Five Questions with Michael Novak


EDITOR’S NOTE: CV is happy to include a new entry in our “Five Questions” series. Today we feature an interview with author Michael Novak, who recently penned a book about his life called Writing From Left to Right: My Journey from Liberal to Conservative. He spoke with CatholicVote’s Joshua Mercer.


Today, the Catholic vote is splintered. Those who attend Mass on a regular basis are much more willing to cast a ballot for a Republican. Those who identify with their Catholicism culturally but attend Mass infrequently ten to vote Democratic. But that wasn’t the case in 1960, when 80% of Catholics voted for Kennedy. Help people of my generation to understand what it was like for a Catholic to be elected President.

I was at Harvard that year. I had started at graduate school… It you were Catholic back then people at Harvard thought you had purple hair. You must be neurotic and so you invented God for your consolation. And yet here he was. His wife and his children. Everyone just thought [Kennedy] was so impressive. He gave a powerful inaugural speech and everybody loved it. I’m not saying it was like Jefferson or Lincoln, but it was powerful for our generation.

So everywhere you went there were these barriers – psychological barriers. The most beautiful buildings were Protestant. The most beautiful universities – Harvard, Yale – were all Protestant. Catholics were Johnny-come-latelies. Except in one place. In New Orleans, Catholics were there from the beginning. They were the elite.

But that’s a very different experience from Boston or Philadelphia and other cities out East. So [Kennedy’s election] meant a great deal. But I should caution that 82% vote for Kennedy was a huge jump. The normal Catholic vote in Pennsylania and other states across the northeast and middle west was like 56-60% for Democrats. But it was a huge jump for Kennedy.


In the late 70s, Republicans were out of power, like they are today. But there’s something different about the soaring rhetoric of Ronald Reagan and Jack Kemp that we’re just not hearing on the conservative side that much today. We hear about the “moochers” and the 47%. What kind of message is needed by conservative political leaders today?

You’re right about the soaring rhetoric of Ronald Reagan and Jack Kemp. I noticed in 1980, I was just becoming aware of the Laffer Curve, which is a simple diagram which states if you raise tax rates higher and higher… it’s not worth it for people to work harder, if the government is going to take that much. You can raise taxes as high as you want, that doesn’t mean you’re going to get more tax revenue. In fact, you have to experiment at different times and different places. Lowering the tax rate often times increases the economic activity, of which you get more revenue.

m novak and reagan

Michael Novak shakes hands with President Reagan.

And Jack Kemp and Ronald Reagan and some optimists would talk about good times. Republicans tend to talk like green-eyeshades Republicans – always talking about the budget. Jack Kemp really discovered the idea that ‘No, Republicans can bring you prosperity, bring you activity, bring you employment.’ And I noticed that every time Jack Kemp campaigned with Ronald Reagan he always talked about tax cuts and he just soared. That’s what he always wanted to say. And that’s what he wanted Republicans to stand for.

Kemp, together with Senator Roth from Delaware had a policy, not just rhetoric, of what to do for the economy. And Rep. Bill Steiger of Wisconsin fought really hard back in 1978 – before Reagan got elected – insisted and proposed a capital gains tax rate cut for investment capital. People wanted to invest in this new computer industry. A bunch of these kids had opened up in their garage. But they need millions of dollars to put up a plant and start making these new computers. Should you do it? They’re just a bunch of kids. Okay, I’m going to venture some capital on it. I’ll try it. Well, if the government is going to take 49%, people didn’t want to invest it in. And we weren’t getting enough tax revenue.

So Jack could be really optimistic about cutting capital gains tax rates and how it would increase the flow of money into a new industry. And that’s how we saw the creation of whole new industries at the beginning of the Reagan administration: mobile phones, personal computers, medical innovations. There were lots of venture funds invested in new companies. The Reagan administration transformed our lives, but it started with Rep. Will Steiger, reducing the capital gains tax rate from 49% down to 28%.

Paul Ryan started in that direction. But he was too prosaic on the campaign trail last year. That served him well in the Middle West. But across the whole country he didn’t do so well. So I don’t want to say that rhetoric is not important, it really is. But it is a gift. And put it this way: In 1978, it did not look like Reagan was going to be the nominee. Real partisans of Reagan were boosting him, but I was not. We never looked to Reagan for salvation. He proved himself. He came out of nowhere, as far as I’m concerned. It’s too soon, I wrote in a column. This great new movement that’s building – there’s not enough people in government to carry it through. That might happen in 2016.


Your book The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism written in 1982 has done as much as any work to introduce Catholics to the concepts of the market economy, the role of the entrepreneur, and the concepts of risk and reward. Pope John Paul II contributed immensely to this discussion with Centesimus Annus. Are you seeing a change in the way that clergy and bishops today approach economic questions?

Well, if you look at the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, they’ve done a pretty good job of publishing a number of important papers on the importance of small businesses for Africa. The only way the poor will be lifted out of poverty is if they can start businesses that bring economic growth to the bottom.

For example, a friend of mine who was a missionary in Bangladesh managed to get a drug to fight tapeworm from Pfizer, I think it was. And he got their excess. They gave it to them. He managed to get it distributed to the villages. Well, then he got the idea: What if I could get them a cell phone? And he would charge something for it. Well with the cell phone people could also call around to the different markets and look for better prices. They would compare one market to another. So they considerably raised the income of that village and paid for that cell phone and then some.

Then he worked on getting them new kinds of seeds, along with rice they would plan flowers, and they were bought up pretty quick. You get this venture capital to these markets, it’s amazing how much good you can do. And Cardinal Turkson [President of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace] seized that, and knows how that can work. And that’s what he’s trying to promote.

On the other hand, there’s a whole bunch of bishops, especially in Latin countries, who grew up so long in a Catholicism tied to an agrarian economy that they don’t understand capital venture. They just condemn it as profiteering. That’s a narrow-minded view of what is going on. They’re improving their condition, their economic strength. They’re not just there for their profits. They’re improving the lives of their children. And that’s a noble motive. That’s why there’s so much energy there.

Well, that’s happening a lot in one part of the Church. And in another part of the Church it’s a democratic socialism, where they only way to improve the lives of the poor is to give them more welfare. But you can’t do that. Giving them welfare doesn’t give them independence. And that’s not going to pick them up. So that’s a big battle in the Church. And there are bishops and Cardinals in Rome and around the world who are very opposed to Centisimus Annus. They don’t like that. They don’t understand free enterprise. And that’s why there’s still poverty in some countries.


In your book, you reaffirm your belief that the Iraqi war was a good idea. Many Catholics (and I include myself) initially supported that campaign but have soured on foreign intervention, especially in the Middle East. Syria was recently on the front pages. Do you think the Republican Party, with the influence of Rand Paul, will become less willing to support interventions abroad? What are your thoughts on the foreign policy debates in the GOP?

A democratic power has a tough time staying at war for a very long time – because people have a vote. They begin to think the cost is too high. And it’s often very hard to understand what’s going on all around the world, why the war is so important. The impulse brought on by the bombing of the World Trade Center buildings in 2001 gave Americans the will to fight. We got to get those terrorists. First in Afghanistan and then in Iraq. Saddam Hussein was a quite monstrous man what he was doing to his own people. He went against the very treaties he had signed with Bush the First. A lot of young people volunteered.

But as the going got tough, more and more people became more and more reluctant to support it. But it was coming along slowly. There had been more and more stories of democracy growing in the Middle East – the most in 200 years. It was slowly turning those countries in a new direction towards democracy, towards human rights. That was giving young people in those countries a new [goal], instead of just rebelling and destroying others – killing – a lot of them began to get the vision of developing a better country. ‘There’s no reason will all these oil wells that we have so many unemployed. We got to get going in building an economy so people can have a future.’

I thought it was working. I thought we had to stick to it. Pope John Paul was probably right that it would be too costly, that people would lose heart – only Americans were willing to do that sort of thing. He thought it would be a failure. I still think a great success – up to a point. And if we had stuck at it, it would still be. And I still think the attempt at democracy all over that whole region including Syria – if Reagan had been there to help them in his clever ways (sometimes directly, sometimes indirectly, but always rhetorically) – I think we’d had a different outcome. That it would be the only way to change the direction of the Middle East. But it just peetered out with the [Obama] administration. So in that context, I think the Pope was right. I was a supporter of the intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan. I would not have gone back into Afghanistan the way Obama did. And I would not be for conducting an intervention in Syria under this President, with this Secretary of State. For the record I can say that they don’t understand what’s going over there. They don’t understand international politics. So I wouldn’t trust them. So I’m opposed to the Syrian war. It’s a case-by-case basis.


novak-bookYou’ve had a great career working for American Enterprise Institute, which is called a “think tank” or a research organization. But there remains a large inequity in the academy. The number of conservatives like Robert George and Mary Ann Glendon at top positions at distinguished universities are so small that we could rattle them off in a few minutes. Do you think this lack of diversity in the academy is bad for our country? And what role do think tanks like AEI and others play in the role of ideas?

Well, I think you described very well why think tanks have come into prominence. More and more professors want to be in one because academic politics have become dominant. There’s a code of orthodoxy and if you’re not on the right side, people speak ill of you. It’s every unpleasant in the university if you’re on the conservative side. Why that’s so is a whole different discussion. But it is so. There are 90 Democrats for every 10 Republicans at the universities. It would 100% if it weren’t for the business schools…. But that’s why so many academics (and often very creative people) want to work at think tanks. And so many want to work at think tanks, but there’s only so many people who can do it. My daughter once asked me: “Daddy, what’s a think tank?” We had just moved to Washington. “Does that mean you can sit and think and do whatever you want to do, and they pay you for it?” And I said, “Yeah, you got that about right.”


Best job ever, right?

Best job ever.

After I was there for like six months, working away on The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism, no one asked me to go to faculty meetings or tenure meetings. My academic ambition in life was to stay out of meetings. But I went to the president at AEI and I said, “You know I like this here. But I feel like I’m not doing enough for the organization. Is there something I’m missing here?” I was afraid they would boot me out of here. And he says, “Michael, sit down.” He said: “Before we hired you, we did a complete FBI background check and we found out that you’re an absolute workaholic. So just keep doing what you’re doing. You’re gonna be all right.”


Well, I think your workhorse ethic and all the writings and books you’ve produced only prove you’ve had an amazing journey. Our readers can find out about all that in your new book Writing From Left to Right: My Journey from Liberal to Conservative. And I just thank you for talking to CatholicVote.

I’m very grateful.

The views expressed here are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of


About Author

Joshua Mercer is a co-founder of, where he serves as Political Director. Mercer previously served as Washington Correspondent for the National Catholic Register and Chairman for Students for Life of America. He lives in Michigan with his wife and six children.

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