Compassionate Conservatism: a Reconsideration and an Appreciation

Before 9/11, candidate and then President George W. Bush would prattle on about “compassionate conservatism.” Liberals would mock him for that — because they think they own compassion, and because they are a little embarrassed by the idea.

Bush deserved the mockery: it was just his blueblood talking. The bumbling frat boy went on about compassion not because he has a compassionate heart, but out of deference to the family values and hypocrisies of his patrician parents and grandparents, his in-laws, and their friends and cohorts.

George W. was brought up to talk a compassionate line and within reason, since their kind don’t take potentially costly virtues too seriously (or seriously at all), to put his money where his mouth is; or, rather, since he was born to be a Governor and a President, other peoples’ money. A pittance would suffice; it’s the thought that counts.

In the year 2000, compassionate conservatism talk made political sense too. The GOP had been recruiting yahoos for years, but a decade and a half ago, the inmates had not yet taken over the asylum. The Country Club set was still in charge.

It all seemed innocuous enough, as did Bush himself. Nobody expected much from him, and nobody expected him to wreck the world. On the off chance that he would find himself in over his head – it happens, after all — Bush family fixers were at the ready, just as they had always been. Remember the collective sigh of relief when Dick Cheney chose himself to run for Vice President!

Compassionate conservatism talk survived the tax cut for the rich that Cheney and Bush pushed through Congress in the summer of 2001, but died after 9/11 – after they gave their neoconservative advisors a free hand.

The neocons were not particularly interested in waging class war at home, but they were very interested in waging wars overseas – not so much to fatten the military industrial complex, though that would be a welcome side-effect, but to make the world safer for the United States and Israel and for other countries that toe the American line.

Compassionate conservatism was a casualty of the perpetual war regime they established.

That this would happen was clear even before the rubble in lower Manhattan and Pentagon City had been cleared away. First Afghanistan, then Iraq; tomorrow the world!

The Afghanistan War is still going on, of course; and what Cheney and Bush – and their successors in the Obama administration – went on to do to Iraq and then to the entire Middle East has indeed changed the world. It has not made anybody safer, however. Instead, it has destabilized everything in its path.

Inasmuch as the Bush-Obama wars are still a work in progress, we cannot now assess how much harm they have done, and will continue to do.

The only sure thing is that, as Libya and Syria and other countries in the region fall apart, and as the Islamic State expands its power, the murder and mayhem compassionate George helped set in motion will be getting worse, maybe a lot worse, for years to come.

That we no longer hear much about compassionate conservatism is the least of it.

But this too is a pity because were the term still in use, and were it taken more seriously than it was when Bush made a campaign slogan of it, the political landscape might now be a tad less muddled than it is.

Also, its use would shed light on “American exceptionalism.”

* * *

The United States is indeed exceptional, though not in the way the neocons — and their sisters and brothers under the skin, Obama’s (and Hillary Clinton’s) “humanitarian” imperialists — think. One way it is exceptional is that political words don’t mean here what they mean everywhere else.

Take “conservative.” We use it, regardless of what it means to others, to designate the right pole of our political spectrum. Even more unusually, we use “liberal” to designate the spectrum’s left pole. This is not how these words are understood in real world politics elsewhere.

But now that “neoliberal” has migrated from the world’s political lexicon into widespread usage in the United States, America’s linguistic exceptionalism is somewhat less salient than it used to be.

At least some of the time, we now use “liberal” in a way that accords with how the word is understood elsewhere. This has consequences for understanding our exceptional purchase on “conservatism” too.

One of those consequences is that it is now easier than it used to be to see that “compassionate conservatism” is, or can be, more than just a cruel hoax.   George W. had no notion of it, but the nitwit was on to something.

(c) National Trust, Hardwick Hall; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Thomas Hobbes by John Michael Wright (1676). 

 * * *

Political philosophers and intellectual historians have their own take on “liberalism.”

For them, “liberalism” is a political ideology that took shape in Western Europe and on the British Isles in the early modern period, and that came into its own there and in North America by the late eighteenth century.

There have been exceptions of course, but, in its philosophical sense, it would be fair to say that in the United States and throughout “the West,” and in many other parts of the world as well, that: “we are all liberals now.”

What liberalism is has always been controversial, however. The general idea, though, is clear enough.

Liberals think that there are principled limitations to the rightful use of state power; or, what comes to the same thing, that there are areas of individuals’ lives and behaviors that ought to be immune from (coercive) state interference.

In time, influential liberal thinkers extended this principle to societal interferences as well.

Because, of all the political values they uphold, liberals accord pride of place to individual liberty, freedom from coercive restraint, they seek to protect individuals not only from the state, but also from what the great nineteenth century liberal philosopher John Stuart Mill called “the moral coercion of public opinion.”

Another way to say more or less the same thing, that takes account of liberalism’s rise as a philosophy of tolerance that emerged in reaction to the wars of religion that devastated early modern Europe after the Protestant Reformation, would be to say that, in the liberal view, the political regime and the social order it superintends should be neutral with respect to competing “conceptions of the good,” or at least between conceptions that are in any way controversial. Religious convictions are conceptions of the good in this sense, though hardly the only kind.

The first liberals were at least as interested in economic liberties – in what the libertarian philosopher Robert Nozick called “freedom to engage in capitalist acts among consenting adults” — as in tolerance and the social and political liberties that sustain it.

Libertarians, “classical liberals,” still are. They also still think that economic and political liberties comprise a seamless whole. Mainstream liberals nowadays disentangle economic liberties from the rest.

The realization that capitalist acts can, and normally do, make most people less, not more, socially and politically free is an important reason why.

In recent decades, liberals have held various views about the moral and political virtues and shortcomings of free markets and private property. But the debates they have engaged in are almost entirely academic; hardly anyone in public life cares. When politicians make philosophical arguments, nine times out of ten it is only to advance the pecuniary and political interests of the capitalists they serve.

Thus the Koch brothers’ public relations flacks tell the world that their bosses are classical liberals. No doubt they are, except when, as is almost always the case, they find ways to make the state benefit them. Then they are as eager as anyone, as eager as Donald Trump, to take full advantage.

Trump has lately taken it upon himself to explain how prevalent this phenomenon is in the precincts of the one percent (or one percent of the one percent), and how corrupting it can be.

This is by far the best thing that has so far come out of the campaign for the Republican nomination for President.

Because Bernie Sanders, though very liberal on many domestic issues, is a conventional Democrat on foreign affairs, and because he has said that he will support Hillary Clinton when the time comes – because, unlike Trump’s, his politicking is ultimately supportive of the status quo — it is almost certainly the best thing that will come out of this entire electoral season.

 * * *

Not only are our politicians corrupt in the ways that Trump explains; they are also philosophically shallow. When they need arguments, they pick and choose whatever suits their purpose.

This is why, when Republicans and Democrats set out to justify their policies, and their hypocrisies, they do it, knowingly or not, Koch-style, on classical liberal grounds.

Few of them hold these views for principled reasons; few of them are even aware of holding philosophical views at all. But, for all of them, (unconstrained) markets and private property are the default position. They are also the ideal.

In this sense, they agree, knowingly or not, with the classical liberal theorists ensconced in well-funded rightwing think tanks and in the handful of political science and philosophy departments that take them seriously.

They all agree, in effect, that there are no morally significant differences between the political liberties everyone supports, at least in theory, and the economic freedoms that early nineteenth century liberals prized above all.

Those are the “liberties” that enable the vanishingly small few to own nearly everything that there is to own, while almost everyone else owns hardly anything at all.

Because this way of thinking has become hegemonic within the political class, it is appropriate to call the theory and practice that follows from it, the theory and practice of the present phase of capitalist development, “liberal.” Adding the prefix neo- is especially apt; it suggests that there is something different, and not quite right, about the liberalism driving the world economy today.

Neoliberalism is classical liberalism adapted to the needs of late twentieth and early twenty-first century capitalists.

In our time and place, those capitalists are on the offensive, while everyone else is quiescent or in retreat. One consequence is that many of the social and political advances of earlier decades are in jeopardy or are already becoming undone.

Although neoliberalism came to the fore in the United States, the UK and former white dominions of the British Empire, and although the United States has been its global enforcer from Day One, people in the English-speaking world – especially in the United States — have only lately taken to using the word.

Perhaps this is because in political, not philosophical, contexts, “liberal” has a different meaning in America than nearly everywhere else.

This gives rise to certain ironies. What people at the left end of the mainstream spectrum, liberals in the American sense, want to preserve and expand is what neoliberal public policies work against.

Welfare state institutions are at the top of the list.

Those institutions are defensible from genuinely conservative points of view; indeed, they have a long and complicated, but generally supportive relation, with conservative political philosophy, as I will go on to explain.  Nevertheless, the people we Americans call “conservatives,” the people on the right end of the spectrum, want to do them in.

This strangeness of this situation – which is plainly more than just linguistic – was easily overlooked when Americans didn’t yet acknowledge the deep affinities joining self-described conservative policies to liberal philosophical objectives.

But now that “neoliberal” has entered into the American vocabulary, the strangeness can no longer be ignored.

There are many reasons why “liberal” has come to mean what it does in the United States.

Part of the explanation has to do with the situation that got people talking about “American exceptionalism” in the first place – the comparative weakness, already evident a century ago, of the socialist movement in the United States.

Unlike elsewhere, progressive politics in America never broke free from a party system that took shape before industrialization set in; and it never quite accommodated to the rise of a self-conscious working class.

To be sure, socialism was finally on the rise in the United States in the years immediately preceding America’s entry into World War I; but it was too late. By then, progressives, even full-fledged socialists, were used to calling themselves “liberals,” and to having others think of them in those terms too.

The comparative weakness or tardiness of American socialism is not the main reason why. The exceptional nomenclature has more to do, instead, with the nature of liberal theory and practice in nineteenth and early twentieth century America.

Liberalism in America has always been about more than just free markets and private property. Securing political and social rights had been its main focus from the beginning, and from very early on, there were strains of liberal theory and practice that underwrote the movement to abolish slavery.

When the North’s victory in the Civil War finally settled the slavery question, the connections continued – politically, culturally and philosophically. By the second half of the nineteenth century, nearly all strains of American philosophical thought were profoundly liberal in both spirit and substance.

This exceptional situation went on for a long time; long enough for American liberal theory and practice to change enough to be able to accommodate political currents and popular aspirations very different from the ones that had given rise to liberalism centuries before.

It was different elsewhere, especially in continental Europe. There, progressive politics took shape in ways that earlier liberal traditions could not absorb.

This is why what took a socialist or social democratic form elsewhere took a liberal form here. The differences are not insignificant, but the affinities are plain.

John Dewey, the preeminent American philosopher of the first half of the twentieth century, and surely one of the greatest liberal thinkers America or the world ever produced, was hardly a fan of free markets and private property; he had no problem with socialist economic institutions either.

To this day, libertarianism remains a minority current in liberal academic circles. To the extent that policy prescriptions can be teased out of his philosophical ruminations, it would be fair to say that John Rawls (d. 2002), the most influential liberal political philosopher of recent years, favored policies well to the left of nearly everyone today in the Democratic Party.

The American political scene has always been more pragmatic and less ideological than most, but, even so, the liberalism inherent in key American philosophical traditions has evidently left a mark on America’s politics.

The Progressive movement of the early twentieth century and then the New Deal-Great Society advances of the twentieth century’s middle decades were expressly and self-consciously liberal in inspiration, theory and design.

In view of all this and more, it is hardly surprising that Americans would resist ascribing
“conservative” assaults on what the Progressive era and the New Deal and Great Society built to liberalism of any kind, neo– or otherwise.

Nevertheless, a neo– liberal assault is precisely what it is.

What an odd political scene we have! Self-described conservatives in America, class warriors, on the wrong side of the class struggle, reflexively invoke classical liberal principles, the better to attack many of the more humane and beneficial institutions and policies that mainstream liberals created and now struggle to retain.

* * *

At least what we Americans call “liberalism” bears an historical and conceptual connection to the original variety.

In the social and political realm, our liberalism is committed, in theory and practice, to maintaining neutrality between competing conceptions of the good. And the reluctance of American liberals to give capitalists carte blanche to engage in unfettered capitalist acts follows from an express commitment to expanding social and political freedom.

Our conservatism’s relation to its namesake is more attenuated.

All true conservatives advocate moving forward slowly, and in accord with received practices and traditions.

They justify their cautious attitude towards change in different ways, but they all reduce to a common theme: that when individuals are free to do as they please, unconstrained by the weight of the past, the results will be devastating – whether measured against one or another ideal standard or in terms of the interests and desires of individuals themselves.

The Christian doctrine of Original Sin, and similar understandings in other religious traditions, played a role in many strains of conservative thought.

The general idea was that human nature is so fundamentally flawed that were individuals left to their own devices, they would in short order destroy themselves and each other – upsetting God’s plan for a Final Judgment at the end of time. Christian philosophers then went on to claim that God established political and ecclesiastical institutions to keep Sinful humanity in line.

Beneath this theological carapace, an essential truth about conservatism can be drawn out: that, in the way that liberals value liberty above all, conservatives value order – and therefore whatever is necessary to establish and secure it.

Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679), perhaps the greatest political philosopher ever, certainly the greatest to write in the English language, developed a secular account of this idea. He showed how a “state of nature,” a condition in which no “common power” prevents individuals from giving free rein to their own deleterious inclinations, would devolve into “a war of all against all” – in which everyone would be worse off than they could otherwise be.

In this way, without relying on expressly theological doctrines, Hobbes, and most philosophers after him, anarchists excepted, take what Christians call “Sin” – human imperfection and imperfectability — seriously. They hold that human nature and the human condition make (legitimate) means of coercion indispensable.

The conservatives among them, who then go on to advocate gradualness in change, do so basically to avoid risk. They fear that the artifices people construct to save themselves and each other from a war of all against all are too fragile to withstand abrupt transformations.

Wisdom, they think, dictates only as much change as is strictly necessary; and then, that when change happens, it be undertaken, to the greatest extent possible, in accord with received customs and practices.

There have also been philosophers, especially in the English-speaking world, who have defended conservative gradualism in a different way: by appealing to the nature of governance itself.

The general idea is that governance is more like, say, carpentry than geometry; that it is an activity best done using received tools and methods, evolved over the years by people facing similar problems to those that present themselves at the moment.

The alternative would be to do what geometers do: invoke first principles on the basis of which what is to be done could then be deduced. The difference is evident in, for example, legal traditions that privilege the role of precedents in deciding cases brought before the law, and traditions that rely on “rationalist” methodologies.

This kind of conservatism is more benign – there is no fire and brimstone involved, even implicitly – but it comes to the same conclusion: that, in political affairs, change is almost always dangerous because things can, and likely will, go disastrously wrong.

But change is what capitalism brings.

As its champions proclaim, it creates the new by destroying the old; and, in doing so, it inevitably undoes received traditions and practices. As Marx famously said, under its aegis, “all that is solid melts into air.”

Capitalist economies and the forms of civilization built upon them have varied considerably from place to place and over time; not all types upset traditional order in the same ways or to the same extent. But the neoliberal kind is among the most unsettling of all.

Classical liberalism in its heyday, being more principled and rigorous, was arguably more unsettling, but its reach was miniscule in comparison. Backed both by ubiquitous soft power and by overwhelming military force, neoliberal capitalism now enjoys uncontested global dominance.

This is why our capitalism, the neoliberal kind, offends true conservative theory and practice more than most. And yet, those at the rightmost pole of the spectrum, the people we call “conservatives,” are its most ardent defenders.

Because there is no plausible philosophical accounting for this state of affairs, it is tempting just to chalk it all up to the weirdness American exceptionalism underwrites. “Only in America,” as they say!

But that would be too quick because there is a link between our conservatism and the genuine article, after all. It is psychological, however; not philosophical.

Real conservatism, especially the kind that takes Sin seriously, requires a compliant citizenry, fearful, above all, that the fragile defenses we concoct to keep a war of all against all at bay will break down.   People like that, perpetually apprehensive people, exist in abundance at the right ends of political spectra everywhere.

At the right end of our political spectrum what we find are, in the end, just garden-variety right-wingers. If there are genuine conservatives among them, they are well hidden. But, at a psychological level, our conservatives do have a lot in common with people living in regimes shaped by bona fide conservative ideologies.

Like right-wingers everywhere, most of them exhibit what social psychologists call “authoritarian personalities.”  This is why they are easily manipulated and easily fooled, and why, when demagogues speak, they do what they are told.

Philosophically, there is nothing conservative about them; if anything, they are “liberals” – of a radical kind; crusading liberals, much like the nineteenth century liberals whose views they unreflectively endorse.

And inasmuch as our liberals are now in the position of defending past achievements, not moving on to new ones, they, not our conservatives, are the only real conservatives around.

This strange and confusing state of affairs comes into sharp relief in the on-going efforts of our self-described conservatives to undo what little we have in the way of welfare state institutions.

* * *

Those institutions, relentlessly disparaged by neoliberal politicians and pundits, enjoy widespread popular support.

Some are so popular that even declared libertarians tread lightly where they are concerned. Social Security is an example; in the days before Bill Clinton tried to privatize parts of it, it was the third rail of American politics.

Medicare is another case in point. Programs not targeted at the elderly, but only at the poor, like Medicaid, are less popular.

It bears mention that wherever health insurance is a right that all citizens enjoy – as it is in all developed and many non-developed countries, but not in the United States – health insurance for all, rich and poor alike, is wildly popular too.

In the United States, many people think that welfare is only, or mainly, about relieving poverty, and therefore that what motivates it is compassion for others, the less fortunate.

The obvious intent of Bush’s compassionate conservatism babble, back in the day, was to signal that he did not intend to defund welfare state institutions as much as other so-called conservatives – actually, neoliberals — would.

For reasons having mainly to do with the purported virtues of self-reliance, some nineteenth century liberals opposed poor relief of all types. They derided compassion.  Readers of Charles Dickens are familiar with the phenomenon.

Others were not opposed in principle; they just thought that efforts at helping others usually, or always, backfire; that they are counterproductive.

These days, hardly anyone is so doctrinaire. Private charity is encouraged – remember George H.W. Bush’s “thousand points of light!”

And even libertarians countenance state aid for “the deserving poor,” though only up to a point where it does not give rise to fiscal burdens serious enough to inconvenience the well off.

The deserving poor suffer from plain bad luck; their poverty stems from causes, like physical disabilities, beyond their control. People whose neediness results from purported character flaws (like laziness) or social pathologies (like drug addiction or criminality) are on their own.

But where justice fails, there is always mercy. Few classical liberals these days are so hard hearted that they would do away with “safety nets” altogether. This was probably all that Bush and his handlers had in mind by “compassionate conservatism.”

But the fact remains: even in America, relieving poverty is not, and never was, what welfare state institutions are mainly about.

The American welfare state is, and always was, more feeble than most, but it is not different in kind.

The situation here is not fundamentally different from what it is in countries with more developed welfare states, where, for the most part, there is – or was, before neoliberal globalization set progress back – hardly any poverty to relieve.

Thanks to strong labor movements, progressive taxation, government organized redistribution policies, and public provision of basic services, the scourge of poverty was all but eliminated for the first time in human history throughout much of northern Europe and in Japan and elsewhere.

Not so here, of course; there has always been a lot of poverty to relieve; and, since the neoliberal turn, the situation keeps getting worse.   But, for relieving poverty, welfare state institutions, even robust ones, can only do so much. The remedies that succeeded so well in northern Europe in pre-neoliberal times are far more effective.

What welfare state programs do, the vast majority of them, has very little to do with diminishing inequality between individuals, and everything to do with diminishing inequality within the stages of individuals’ lives.

The welfare state is, for the most part, a collection of publically organized and funded social insurance programs designed to maintain income security from cradle to grave.

The idea is to counter predictable and unpredictable vicissitudes of life in general and in capitalist societies in particular: temporary involuntary unemployment, illness, infirmity, the demands of child-rearing and caring for the elderly, time out of the labor market for education and training, support for those too young or too old to participate in the active economy, and so on.

Why do this? An obvious reason – and an important one in places where welfare state provision is most advanced – is for the sake of social solidarity.

But solidarity plays less well in racially, ethnically and culturally divided societies like the United States; and thanks to global migration and other fall-out from neoliberal economic policies, and from the neocon and “humanitarian” wars of the past decade and a half, it is now playing less well even in traditional bastions of welfare state provision.

Another reason for welfare follows from a duty acknowledged in nearly all human societies throughout history: a duty to help others in distress. This obligation has often taken on a religious inflection.

Most likely, a quasi-religious sense of obligation, more than anything else, accounts for calls for compassion emanating from the House of Bush; though, to the extent that the Bushes have been American aristocracy for several generations, George W. might have had a sense of noblesse oblige imparted to him as well.

Compassion, so motivated, could indeed take on a genuinely conservative coloration.   To the extent that it is grounded in a religious tradition, it reinforces a basis for social stability, especially in places where religion still matters. And to the degree that it passes on family values, it is a way of maintaining continuity with the past.

Full-fledged red meat conservatives, however, demand more. Indeed, some of the most important proponents of welfare state state institutions in late nineteenth century Europe were moved, in part, by reasons that even reactionaries today would hesitate to freely express.

One reason why Bismarckian Germany led the way was to counter the appeal of socialism. A more important reason, though, was to maintain patriarchal family values, and traditional ways of life.

German capitalists and the politicians who served them understood that capitalist development threatened the status quo. But they were insightful enough to realize too that, for example, health and unemployment insurance, and state support for child rearing, could function as a countervailing force.

To that end, they were especially intent on keeping women out of the paid workforce, so that the Kinder, Kirche, Kuche regime that kept women subordinate to men could continue indefinitely.

In France, an impressive array of state funded child-care institutions, and generous tax allowances, were introduced for an even more nefarious purpose. After being humiliated in the Franco-Prussian War, the French state, fearing population decline, wanted women to make more babies; France needed cannon fodder. It therefore set out to make childrearing less burdensome.

But, as Pascal famously remarked, “too much light blinds us”; when pushed to the limit, things have a way of turning into their opposite.

And so, almost from Day One, socialists came to embrace welfare state institutions for reasons that had nothing to do with maintaining traditional ways of life.

For many of them – especially in Sweden in the middle decades of the twentieth century, before the onset of the globalization menace – the idea was to make states replace markets as ways of organizing economic life.

“Creeping socialism” was, and is, a notion capitalist propagandists use to instill fear, especially in the – very exceptional — United States, where, thanks to their success in turning people against their own interests, socialism, like Rodney Dangerfield, can’t get any respect.

For a time, though, in less benighted regions of the world, this was, or seemed to be, an eminently plausible – and popular — strategy for moving beyond the debilitating, freedom diminishing, inequality generating, and solidarity shattering confines of capitalist civilization.

Unfortunately, that ended in the late seventies, when capitalists went on the offensive, and the class struggle took a turn into neoliberal territory. Since then, progressive politics has been about nothing more momentous than holding on to past gains.

The consequences have been disastrous for socialism and liberalism, and for conservatism too.

As a result, the right pole of the American political spectrum now is populated by a befuddled, but very dangerous, pack of militantly retrograde liberals – dedicated, unwittingly but inexorably, to trashing conservative values, and to overthrowing well-established understandings of conservative thought.

In comparison, “compassionate conservatism” doesn’t look bad at all. Coming from Bush, it was more of a joke than a promise, but the idea behind it puts most of the ideas swirling around the mainstream spectrum – except, for now, while Sanders and Martin O’Malley, Sanders Lite, are still in — to shame.

ANDREW LEVINE is the author most recently of THE AMERICAN IDEOLOGY (Routledge) and POLITICAL KEY WORDS (Blackwell) as well as of many other books and articles in political philosophy. His most recent book is In Bad Faith: What’s Wrong With the Opium of the People. He was a Professor (philosophy) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Research Professor (philosophy) at the University of Maryland-College Park.  He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).