unity is a really big deal. By that I don’t mean agreement. The founding model in this place was super old school—a competition of ideas is fundamental to a free society, which was so subversive in the ’30s and ’40s because there was no competition of ideas. Disagreement is the essence of how we can unify as a people. We have a moral consensus about pushing opportunity out to people who need it most. Then we actually have to become a constellation of disagreement around that so that we can find the best way to do it. In the same way that you need a competition within the economy so that you can serve consumers best. Competition is hugely important in all areas. It’s a moral good. When you basically see a culture that’s not trying to win competition vigorously and civilly and respectfully, but rather trying to shut down competition by any means necessary, that’s like an economy that’s going from free enterprise to mercantilism. That’s basically what’s happened. We’ve gone from free enterprise of ideas to mercantilism of ideas. That’s what’s happening on both right and left today. That’s really disappointing.
Now, I’m sanguine still. Why? Because that happens periodically and competition also always wins out. There are basically two kinds of people in life: people who want to win competition and people who want to shut it down. People who don’t understand competition actually are the ones who want to shut it down because they don’t understand that competition requires rules. It requires moral precepts. Pepsi doesn’t want to go blow up the Coca-Cola bottling factory. It wants to take their customers fair and square for the better product and better pricing. The same thing should be true in American politics and policy.
PM: So you see intellectual sabotage?
Brooks: Yeah, and it’s not just unfair, it’s stupid because it leads to mediocrity. It leads to a flaccid set of political parties and not very creative ideas. When you’re shutting down the competition like this you don’t solve problems. You perpetuate problems, and you simply build up power structures. So all politics becomes a rent-seeking mechanism: my tribe, your tribe. I’m going to get power, I’m going to deny you power as opposed to colluding within the kind of the noble cause of solving ideas by competing at the head. What’s always disappointing to me is when we’re moving in the wrong direction and right now we’re moving in the wrong direction on that by moving to intellectual mercantilism. I want to move to intellectual free enterprise. That’s what I want.
PM: And the folks who want to suppress competition of ideas now have tools at their disposal the likes of which they’ve never had before, to do just that.
Brooks: I have a book coming out next year called The Culture of Contempt. We’ve created a culture of not anger, not disagreement, it’s contempt. And we need to strike back. We’re the majority. We don’t want this. Americans are being held hostage and terrorized by the fringes. That’s what’s going on here. It’s not like 50 percent of Americans thinks one thing and 50 percent thinks another thing. No, 15 percent on each side are effectively controlling the conversation and 70 percent of us don’t hate each other. I can ask any audience, “How many of you love somebody with whom you disagree politically?” Every hand goes up. And yet, you’re willing to have somebody, some fringe person on your side of the debate, say that your brother-in-law or your mother or your aunt is evil and stupid.
PM: But isn’t the problem more that the fringe used to be called “the fringe” for a reason—and today the fringe represents a broader chunk of both politicians and voters?
Brooks: They always do in this cycle. It’s always the case that when you get into a time of really big political polarization, that people are manipulated by people who are at the fringe. It’s only in retrospect that people go, “Whoa, man, I can’t believe it. I can’t believe that we were putting up with that.” We need a kind of an ethical populism. What basically happened is that political establishment was a little bit too reticent. It was not paying attention, and the result was that the fringe picked up the football and ran off with it. But there’s going to be a backlash. If I have anything to say about it, there’s going to be a backlash of people who say that your radical, hateful views, and I’m no liberal, but I don’t hate liberals. I refuse to hate liberals. Refuse. I think there’s a lot of Americans that want to join me in that.
PM: How do you think we got to this point?
Brooks: The two things to read are Reinhart and Rogoff’s book, This Time Is Different. It came out in 2010—the single best book ever on financial cycles and financial crisis. The second is an article that was written in the European Economic Review in early 2017 by three German economists that looks at the knock-on political effect of financial crises—not a regular recession, but a big overhang of assets that becomes a bubble and then pops, which typically happens a couple times a century. So it’s silver and the railroads in 1894 and 1896, or it’s the stock market in 1929, or it’s the real estate market in ’08. The most interesting thing for me is that in the decade after a financial crisis, the knock-on effect over 10 years is not low growth, it’s uneven growth. The big thing that happens for 10 years is that you have asymmetric economic growth where 80 percent of the income distribution gets none of the rewards of the growth after the recession. Of course you get populism after that. It’s natural. It’s just the way it works.
PM: But populism is not inherently a bad thing.
Brooks: Bernie Sanders is a populist. Bernie Sanders’ populism is all about scapegoating. It’s rich people, it’s bankers, it’s Republicans—it’s all these people who got your stuff. That’s the kind of populism that we frequently see as opposed to a kind of ethical populism, which basically says we have good values, let’s go share. Let’s make sure that our values are ascendant to save our country. Right? Wouldn’t that be great? But it turns out it’s easier in the political process when people are suffering a lot to say somebody came and got your stuff. Whether it’s immigrants or whether it’s trading partners or whether it’s bankers or whatever.
PM: What about conservatism? In your nine years at AEI, what’s been the single most important, most fundamental change you have seen in conservatism itself?
Brooks: Well for sure it’s the rise to Trump.
PM: But what was the change that facilitated that?
Brooks: It was that effect of the Great Recession. There were a bunch of things that happened during that time. One was an unwillingness or inability of mainstream Republicanism to deal with a lot of misery that was going on. To talk openly about the despair, and the despair was really real when there’s been a 323 percent increase in drug overdose deaths for men my age, typically in rural areas. Those numbers were easy to chart. Politicians just didn’t know what to do. They had nothing to do and nothing to say about it.
PM: Because they’re detached from it.
Brooks: Well, it’s not even that so much, because a lot of congressmen are from districts that are suffering a lot. But they don’t know what to do, so they didn’t do anything. When that happened, you found that people were looking for some sort of an outlet to their anger. And what was really surprising to conservative politicians in America was the extent to which conservative media turned on the Republican Party. The real story is that when I came to Washington, conservative media and conservative politicians were all rowing in the same direction. Within five years after the onset of the Great Recession they were rowing in different directions. That caught a lot of conservative policymakers by surprise. They were like, “Wait a second, my talk radio host is trashing me every single day on the radio? What are you talking about?” Basically, there became this position that your guys are selling you out and the Republicans and Democrats are all just as bad. It was a kind of a nihilism that became the style of the day in political media. And the left is just about to get there.
PM: We’re watching this mirror image right now.
Brooks: It’s brutal. It’s brutal. And by the way, there’s nothing new under the sun. This has happened a whole bunch of times. When we think about—again, to not be alarmist about it— the polarization was not nearly this bad even in recent memory. I’m friends with Ken Burns, you know, the guy who makes films. … Anyway, we [recently] got to talking about the current moment. He’s a liberal, right? He said, “You know, this is not that bad right now.” I said, “What are you talking about, man? This is terrible.” He says, “No, no, no. When was the last domestic bombing in the United States?” I’m like, “That New Jersey thing? Well, that one in New York didn’t actually go off. The Times Square thing? I don’t know.” And he said, “How many domestic bombings do you think there were in ’68 and ’69?” I said, “I don’t know.” Seven hundred. Seven hundred domestic bombings, Tim.
PM: Talk about the role of conservatism and how it can repair itself and help repair the country.
Brooks: I wish that conservative thinking had a claim to the heart. That’s different than what I often see today. I wish that we were a nation that had a soft heart and a hard head instead of a hard heart and a soft head. But this is not terrible by rote historic terms. We’re going to come out of this. The press is distinguishing itself really well right now. State and local government is doing a really good job. The courts are doing a really good job. We’re struggling in the national parties—I mean, the Republican and Democratic Party at the federal level are struggling to find their way. There are issues with the presidency that we haven’t seen in a while. But this country is just rock-solid. It’s going to be OK.
PM: What concerns you, specifically, in the political arena?
Brooks: There’s nothing really new about Congress being unpopular. When you basically say, “I’m going to give you a list of people who are responsible for your suffering,” sometimes that list will include the people that you used to vote for. But these are incredibly hard problems to address. As an economist I can tell you that nobody has ever figured out this first decade problem. Ever. In history there wasn’t an idea, there wasn’t a solution, nothing. Politicians say, “We can solve this; vote for me and I’ll solve it.” They can’t solve it. They don’t know how to solve it. So they don’t solve it and they get blamed. It’s super normal.
PM: There’s no prescription for any of this?
Brooks: Nobody knows what to do except wait it out. … This was disproportionately misery that was in white communities, rural communities, working class communities where jobs were going away, in congressional districts that are disproportionately bloody red. So it’s these conservative districts, and they’ll follow what seems like the most practical political narrative. It looked like they were onto something good because when Obama was in the White House, Obama was the bad guy. But in the meantime you noticed that the Republicans would say, “If you give me the majority this is going to turn around.” So the result is that talk radio and conservative media started turning against Republican leaders even during the Obama era when they said we’re going to solve this and then they didn’t. They couldn’t.
PM: Well, Republicans made a lot of false promises to voters over the past 10 years.
Brooks: Yeah. Why do marriages fail? Disappointment. Look, if you marry me I’m going to make you the happiest girl in the world. That’s a lie. Don’t lie! You have to manage expectations in a real way. You can’t do anything for a victory.
With Obama, I mean, you could have had Milton Friedman in the White House and you couldn’t have made a V-shaped recovery out of that recession. It couldn’t have happened. And look, Obama had lots of bad policies in my view that were really misguided, but when Republicans said, ‘If we had been in the White House everything would have been hunky dory by now,’ that’s not right. So to make that claim—and then to say if you give us the House and Senate we’re going to make everything great—you’re setting yourself up to fail.
PM: Do you really think it’s going to blow over? This 24-7 connectivity fueled by social media seems to breed and escalate this polarization.
Brooks: Social media is an accelerant to any little thing. Anything that one strike of a match can turn into a blazing house fire really, really fast. But it burns out fast, too, because we go on to the next thing.
Facebook was going to change everything, right? Facebook is fading. Facebook is going to be gone in 10 years. It’s bad. Something bad will replace it. This current moment that we’re in presents incredible opportunities for us to strip away, to give us an acid bath to how people are suffering and how people are feeling despair. We can use it as just an opportunity for profiteers to continue to pour money into their media operations, into their fringy political movements, or we can actually use it as an opportunity to help the people who are truly in need in this country. I bet we’re going to do both, actually. I just know what I’m going to do.
PM: You’ve written a lot about happiness. It seems to me there is a deficit of happiness in America today. That plays into all of this, doesn’t it?
Brooks: When people feel like, ‘Shit, I can’t get ahead,’ that’s when people feel a lot less happy. When people feel a sense of opportunity, they don’t actually care that much about politics. They care less, they become less ideological when they feel that. The best single way to get rid of all this unpleasantness right now is economic growth that’s evenly spread throughout the population.
PM: Earlier, you were discussing the conservative heart. When there’s someone running for president promising to fix their problems—while also identifying immigrants as threats to their livelihood—that would seem to pose more than just a passing threat to the heart of conservatism.
Brooks: Yeah, that’s just scapegoating. And the whole birtherism thing was that Obama is “the other,” he doesn’t understand you and that’s why it’s his fault. It’s the same thing when I go on a college campus and I’m talking about happiness, I’m talking about brotherhood, I’m talking about solidarity, I’m talking about getting beyond partisan differences and seeing each other as human beings. Then somebody will stand up and protest, saying I’m just an avatar for Donald Trump. That’s just because the moment that we’re in is in these particular circles people will use cultural symbols to define the other. There’s nothing weird about that—all sorts of weird dogwhistles all throughout American politics. It’s the oldest technique of all in politics. We “other” people a lot less when we don’t feel like we’re threatened. When we don’t feel like we have to guard our resources. Americans are not envious people as a general rule and we’re very open to others, but when resources are scarce and the distribution seems unfair, then we freak out.
PM: You certainly sound more confident in America than many people in this city right now.
Brooks: I think that Americans are really hardworking, and they’re not envious people and they have generally very good values. I think that the politicians that come to Washington are not morons and they’re really good, hardworking people, too. I didn’t know that before I came here. When I came here I thought they were creeps.
PM: Really? Your perception of politicians has actually improved?
Brooks: I’m way more bullish on politicians than I ever was before. They’re not perfect; they’re guys like you and me. They have to make hard decisions, they have to choose between impossible alternatives all day long. “I got this shitty alternative, I’ve got this shitty alternative.” Then you pick the least shitty alternative and then you get yelled at for choosing a shitty alternative. It’s a really hard job.
PM: You moved AEI into this amazing new building. You’re growing and thriving and financially healthy. Why leave now?
Brooks: The worst possible thing for an organization is when you leave not on top. I get emails from everybody going, “Are you crazy? Why?” Exactly—because it’s counterintuitive. As a steward, as an ethical matter, it’s the right thing to do. I have worked my whole career to make this place great. If I leave it when I’m not doing my best work, I’ve obviated the very ethical point that motivated me to come here in the first place. So I had to practice what I preach. All these think tanks around town, they have problems with the endings and the presidencies. You’ve seen it.
POLITICO: You know the rumored successor at AEI that’s flying around town?
Brooks: The Senate guy or the House guy? [Editor’s note: Jeff Flake or Paul Ryan?]
PM: The House guy. Ryan.
Brooks: Yeah. I’ve actually gotten a call saying that the rumor is that he’s going to be the next president of AEI. But given the fact that the committee hasn’t even met yet, that’s impossible.
PM: Ryan wants to leave Washington. What about you?
Brooks: No, I’ll go where I’m the best steward. I never sought D.C., I’ve never been into politics. But I felt this was the best stewardship opportunity. It was a big risk when I came here. I had literally never had one employee in my life. I had not one minute of management experience in my life before I came to AEI. It’s like I wandered on the construction site and they made me king. It’s crazy. It was a failed search. They needed somebody. I think the first order of business at my first board meeting was talking about the terms of my severance.
PM: Have you allowed your mind to start drifting to what comes next?
Brooks: Yeah. I got a lot of phone calls within hours of making the announcement. All kinds of stuff, too.
PM: Like what?
Brooks: Crazy stuff. Mostly—I’m an academic, right? So it makes sense to run stuff inside academia. To build something, to do a startup inside academia about human flourishing, about human potential, which I’ve talked about over the years. It’s great—I think back to when I was trying to get my academic career off the ground. I couldn’t do anything. I couldn’t get into any universities. Then I went back and got a correspondence school degree. Then I applied for Ph.D. programs, and they all turned me down. All of them. Now, maybe I can go teach at one of these schools. It’s crazy. This is a great country. A great country.