Compassionate conservatism or conned conservatism?

By Steve Martinovich
web posted July 1999

There is nothing sadder than a failed revolution. Even the Russian Revolution, which propelled Communism into power and destablized an entire century of human history, had a certain nobility about it. Its ringleaders had the audacity to believe that they would defeat a corrupt political class despite the fact they were largely insignificant on the national political landscape.

That's more than America's Republican Party can say.

Even though I'm a Canadian, 1994 was a great year for me. Despite the fact that polls suggested a majority of Americans liked Bill Clinton, honest to goodness conservative Republicans were swept to power in the Congress for the first time in decades. News anchors ruminated on the supposed conservative revolution sweeping the United States and talk show phone lines were filled with people proclaiming a new era in American politics.

The excitement over that new era saw me rush home from my university classes to listen to Rush Limbaugh's radio program on short wave. Every day, during those first 100 days, Rush would detail the latest promise on the Contract with America kept or worked on by the Republicans.

Like all good things, those days disappeared quickly enough. The Democrats and their friends in the media launched a blistering counteroffensive which attacked the Republicans as uncaring and mean. The defining moment in that time was the battle over school lunch programs. If you remember, the Democrats and the media both stated that the Republican controlled Congress was cutting the amount of money being spent on the programs, when in fact farming it out as block grants to the states actually saw an increase in spending. Now if your a proponent of smaller government like me that's not much to cheer about but the Republicans didn't seem to be to interested in getting that message out, leaving commentators like Limbaugh to try and get the truth across to the American public.

Instead the party responded by forgetting about the Contract and becoming just like the old Republicans: more interested in power games and one-ups-manship then providing a credible policy alternatives to Bill Clinton and the Democrats.

Some Republicans have woken to the fact that way wasn't working and have shifted their focus to "compassionate conservatism," coined by writer Joseph Jacobs in his book The Compassionate Conservative: Seeking Responsibility and Human Dignity. Compassionate conservatism's core belief is that liberals do not have a monopoly on compassion, and that the "true measure of compassion lies not in the intensity of emotion, but in the public good that accompanies an act" as one book reviewer wrote.

The idea has been put most notably into action by Texas governor George W. Bush and has led a number of conservatives to champion him as the best chance for Republicans to recapture the White House in 2000. If the White House is the be-all and end-all for Republicans, then following Bush is the best plan, but in the long-term the compassionate conservative movement is the end of the party.

There isn't anything wrong with compassion, but when it's used as a positive contrast to capitalism it does more damage than most people recognize, as proved by Bush's popularity. The Contract with America was the first statement of the right of the individual to make their own way in life economically by the Republicans since the conservative revolution began by Barry Goldwater and continued by Ronald Reagan.

Compassionate conservatism, by contrast, accepts the principle that a person is obligated to help anyone who is less fortunate then they are -- essentially an argument against capitalism. Democrats and Republicans may decide to spend your money differently, but the core philosophy behind both compassionate conservatism and the liberalism of the Democrats is essentially the same. Both deny the individual in favour of society, neatly renouncing several decades of conservative thought to the contrary.

The problem with compassionate conservatism is that in reality it is the same as the welfare state that the Democrats have been championing since Franklin Delano Roosevelt: "The Republicans may prefer that your money be spent on the state rather than the federal level. They may prefer redistributing your money to promote religious, rather than secular, schools, or to promote 'family values' rather than condom giveaways. But, at root, 'compassionate conservatism' is simply liberalism with a different name," wrote Dr. Andrew Bernstein of the Ayn Rand Institute recently.

That new view can be seen in the Congress even before Bush announced his candidacy for president. Spending under a Republican controlled Congress only increased without so much as a peep out of them since the government shutdown of a few years back. If Clinton's agenda has largely stalled, it is more because of the quicksand he got himself into with Paula Jones and Monica Lewinsky then anything the Republicans did. If anything, they've done more to promote the Clinton agenda lately then the president.

By championing the welfare state, Republicans are inadvertently knifing their own party and adding fuel to the rise of the new third party that Senator Bob Smith has been talking up lately. Why vote for the welfare state Republicans when you can vote Democrat? If you can't tell the difference between the liberals and the ones who talk like liberals, you vote for the real thing. If the compassionate conservative movement is serving to take Republicans away from their traditional championing of smaller government, individual rights and liberty then it may be time to start that new party.

Steve Martinovich is the editor in chief of Enter Stage Right and bored since the hockey season ended.

Current Issue

Archive Main | 1999

E-mail ESR



1996-2020, Enter Stage Right and/or its creators. All rights reserved.