Speak Softly, Conservatives

Speak Softly, Conservatives March 12, 2014

I’ve become a friend and collaborator with the Values and Capitalism project at the American Enterprise Institute.  They have a terrific team there, and no team member is more terrific than Tyler Castle, a promising young man who can do some great things with his career. I’m really pleased to offer this guest post from Tyler Castle:


Speak Softly, Conservatives

By Tyler Castle

For the second time in as many weeks, I attended a conference and left with a bad feeling in the pit of my stomach. I also left with an awesome Ron Swanson T-shirt (featuring this quote) — but that’s beside the point.

The first was the Christian, politically left-leaning Justice Conference in Los Angeles a few weeks ago. This time, however, I sat at the back of a massive ballroom at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC). As I walked in, I heard thundering applause as Wayne LaPierre, the CEO of the National Rifle Association, was introduced.

I should perhaps preface this by saying that I come from generations of NRA members and am in full support of Second Amendment rights. But, while I sat and listened to the speech, I imagined myself as a liberal — or even moderate — outsider and was honestly taken aback. At one point, LaPierre yelled, “Will the government protect us??” He was answered with a raucous, “NOOOO!!!” from about 5,000 strong.

LaPierre was followed by Donald Trump, who touched on various topics of foreign policy, including a defense of his belief that the U.S. should have been more forceful about taking control of oil production in Iraq. “We shouldn’t have been there, but if we’re there, take the oil,” Trump said.

The whole event must be a nightmare for anyone who seriously cares about conservative PR. As I listened, I was reminded of Theodore Roosevelt’s famous proverb: “Speak softly and carry a big stick.” Based on my experience at CPAC, it seems conservatives have the stick part down. But speaking softly? Well, not so much.

Of course, lest I sound too judgmental, I must admit that I am often guilty of this same offense.

I tend to get carried away in policy debates. “My logic is undeniable. How could you not see that,” I exasperatingly declare. Though many times — yet less than I will ever admit — although my argument is sound, this way of engaging with others is hardly ever effective. It is more likely to alienate and harden the heart of my opponent than actually persuade them of anything.

This was especially true during a recent conversation that I had about social welfare programs and the minimum wage. I passionately blabbered on and on about how the minimum wage leads to increased unemployment, how welfare programs can disincentivize people from working, and how entitlement spending is out of control.

Then I stopped…and had an epiphany of sorts: I realized I was speaking to a person, with a story. Just following my monologue, she tearfully shared that her husband suffers from premature Alzheimer’s and is no longer able to work. As a result, she is the sole provider for her family, which now depends on disability payments to get by.

Whoa. Hearing her story changed everything. I backpedalled and apologized for being brash. I kicked myself for being so insensitive and foolish. Moral of the story: speak softly.

Since then, I have come across this lesson in several places. In “The Brothers Karamazov,” Alyosha (one of the most beautiful characters in all of literature) says, “Let us be, first and above all, kind, then honest…” Kindness comes first — even before honesty, he convincingly suggests.

Likewise, the Apostle Paul tells the Ephesians to “speak the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15). In other words, the two must be closely intertwined. Without love, truth can be selfish, harsh, and unproductive — like it was for me in that conversation.

Over and over again, the God of history calls us to be gentle: “wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, then gentle…” (James 3:17); “be gentle, and…show perfect courtesy toward all people” (Titus 3:2); “Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience…” (Colossians 3:12).

And yet, consider this thought-experiment: If you asked someone on the street to describe conservatives with a single adjective, what would you expect to hear? My guess is that you’d need to search for days, weeks or even months before you’d find someone who would answer with “gentleness.”

I understand that there are times to “fire up the base” and times to “speak to the world,” but my point remains: No matter how right our position; it’s time to turn down the volume — at least a notch or two.


Tyler Castle is the program development associate for Values & Capitalism at American Enterprise Institute. He is a graduate of Westmont College and a former John Joy Institute fellow.



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  • RustbeltRick

    Young man, if your epiphany was simply that you should use a softer voice when telling a poor person that minimum wage increases and a humane safety net are a bad thing, you didn’t really have an epiphany at all. Our stagnant minimum wage and our fraying safety net, and the resulting devastating impact on the working poor, is a national disgrace; I trust you will see that the truly Christian response is to insist on livable wages and basic services for hard-working people.

    • Tyler Castle

      I think the proper Christian response is to be realistic about what works and what doesn’t in this world, but also gentle, kind, and loving when discussing these issues.

      For example, I realize that many people are struggling to get by because of unemployment and low wages. However, I also can’t help but side with the over 500 hundred economists (including 3 nobel laureates) who argue that a minimum wage increase would be a bad idea for the job market: http://nebula.wsimg.com/0ac0b639d50f7fea43d0378b1ee19215?AccessKeyId=D2418B43C2D698C15401&disposition=0&alloworigin=1. There are better ways to help these people, one of which is the Earned Income Tax Credit, which even President Obama spoke positively about in his SOTU address.

      I’d also just say that I’m not at all against having a “humane safety net,” for those that truly need it. The problem is, SS, Medicare and Medicaid have turned middle class entitlements. And if we don’t get spending under control, it is the poorest among us who will suffer when austerity measures have to be implemented.

      • RustbeltRick

        General Electric is one of 26 corporate giants that now pays zero income tax. Millionaires (the kind who run for president) pay a paltry 13 percent, or maybe even zero in the years they neglect to tell us about. I suppose spending has to be reigned in when the moneyed class has effectively decided that taxes no longer apply to them. The solution, I suppose, is to begin referring to programs that all of us have paid for as “entitlements”, and then convincing us that we shouldn’t feel so entitled. Small-government conservatism seems woefully unprepared for the Retirement Crisis which is a manageable problem now but will be a nightmare in 10 years.

  • Dorfl

    The family that depends on disability payments to get by, will starve just as much if those payments are lowered by a soft-spoken person as if they’re lowered by a loud one.

    The idea that stealing the Iraqis’ oil would ever have been justified, is just as horrible if spoken openly as if it’s just hinted at. If you find that you’re associating with people who believe that, your first worry should really be “Wait. Am I among crazy people?”, not “Oh dear. The PR fallout from this could be terrible”.

    I’m not sure how this happened, but way too many Christians seem to have interpreted the commandments to be gentle, kind and loving not as telling them to refrain from doing horrible things, but as telling them to somehow find ways to do those horrible things gently, kindly and lovingly.

    Please, forget about speaking softly, and work on not hitting people with a big stick instead.

    • Tyler Castle

      By speak “softly” I’m not actually referring to volume. Softly is another word for compassionately, wisely, or empathetically. Often times, speaking softly means changing what we would say completely…and sometimes even changing our opinions.

      For the record, I don’t agree with Trump at all–he should stick to business, rather than foreign policy commentary. And I don’t think every conservative policy position is correct (how could they be since conservatives often disagree). Yet, I also think that many smart, well-thought-out and well-researched conservative ideas are not given credit because of how they come across. I hope that with a little more kindness and gentleness, some of the good conservative ideas, that can help a lot of people, will be taken more seriously. Unfortunately, that is not what was happening at CPAC.

      • Dorfl

        By speak “softly” I’m not actually referring to volume. Softly is another word for compassionately, wisely, or empathetically.

        I know. My point is that lowering the disability payments for a family that only just gets by, cannot be done compassionately or empathetically.

        Often times, speaking softly means changing what we would say completely…and sometimes even changing our opinions.

        And did your opinions on welfare and spending change?

      • Matt Thornton

        What we say matters almost not at all. What we do matters hugely.

        The problem isn’t saying A vs. saying B. The call wasn’t to speculate. It was to act – to follow, and to act – for the least of these.

        That part isn’t really complicated at all.

        You can wrap whatever macroeconomics you like around it, but all your soft speeches and big sticks won’t amount to more than a hill of dust when you finally get around to answering the question of what you have done for the least among you.

        $.02 worth from the cheap seats.

  • ahermit

    There is good evidence that raising the minimum wage does not reduce employment (see Dube et al…http://escholarship.org/uc/item/86w5m90m

    And the idea that the miserly benefits of welfare lead to laziness and are handed to undeserving morally inferior people is insulting to those who really do need help (ie the vast majority of beneficiaries, like the woman in your story.)

    Speaking softly doesn’t make false certainty about an issue like wages any less false, or make crass, ignorant moral judgments about large groups of people any less destructive.

  • Jakeithus

    Working for a conservative politician myself, it really is a strong realization to have. My job places me as the contact person of last resort for all sorts of individuals struggling to connect with social programs or who are otherwise at the end of their ropes, and being able to speak softly is necessary in order to actually hear what these people are trying to say. Compassionate conservatism can be a reality, but it is incredibly difficult to achieve when the political system doesn’t often reward compassion from either side.

    • RustbeltRick

      Is your boss actively trying to weaken or eliminate the social programs that your constituents depend on? For instance, does he support the recent reduction in food stamp benefits? If so, why?

      • Jakeithus

        Well I’m not an American, and neither is my boss, so I can’t really speak to a particular issue such as that.

        Social programs are important, you can be a conservative and believe that. It’s only a particular brand of American conservatism that tries to deny any government assistance in this area, one that can hopefully be changed.