Arthur Brooks: Bringing America Together

September 26, 2016
On September 6th, the Penn Wharton PPI, Penn AEI Executive Council, Penn Government and Politics Association, College Republicans, and the Penn Federalist Society welcomed Arthur C. Brooks, bestselling author, social scientist, and the president of the American Enterprise Institute for a discussion about what we can do as individuals to break through the gridlock of political polarization.

“It is easy to be pessimistic about politics and policy,” began Brooks, framing the discussion on what can be learned in the Penn environment that can inform our experience as citizens. With polarization as bad as its been in decades, Brooks remarked that “people on the left and right trust each other less than they have in his lifetime.” He highlighted 2014 research by the National Academy of Science, describing Political Motive Asymmetry – that individuals view themselves as motivated by love, but see others as motivated by hate. “People who can’t understand each other can’t come to terms with their differences,” he continued, remarking that the majority of Democrats and Republicans suffer from this psychological bias.


In his own experience as president of the American Enterprise Institute, he spoke about his role as “lecturer” to Congressmen on positive psychology and behavioral science. What needs to change, according to Brooks, is a shift in mentality from “how can I win?” to “what can I do to make it better?”. In his own institution, he committed to answering this second question through a philosophical commitment towards progress, and a stylistic commitment towards respect. A paradox of experience and information exists in the modern political landscape: for example, critics of the current president say that the Great Recession is the fault of bad policies, however the data says “that we could have Milton Friedman as President, and we would still be suffering from a recession.”

After listening to lectures by Cardinal Francis George, an intellectual vanguard for the Catholic Church in the US, on fundraising, Brooks stumbled upon a phrase that triggered an epiphany: “the poor need you to pull them out of poverty.” Brooks realized “the essence of human dignity, the essence of full citizenship, is not being helped – it is being needed.” In his upcoming documentary Abundance Without Attachment, Brooks explores this idea of dignity tied to necessity by working with a non-profit called Ready, Willing and Able seeking to combat homelessness by providing employment – by making people necessary.  “Our country has gotten good at helping and bad at needing. What can we do with our tax system, education system, and other institutions to make people needed more?” By beginning to treat everyone in society, the poor and disenfranchised, those of opposite points of view and lifestyles, we can begin to bring America together again.

Brooks then moved to his second point, on shifting the way we talk about incendiary issues. “People describe the polarization problem as a matter of anger,” Brooks explains, “but really, its contempt. Anger ordinarily leads to resolution, but there is no resolution to contempt.” According to John Gottman, the world’s leading expert on marital reconciliation, contempt is a belief in the utter worthlessness of the other. Gottman claims he can tell with 94% accuracy which couples will get divorced by looking for eye-rolling – a physical sign of contempt. When congressmen do the same, they write off a chance at collaborating and instead harbor resentment.

Brooks’ close personal friend is the Dalai Lama, a man who is extremely likely to feel contempt towards the Chinese government for his exile from Tibet. When asked what to do in the face of contempt, he responded “practice compassion, practice warm-heartedness, be kind instead”. Brooks then encouraged everyone to practice warm-heartedness on their own to combat contempt, and to “fake it” because kindness proliferates.

Arthur Brooks talks with University of Pennsylvania Students 

Finally, Brooks referred to Dale Carnegie, whose famous work How to Win Friends and Influence People tried to define the secrets to success. One of these secrets is gratitude. “Are you grateful enough?” Brooks asked, “are you grateful enough for your political freedoms? A source of gratitude should include and emphasize the people we disagree with, especially those for whom we are not predisposed to show kindness.”   

With that, he ended the night with these final thoughts: “I am truly grateful for the people sitting in these seats that make it possible for me and my institution to exist in this country, and for me to make a living doing something I love.”

About the Speaker:

Arthur Brooks is a bestselling author, a social scientist, and the president of the American Enterprise Institute. Brooks works with top scholars, policymakers, and elected officials to fight for all Americans’ access to free enterprise and earned success. His path to Washington, DC, has been anything but typical. At 19, he left college to play the French horn professionally. He toured internationally and recorded several albums, eventually landing in the City Orchestra of Barcelona. In his late 20s, Brooks returned to the US and completed his bachelor’s degree by correspondence. He went on to earn a Ph.D. in public policy, focusing on microeconomics and mathematical modeling. After completing his doctorate, he spent 10 years as a professor of public administration. Brooks is an in-demand speaker, a contributing opinion writer for the New York Times, and a frequent radio and TV commentator. A Seattle native, he has been married for 23 years to his wife, Ester. They live in Maryland with their three children.