Kyle Wingfield

Political commentary and opinion from The Atlanta Journal-Constitution's conservative blogger

A smiley call to arms from conservatism's happy warrior

It has been widely remarked that this has been the year of the angry voter. Public anger is said to drive support for such otherwise opposite candidates as Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders.

So how can a candidate win over so many angry people? Try being happy.

That was the message of conservatism's happiest warrior, Arthur Brooks, during his visit to Cobb County this past Thursday. Brooks, who runs the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, made the case for political leaders, especially angry Republicans, to put on their happy faces.

"You look at the Republican candidates, they look grim," Brooks told a lunchtime crowd at the Georgia Public Policy Foundation's annual Legislative Policy Forum . "They're hating life, most of 'em. They're walking around like they're on some kind of death march. And listen to their rhetoric, it's profoundly pessimistic."

Brooks cited social-science literature showing happy leaders make employees 30 percent more productive and are viewed by followers as being 30 percent more effective. So why do political leaders ignore this fact of life?

"It's short-termism," he explained. "It's like smoking. It's never convenient to quit today, but once you do you can have a much better life. As a matter of fact, that comparison is quite apt. What we've been doing with our negativity, with the competing pessimism with the left, is doing something that does fundamental long-term damage."

Brooks has been at the fore of arguing conservatives should talk more about why their policies will better the lives of all Americans, even those who tend not to vote for conservative politicians. Our tendency to lead with our heads — talking statistics and budgets — while ignoring the emotional aspects of arguments, prompted his recent (and very good) book, "The Conservative Heart."

"People want to be on the positive side, on the side that's fighting for people, on the side that's more optimistic, on the side that is purely aspirational," he said Thursday, "not on the side that's saying the country's going to hell. That's a bummer. That's not fun."

While Republicans have fallen into this trap, Brooks doesn't solely blame them for that.

"The greatest disappointment for me over the past 10 years is not that President Obama was elected," he said. "I didn't vote for him, because I disagree with him on policy. But you know what? I understand why he won in 2008. Because he campaigned on unity and optimism … what disappoints me is that he governed on pessimism and division. And you know what? He spawned an opposition of pessimism and division."

To get out of that cycle, Brooks suggested Republicans emulate someone who first made Brooks, raised by liberal Democrats in Seattle, give conservatism a second look, way back in 1980.

"It was competing pessimisms. It was competing apocalyptic scenarios, like right now," he recalled. "And Reagan won because he broke out of that. …

"Reagan gave his nomination speech at the (convention) in Detroit, five months before Election Day, and you know what the number one word was in his speech, which he said 89 times? 'People.' He talked about people who (wouldn't) vote for him, who (didn't) even know who he is."

For all the times we will hear Republicans invoke Reagan between now and November 2016, that example of his is the most powerful.

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About the Author

Kyle Wingfield joined the AJC in 2009. He is a native of Dalton and a graduate of the University of Georgia.