Conservatives have great ideas for improving Americans’ lives, but too many people believe conservatives care little about helping people other than “the rich.” That misperception prompted American Enterprise Institute President Arthur Brooks to write The Conservative Heart. During a recent visit to North Carolina for a luncheon co-sponsored by the John Locke Foundation, Brooks discussed the book with Mitch Kokai for Carolina Journal Radio. (Click here to find a station near you or to learn about the weekly CJ Radio podcast.)

Kokai: Too many people just don’t seem to believe that conservative ideas will help them, do they?

Brooks: Conservative principles, we know, as a matter of fact, are the best for lifting of the poor and creating a good, strong, healthy society, but people don’t believe that. And any time you see that, where you believe that you have the best product, but people don’t believe it’s the best product, you have a big communications problem. …

Kokai: You contend that conservatives should stop arguing against something, and instead argue for someone.

Brooks: The key thing to remember is that when you hear a debate, the side that’s losing is virtually always fighting against something, and the side that’s winning is fighting for someone. Now that’s one of the key things that the progressives in America have learned all too well.

I mean, if you look, public opinion polling shows that about 20 percent of Americans consider themselves politically liberal. Yet the liberals, they define themselves as the 99 percent. You know, they’re really onto something here. They say they’re fighting for everybody, except for the 1 percent who they really don’t like.

We need to remember that we truly are fighting for all Americans, and for a greater opportunity for everybody, rich and poor alike. And if we remember that, and we fight for them as opposed to [against] somebody else’s ideas, we look like the majority and we start to win.

Kokai: Some people might hear those words and say, “OK, give me an example.” So what about poverty? What’s the right way for conservatives to discuss poverty?

Brooks: We’ll start with the wrong way because let’s start with what we would naturally do. We fight against big government programs. We fight against sprawling food stamp programs. We fight against the housing policies. We fight against the poverty programs that look like they’re out of control.

That’s the wrong approach. We actually have enough money, if we wanted to. Idiotically, we could waste money doing those things. The real problem is not the money; it’s that we’re hurting the people that we’re supposed to help. So fight for those people.

I understand that a lot of people who are in poverty either aren’t voting or aren’t voting for Republicans. That doesn’t matter. Great leadership is not about fighting for people who support you. It’s about fighting for people who need you. And people who are on welfare, people who are poor — in fact, the whole bottom half of the income distribution in America needs our conservative ideas to help lift them up and give them greater opportunity and earned success.

So fight for those people. … This is not an argument to get rid of all welfare programs. We should celebrate the fact that this safety net is made possible by capitalism. But we should deploy it only in the cases of people who are poor and always with work such that the people can engender the values that are so important to give people lives of dignity and meaning. Fight for the poor, not against liberal policies.

Kokai: That could be a tough message, calling on conservatives to focus on people who might never support their ideas.

Brooks: Indeed, but that’s what leadership is all about. I mean, that’s what joyful leadership is all about, is fighting for people whether they support you or not. You fight for what’s right. That’s what it means to be a warrior in the marketplace of ideas — and, indeed, to be a real patriot. That’s what the greatest leaders throughout history have always done.

And in America, look, we have a competition of ideas. And I hear these crazy arguments out there, as if, you know, the other side of the political debate is worse than ISIS. And that’s nuts. I mean, these people that we’re talking about who disagree with our policy, they’re Americans, too, and we all have to be fighting for each other. I mean, for Pete’s sake, let’s get our priorities straight.

Kokai: You also focus in this book on emphasizing optimism and happiness. Why is that so important?

Brooks: Because people want to follow happy people. People find happy people appealing. They find unhappy, grumpy people not fun to be with. This is the truth. If you think of all the people that we’re attracted to — I realize that negative advertising works in the very short term. If you have to get from now until election day, and election day is 10 days away, you might want to attack and tear somebody down.

But if you want to have a strategy that’s going to work for a year, for five years, for a generation, you need to be the side that’s about happiness because that magnetizes your movement. And that will get people to want to follow you because it’s just more fun.

Kokai: Let’s talk about Ronald Reagan. Many people remember the 40th president as fighting big government, fighting the Soviet Union.

Brooks: We are remembering him wrong. He was not fundamentally a warrior against things. He was a warrior for people. His nomination speech, before he was elected the first time, in Detroit, used the world “people” 89 times. It’s extraordinary how much he was fighting for people, and how happy he truly was. …

Kokai: You made a striking point about people who bash liberals and progressives. You say that name-calling is the wrong way to go.

Brooks: It really is. I mean, if you think about it, almost all of us have friends or family members or people that we know and people that we respect who don’t agree with us. And that doesn’t mean that to have more community, to have people get along, you need to sacrifice your principles. On the contrary. But you have to remember that just because people disagree with you doesn’t mean that they’re evil and stupid.

You know, I personalize it because my family are mostly political progressives, and they disagree with me and I disagree with them on politics. But look, our faith is the same, and our family values are the same, and I love them. And when people say that liberals are stupid and evil, I understand why they say it, but they’re talking about my family. I don’t like it. I take it personally.

And we, on the conservative side, if we can actually stick up for our liberal friends, that’s going to change the whole debate. And, by the way, all the people in the middle, what do you think they’re hearing? They’re hearing a message of tolerance. They’re hearing a message of acceptance and love. …

Kokai: Some of what you’re saying applies to activists and people who work in the conservative movement. But what about the person out there who’s not overly political but is conservative? How does that person change his approach to chatting with liberal or moderate friends about these issues?

Brooks: The first thing to keep in mind is that if you’re always simply defending your point of view, you’re losing. You need to be going on the offense on behalf of people who need you. This is the most important thing to keep in mind.

So, going on offense to say I have new ideas that are really going to lift up poor people, are going to lift up people who are left behind, lift up people who are unhappy, people who are forgotten in our society. If you’re going on the offense with new ideas, better ideas, to start conversations, to reach out to others saying, “Do you know the good news? The good news of the conservative message and how it’s helping people?”

And this is an entirely different communications approach, as opposed to simply saying, “Oh, I know you guys like the minimum wage. Well, it’s stupid, because you’re going to create a scarcity of jobs, and doing that, you’re going to create induced unemployment and all this stuff.” Look, I have a Ph.D. in this stuff. It’s boring, and people don’t like it.

Instead, you say, “Look, you know what? I think that if you work hard and play by the rules, you deserve to be able to support yourself and your family. The problem that we have right now is that this really well-intentioned policy, the minimum wage, is destroying jobs for the people at the very bottom. So I have a better policy. I’m going to tell you about it. It’s exciting me.” And that’s the way we need to talk about these things.