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David Cameron's Former Advisor Wants To Revamp The U.S. Conservative Movement


Recapping this week in the race for the Republican presidential nomination is getting harder than "Game Of Thrones." Donald Trump swept every primary this week and called himself the presumptive nominee. Ted Cruz selected a running mate, even though he hasn't been nominated. And John Boehner called Ted Cruz Lucifer in the flesh.

In search of a fresh viewpoint, we welcome Steve Hilton into our studios. He's former senior adviser to British Prime Minister David Cameron, but he's now in the United States. He's been teaching in Stanford. He started something called Crowdpac, which has been called a for voters and donors. He's written a book called "More Human" about ways he sees to refresh the conservative movement in the U.K. and the United States. You can pass questions along to us online. Steve Hilton, thanks so much for joining us in the studio here.

STEVE HILTON: Great to be with you.

SIMON: If not yes or no, then in at least 10 words or less, is Donald Trump the presumptive nominee?

HILTON: I think I'm not the best person to comment on what's going on right now in American politics. My sense would be yes. That's a short enough answer I think. I think what underlies the campaign, though, I think is perhaps more interesting.

SIMON: Well, and what is that? What's been going on this year in both parties as you see it?

HILTON: Well, I think if you look at the Republican side, it's quite clear that there's a real sense of trauma going on with the traditional Republican establishment when they see what's going on in this race. But actually, I think there's a real opportunity for the conservative movement that has been revealed by the Trump candidacy and to a certain extent by the Sanders candidacy on the left. And the reason I think that is if you look underneath what's going on, you see that both these candidates have exposed something really important about the way things have been happening in our modern world. And it's the argument I make in my book "More Human" which is that right across the board the systems and structures that have built up over many decades in the economy, in the way we run government, in the way we think about things like schools and health care, they've all become too big and bureaucratic and distant from the human scale, which means that people feel that really important decisions that affect their lives are being made by people a long way away who don't actually understand or care about the human consequences.

Now, the reason I say that's an opportunity for conservatives is to me the answer to this dehumanized world that we've built is to break up these big monolithic bureaucratic institutions to disperse power, to take power from the centralized authorities, whether that's in government or in business, and put it into people's hands. And that to me is actually a really fundamentally conservative notion that we redistribute power from the center to individual people and local communities. And so I think that is why this moment is actually a great opportunity for modernizing and reforming conservatism.

SIMON: I know you - in a recent article I think in Politico you suggested that conservatives should work to lower taxes on businesses to give workers higher pay.

HILTON: Yes. I think there's an interesting argument here around the whole minimum wage debate, which perhaps might surprise people in terms of where I'm coming from. The argument up till now has been presented in pretty simplistic left-right terms. On the left, we need to raise pay and on the right they say, well, you can't do that because in the end that will raise costs for businesses and therefore people will lose jobs, and that's even worse than having a low wage, having no wage at all.

I think there's a way through this, which is more creative than that, which is to say let's raise people's incomes so that they are not dependent on the state or on welfare or on other kinds of income support to literally live so that there is a living wage that people can live on what they earn. But to make that affordable for business so that people do keep their jobs, we cut business taxes by the same amount.

SIMON: But let me ask - hasn't it been the practical experience in this country certainly that when businesses earn more they reward their executives and not necessarily the people who are working for them?

HILTON: That's exactly right. That is what's happened and that is well-documented over the last few decades, that the share of business profits is going more to the people at the top rather than the workers. That's why I think it's right to mandate this living wage. It's not something that I would want to see as a voluntary exultation on business. It's actually something that should be required by law, that businesses pay.

I think it's - if you take a step back from the policy debate, I think it's a basic principle that I think we can all support that if you work full time you should be able to live on what you earn without the need for support, either from the state or other forms of handouts. That is a reasonable human way of thinking about it. The question is how do we implement that in a practical way through the systems that we have, and my answer in "More Human" is what I describe as a business-friendly living wage.

SIMON: Speaking as a British pol who now lives here, is this a crazy system we have in the United States?

HILTON: There are some great things about it, which I really admire and...

SIMON: I meant primaries and caucuses...

HILTON: I think there's a fundamentally good thing about American politics which we don't have in the...

SIMON: And the money - and the money and the millions of dollars...

HILTON: Well, yes and I'll get to that. I'll get to that, but there's one thing I want to highlight, which is actually the - one of the more human elements of the system here is its decentralization, the fact that you do have the opportunity, whether that's at the state level or even at the local level, for real political innovation and leadership, for new ideas, new ways of doing things to be tried out. In the U.K., it's a smaller country certainly but a much more centralized one. It's much harder - we don't have elected mayors. There's no concept of an equivalent of state legislatures or governors who can try out really interesting things. We do have local authorities but - and in the government that I was part of we actually tried to give them more freedom and more power to experiment. So I think that's a good thing about America, the decentralization.

The money in politics is of course a huge problem. And I think that is recognized on left - both on left and right in the U.S. In a way, that's why I started my business Crowdpac to try and do something about that through the marketplace as it were. Crowdpac is a crowdfunding site for politics. We're trying to open up the whole political system to make it easier for more small donors to find candidates to support. And the first chapter of "More Human" is about politics and how we can make politics more human and I think the answer to that is to get more people involved, especially in relation to the financing of politics.

SIMON: As the Sanders campaign, I think, is entitled to think that they've done this year...

HILTON: They have...

SIMON: Spending more...

HILTON: They've been doing - they've done a great job. I said right at the beginning of the campaign I really admire the way that he said he wasn't taking any money from super PACs. That was a great example of leadership. People have responded. That's all good, but let's remember that the presidential campaign is one election out of - I think it's 400,000 elected positions in America. The real problem and the real corruption comes lower down.

SIMON: Steve Hilton, former adviser to Prime Minister Cameron. His book is called "More Human." Thanks so much for being with us. BJ Leiderman writes our theme music, and you're listening to NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.