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The Curse of "Compassion"

The Republicans can have it.


Posted Saturday, June 26, 1999

        Has "compassion" become a Republican virtue? Seems like it. George W. Bush, in his campaign kickoff speech, positively wallowed in the stuff, calling not only for "compassionate conservatism," but declaring it a goal "to rally [the] armies of compassion," to show "mercy," to "take the side of charities and churches . . ." etc. Bush's compassion play annoyed his competitors, softened his image, distanced himself from the Republican Congress, and was generally applauded in the press.

        This is great news for Democrats. "Compassion" was always a miserable basis for American politics. It was a bad idea when liberals were selling it, and it's no less bad now that conservatives are embracing it. It has at least three fatal defects.

        1) It's inegalitarian, carrying the condescending implication of charity, of inferiority and helplessness on the part of those on its receiving end. Bush makes this explicit by citing as examples of compassion charities that run drug treatment programs and "prison ministries." The point isn't that there's anything wrong with feeling compassion for those who have fallen on hard times and can't help themselves. But the relation of charitable giver and recipient is not the relation of free and equal citizens. The demeaning aspect of charitable compassion is one reason pre-New Deal union officials talked of "rescuing" their members "from demoralization at the hands of sentimental almsgivers." On the left, an emphasis on compassion has been a sure sign of what historian Sean Wilentz calls "shmiberalism," an ideology whose adherents "assume that the poor and powerless are the abject, pitiable victims of other people . . .[S]hmiberalism appeals to people's compassion rather than to their interests."

        2) The sentiment of compassion tends to override traditional, and sensible, moral distinctions that should govern government policy. We have "compassion" for a young father who works 50 hours a week and still gets paid only $14,000. But we also have compassion for a drug addict who fails to work, or even (as Governor Bush makes clear) for a convict. From a truly compassionate viewpoint all these cases are deserving, which is why Compassion Politics -- in the hands of Democrats, and not a few Republicans -- has tended to promote generalized aid programs that shower cash (in the form of food stamps, welfare, or the old holy grail of a guaranteed annual income) indiscriminately on the "less fortunate" and "disadvantaged." But the working father and the indolent drug addict are fundamentally different and should be treated differently. The worker is an upstanding citizen who doesn't deserve to be lumped in with nonworking crackheads. That's one reason we've just gone through a revolution in welfare policy explicitly designed to separate the deserving, working poor from those non-workers on welfare (and to move as many people as possible from the latter category to the former).

        3) Because it appeals to an essentially charitable impulse, Compassion Politics is fragile. If citizens believe the government is engaged in a big United Way drive, they'll give generously when economic times are good. But they will naturally stop giving when they feel pinched themselves.

        You didn't catch Franklin Roosevelt mooning on about "compassion." Liberals fervently embraced "compassion" only in their senescent, comic-book phase, during the Seventies and Eighties, a period in which they were repudiated by the voters as impractical mush-heads. It was during this era that George McGovern proposed showering "demogrants" on workers and shirkers alike. Ted Kennedy said "the work of compassion must continue." Mario Cuomo defined Democrats as those who "look beyond our own welfare to ... reach down to those at the bottom of the ladder and help them up, if only a rung or two." None of these men made it anywhere near the White House. Democrats came back into the nation's good graces only when they found a standard-bearer who implicitly abandoned Compassion Politics by promising to "end welfare as we know it" -- and who then, unaccountably, kept that promise.

        So it should be heartening, for Democrats, to hear Bush flaunt his compassion as a "noble calling. The calling of a nation where the strong are just and the weak are valued." Could he have handed Democrats a clearer definition of social inequality? According to Bush, there are some people (let's call them the "rich") who like Bush are "strong." Then there are other people (let's call them the "non-rich") who have the privilege of being "valued" by people like Bush. Take it away, James Carville! Attacking the snobbery within Bush's compassion is certainly a smarter Democratic tactic than trying to link him with harder-edged Congressional conservatives like Rep. Tom DeLay. The voters will know that Bush isn't Tom DeLay.

        Which is why it was equally cheering to see Vice President Gore, in his kickoff speech, react against Bush's preening virtue by scorning "the crumbs of compassion." Good line! Was it just rhetoric? Maybe. But Gore may also have trapped himself into finding a new, non-compassionate vocabulary for his government activism. For example, he can frame reform of government programs -- Social Security and Medicare, most obviously -- as a strengthening of institutions designed by proud, free, working citizens for themselves, not gifted to the grateful masses by Bushian Brahmins. Something along the lines of: "Medicare is not charity, Mr. Bush. Neither is the minimum wage." Gore might even be moved to endorse policies designed to sharpen the distinction between poor-but-upstanding citizens and charity cases -- for example, he could guarantee long-term welfare recipients public-service jobs before they are consigned to the compassionate ministrations of "faith based social services."

        So the Republicans have compassion? They can keep it.

Originally published in The New York Times under the title "Compassion, the Political Liability." Modified for republication here. Copyright 1999 Mickey Kaus.