About once a month I get a letter from a WORLD reader asking me what happened to what became known as “compassionate conservatism.” Here’s a quick summary:
Compassionate conservatism in the 1990s was a decentralizing theory of how to promote the general welfare while cutting governmental welfare. It was never popular among Rand-based rather than Bible-based conservatives, and some viewed the term an insult to conservatism, which they saw as intrinsically compassionate. I had used that term but more often had spoken about “effective compassion,” defining that as a way of helping people move out of poverty rather than sustaining them in poverty.
Karl Rove saw compassionate conservatism as a slogan that would pick up moderate votes, and he was politically correct. George W. Bush saw it as an idea that would help him win elections but also carry through on three impulses: He empathetically reacted to people in need, he wanted to attach some drywall to the new biblical framework of his thinking (but, as a new Christian, he lacked drywall), and he wanted to advance the points of light approach his dad had embraced.
In the 2000s, compassionate conservatism morphed into an acceptance of governmental centralism combined with a desire to make welfare more effective by working with rather than against religious bodies. Given early personnel and legislative decisions, plus Washington pressures to use power rather than relinquish it, plus the back-burnering of domestic policy after 9/11, the 1990s understanding was doomed. Compassionate conservatism was like a poorly rooted plant that sprang up quickly and died.
Compassionate conservatism became anathema among conservatives because it had no limiting principle and it therefore, within the context of getting liberals to fund the Iraq war, pragmatically accepted and even encouraged budget-busting governmental spending. The term is also dead because conservatives once again find it insulting, even though the research of Arthur Brooks has shown statistically that conservatism by itself is not compassionate: Religious conservatives are the most personally generous Americans in donating their time and money, far outpacing liberals, but non-religious conservatives are the least generous.
America’s increasing urbanization provides another reason why conservatism itself is an insufficient definer of our public policy needs. People everywhere need not only economic capital but also relational capital. With rare exceptions, man lives neither by bread alone nor by aloneness alone. We can approximate pure individualism on the frontier and pure familialism on farms. In suburbs with single-family housing we can segment our heating, cooling, and fire prevention. Cities with multi-family structures and huge apartment buildings, though, form a different species. We need to find ways to work together that do not grow government.