Friday, January 9, 2009

The myth of 'compassionate conservatism'

I recently joined the social networking site Facebook and looked around for people I might be acquainted with. In the process I found the page for one woman I've known since the 1990s from the Christian singles community here in Pittsburgh; in the slot for "political stance" she had marked "compassionate conservative."

That took me back to eight years ago, when then-president-elect George W. Bush described himself as the same and promised programs that would reflect that.

Here's the problem with "compassionate conservatism" -- it doesn't really exist. I'm not at all saying that conservatives cannot be compassionate, at least on an individual level; however, "compassion" cannot be shaped into an ideology.

To be truly compassionate a person must "have been there" -- or at least be willing to "go there" -- and also help to determine a person's real needs and how to address them. Committed conservatives, on the other hand, focus on how to do that while still maintaining its agenda of shrinking political involvement. Put another way, "compassionate conservatism" focuses on what it wants to give and how it does so, sabotaging its stated intentions.

The concept of "compassionate conservatism" flows from the suspect narrative that "Great Society" programs instituted in the 1960s have actually hurt the poor, and it proposes that such diaconal remedies be taken over by private charities, generally churches. In fact, President Bush pushed a bill that would have hopefully done just that.

Moreover, as envisioned by Marvin Olasky, editor of the ultra-conservative World magazine and a journalism professor at the University of Texas who had advised President Bush when he was governor of Texas, under such a program the government would pay churches to do ministry -- and hopefully, in the process, convert the poor to his version of Christianity, making people more "moral" so we wouldn't have to worry about them anymore.

However, such things as job training and college grants paid for by tax dollars have actually done more for the poor than anything conservatives have attempted; you don't have a black middle-class outside the South without them. But those programs were cut in the early 1980s when Ronald Reagan, the first modern conservative president, was in office.

More important, "compassionate conservatism" wrongly assumes that the poor are poor primarily because of bad choices on their part; in fact, however, many simply don't have the opportunity to better themselves because of lack of resources and, eventually, hope.

Beginning in the 1950s, for openers, federal policy helped to create, for example, the disparity between rich and poor by making loans available to folks to buy new homes in what are now suburban areas, and the interstate highway system was built at that time to make center cities easily accessible to people with wheels. Those basically emptied out most cities of wealthier whites because economic and political clout -- including, of course, jobs -- left with them. Furthermore, those loans were somehow not made available to African-Americans, so center cities became blacker and poorer; the lack of economic opportunity in part due to racism caused families to split because Dad often had trouble finding good work, creating dissension at home because he then could not exercise his God-given authority as the head of the household.

In other words, we're looking at a problem that had its basis in political decisions that conservatives themselves often benefited from (because suburbs are generally conservative). And in fact, "compassionate conservatism" as practiced was designed to get the "rich" to keep their money and cultural power in the process. No real compassion there, only institutionalized hypocrisy.

Also keep in mind that the civil-rights movement, which conservatives generally ignored or opposed, was not at first about rich vs. poor (that came later). The Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Ala., where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was pastor when the legendary bus boycott broke out, actually was a high-class congregation comprising the professional and mercantile class of that city; yet its members regularly felt the sting of segregation.

You see, in this case true compassion seeks not just relief from immediate circumstances but a restructuring of society to make sure that people have a chance to make their own way down the road. If there is a barrier that keeps a friend from getting a job or into a school, the compassionate person will not only commisserate with that friend but will work to have that barrier removed. "Compassionate conservatism" simply doesn't address those barriers, which is why no one's talking about it today.

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