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June 29, 2005

In Defense of "Compassionate Conservativism"

Nobody — not one single pundit — with posting rights to NRO's Corner could muster a defense of "compassionate conservatism"? Forget naked partisanship. Forget (for just a moment) principle! Not one NRO writer is willing to step into the fray simply for the sake of offering contrast to John Derbyshire's self-refuting, faux defense?

It is a fixed belief among millions of the stupider sorts of Americans -- college Humanities professors and the like -- that the Dems are the kind party, while the GOP is the unkind party. If you talk to ordinary citizens much, this comes through all the time. ...

Philosophically, intellectually, and metaphysically, "compassionate conservatism" is of course turkey poop. But this is p-o-l-i-t-i-c-s.

Perhaps what so irks me about this commentary's being left to stand for eleven hours (and counting) on conservatism's online hub is that the act of disagreeing would, in itself, accord with the points begging to be made in response: that there are indeed stark differences among those who are, on a mainstream scale, considered to be "conservatives." Moreover, if (as I, for one, believe) the liberalism of recent history is on the wane, then the next rift to define the culture wars will derive from those stark differences.

Whether libertarians renovate and restock the fallen strongholds of liberals or social conservatives grudgingly admit that they are the left-most side in a battle with Paleos, "compassionate conservatism" surely offers an early marker of the sides. It is not fowl feces to stake out ground on the field of sensibilities. Put differently, it is not necessarily a cynical ploy when a politician correctly identifies a space for which there is a constituency. This holds even if the catch phrase is not immediately associable with any particular initiatives; in "p-o-l-i-t-i-c-s," rhetorical constructions themselves have force.

Derbyshire's fellow citizens don't share his emphasis on Reason versus Unreason (with the latter covering both the hateful Amiri Baraka and some unspecified segment of intelligent-design advocates), his classification of such pursuits as English studies as "spurious academic disciplines," or his belief that science will triumph over "our instincts and preferences and faith" to prove that "our cherished beliefs about the Self are largely illusions," free will among them. Many Americans cherish those beliefs more than they cherish science; many prioritize helping others over being rational. And some among them require explanation of why particular solutions are more rational means of helping others than are alternatives that seem more direct.

Conservative solutions can be understandably counterintuitive to those not disposed or at liberty to follow political issues closely: guaranteeing fewer Social Security benefits to ensure more, restricting marriage to protect families, and going to war to secure peace, to name a few. Perhaps when one intends to advocate such things, it helps to create a perception that ensures more than two words of explanation before distrust kicks in. In a word, compassion.

It is without question that conservatives and (distinctly) Republicans have only recently begun to break the fog of stereotyping that places an undue burden on their visions for improving our mutual lot. But if impressions of a stupider sort still come through "all the time" in conversation with ordinary citizens, I can't help but feel that appeals to compassionate conservatism are more rational than the condescension that casts "a couple hundred thousand" ordinary citizens as dupes of "a snappy, easily-remembered slogan" or, worse, "pork wrapped up in schmalz."

If Jonah Goldberg isn't alone in synonimizing compassionate conservatism with "runaway spending and some of the worst lurches to the center of the Bush years," then I suggest that we expend some effort in explaining what the phrase ought to mean — not the least because the forces of dehumanization have already begun eyeing the banner of compassion for their own causes.

Posted by Justin Katz at June 29, 2005 9:18 PM
Politics
Comments

I thought the forces of dehmanization had long ago already staked out the banner of 'compassion' in a typically ironic fashion. What comes specifically to mind are benevolent oligarchies, the phrase "workers of the world unite!", and making charity work the business of federal government. I suppose I could be wrong though.

Posted by: smmtheory at June 30, 2005 12:48 AM

From the first, I thought it was a clever phrase while at the same time I also concurred with many conservatives who already knew that the "compassionate" component was unnecessary. Nonetheless, it served to inform that the more traditional association, often negative, of conservative with (cold-hearted) "capitalist" did not hold true anymore. President Bush offered a new way. (Ugh, a bit neo-Clintonian, that) I guess the question is whether or not "cc" can go beyond a rhetorical construct to a full blown political ideology. Goldberg has attempted to negatively define a possible version. Perhaps it is time for self-described "cc"s to go beyond defending the term and to work toward defining some basic tenets of a blossoming ideology before the term itself wilts in the hot sun of "conservatarian" criticism.

Posted by: Marc Comtois at June 30, 2005 2:28 PM
Conservative solutions can be understandably counterintuitive to those not disposed or at liberty to follow political issues closely: guaranteeing fewer Social Security benefits to ensure more, restricting marriage to protect families, and going to war to secure peace, to name a few. Perhaps when one intends to advocate such things, it helps to create a perception that ensures more than two words of explanation before distrust kicks in. In a word, compassion.

The question is whether these things are what "compassionate conservatism" refers to, which is what you allude to when you say "...I suggest that we expend some effort in explaining what the phrase ought to mean..." If, in fact, compassionate conservatism is currently associated with the federal government acting to forward ostensibly conservative goals (NCLB, marriage initiatives, Medicare drug benefit, etc.), then it's fairly hard to make a case supporting it from a conservative viewpoint, a key component of which is that the federal government should butt out of areas not in its enumerated powers. I think that the phrase automatically capitulates to the liberal view that compassion requires federal action.

The question is whether it is worth explaining what it ought to mean - I tend to take KLo's view that you might as well just explain/defend conservative views on their merits, rather than coming up with catching slogans. Why spend effort trying to explain what you think compassionate conservatism means if in the end it's not any different from regular old conservatism?

Posted by: Mike S. at June 30, 2005 3:30 PM

Mike hits some good points:

I think that the phrase automatically capitulates to the liberal view that compassion requires federal action.

And what I'm suggesting it should mean is that conservative policies will be compassionate, albeit routed through the appropriate channel.

Why spend effort trying to explain what you think compassionate conservatism means if in the end it's not any different from regular old conservatism?

Well, I guess it depends which version of "regular old conservatism. My point is that people have different understandings of it. At any rate, I'm not arguing for long lectures and marketing campaigns, just the consistent use of the notion when making arguments that we should be making anyway: why conservatism is in fact compassionate.

Posted by: Justin Katz at June 30, 2005 5:09 PM

The more apt phrase might be "conservative compassion" or "the compassion of conservatives".

Posted by: Chairm at June 30, 2005 6:17 PM

It's really a simple choice: conservative (ie, libertarian) compassion, or coercive compassion.

Take your pick.

Posted by: Marty at July 1, 2005 1:11 AM

Sorry, Marty, but compassion isn't a word that comes to mind often when I read the arguments of libertarians, much less the type of broad social compassion that I'm talking about. Indeed, libertarians are perhaps the most prominent cohort pushing for policies and advances that will lead to dehumanization.

Posted by: Justin Katz at July 1, 2005 6:26 AM

What Chairm said...

Posted by: Mike S. at July 1, 2005 9:30 AM

You're right justin. I was thinking lowercase libertarian though.

Posted by: Marty at July 1, 2005 9:58 AM

Marty,
I'm curious now. What is a lowercase libertarian?

Posted by: smmtheory at July 1, 2005 12:26 PM

The basic problem is that the phrase "compassionate conservatism" as it is typically used today carries with it the implication that most conservatives are not compassionate.

Posted by: R.K. at July 2, 2005 9:27 PM

I'm not Marty (notMarty?) but from what I've seen lower case libertarians tend to be in favor of minimal government rather than zero government, and may vote along more pragmatic rather than theoretical grounds. The few capital L Libertarians that I have known or read tend to be more philosophically/theoretically driven; some are followers of the thought of Ayn Rand, for example.

One crucial difference I have come to notice between Libertarians and social conservatives is simple: Libertarians generally don't have children or other dependents such as aging parents, social conservatives often have children or other dependents. Sure, there are exceptions to this, and I know some. But on the whole, the people I know who are the most enthused about Libertarianism as a doctrine don't have to worry about what their children see on TV, because they don't have any children. They don't have to worry about their entire family running out of money caring for an invalid parent whose lung disease is terminal and who needs more care than Medicare will pay for, because their parents are healthy and not too old yet. It isn't that they are pro-porno or cruel to old people, they just haven't experienced some of these things yet, and the 'rugged individualism' of Libertarianism seems a great idea.

In fact, I've watched people change from libertarian to conservative; 20-something single to 30-something married with no children (DINK) libertarians, who after the birth of a child and the serious illness of a parent begin to realize that the market cannot handle everyone's needs in all cases.

I don't know if this meandering post is of help, but hopefully some ideas in it are useful.

Posted by: notdhimmi at July 3, 2005 12:54 PM