The right 'zen'
After the Obama and Tea Party years, US conservatives intend to redefine themselves. Arthur Brooks, one of their most influential intellectuals, looks for inspiration from Eastern spirituality.

Aaron Clamage

Article Highlights

  • Arthur Brooks: "The formula of materialism is: worship yourself, love things, and use people."

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  • Brooks: "The right formula for a happy life, a non-materialist life, is: worship God, love people, and use things.”

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  • Talking about poverty and inequality has ceased to be taboo in the Republican Party.

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This interview originally appears in the Spanish version of El Pais. It has been translated for by Gabriel Noronha.

The economist Arthur Brooks is Roman Catholic and apostolic. In the living room of his house in the suburbs of Washington, he has a photo of himself with Pope Benedict XVI.

He is also one of the most influential conservatives in the United States. Few in this country have articulated with such firmness the defense of capitalism and the free market against the alleged socialist drift of President Barack Obama. 

The American Enterprise Institute (AEI), the think tank that he runs, nurtured the Republican Party for decades. From the Reagan Revolution to the Iraq War, this laboratory of ideas has been the kitchen of some of the ideas that have defined the American right. 

Now Brooks, born in Spokane, Washington in 1964, wants to redefine what it means to be a conservative. There’s no use only talking about money, benefits, and efficiency.

“The formula of materialism is: worship yourself, love things, and use people,” he says. “The right formula for a happy life, a non-materialist life, is: worship God, love people, and use things.”

Brooks has visited the Dalai Lama’s Tibetan monks in Dharamsala, India, has studied Eastern spiritual texts, and has converted the Washington headquarters of AEI into a forum for the discussion of human happiness. The approach towards Asian spirituality in this temple of American conservatism coincides with coolness towards Pope Francis, whose critiques of capitalism have irritated some on the Catholic right.

“In Dharamsala,” says Brooks, “I meditated with the Dalai Lama’s monks in his monastery, which is easy enough for me because I am Catholic – we pray the rosary every day.”

In February, Brooks welcomed the Dalai Lama, the Buddhist leader, to AEI. In June, he conversed in the same place with the Hindu guru, Sri Sri Ravi Shankar.

The usual ties and suit jackets in the corridors of the laboratory of ideas now mixed with robes and beards, and the rhetoric of Christian values mixed with Buddhist and Hindu thought.

“The secret to happiness?” the economist asked the guru.

“Be yourself and find the inner reservoirs of peace that we have all been gifted with. Go slow, you know? Drive behind a bicycle.”

In the United States, happiness and politics are inseparable: the Declaration of Independence proclaims the right to pursue it. But rarely has this idea been at the center of the debate.

The years of the Tea Party – the populist movement that has driven the opposition of Obama – has left Republicans battered. Part of the country identifies Republicans as the party of white men over 50, of tax cuts for the rich, and spending cuts for the poor.

In 2013, several Republican leaders noted in a report on the failure of the 2012 presidential election that young people and minorities weren’t even listening to them. “We need a party whose conservatism invites and inspires new people to approach us,” the document says.

Married to a Catalan, Brooks was a musician in the Barcelona Symphony Orchestra before becoming an economist: a change of career less unusual in the U.S. than in Europe. Much of the interview was conducted in Catalan. He isn’t affiliated with any party. 

But the Republican leaders consult and listen to him. During the last campaign for the Republican presidential nomination, major candidates paraded through his office, decorated with a poster of the bullfighter José Tomás in a Barcelona arena.

A few weeks ago, while Brooks was driving his car back to his house on a Friday afternoon, he received a message on his phone. “It’s Marco Rubio,” said Brooks, flattered and amused. He had wished him a happy birthday. 

Rubio, of Cuban heritage, is a senator from Florida and one of the most mentioned names as a candidate for the Republican Party in 2016 to try to succeed Obama.

Talking about poverty and inequality has ceased to be taboo in the Republican Party. The dogma of tax cuts and cuts in the welfare state is in question.

The right, says Brooks, needs “to make peace” with the social safety net. “Where do you save money? Don’t save it from the poor, save it from the subsidies that go to the rich,” he advises.

Brooks says that the Dalai Lama “didn’t know anything about politics: what he knows is about the human conscience. He says: ‘I am a Marxist.’ But afterwards adds that he does not believe in sharing by force, but believes in sharing voluntarily as a matter of human morality,” Brooks explains.

- What can the right learn from the Dalai Lama?

- To part with materialism. The same as the left.

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