Compassionate conservatism

Compassionate conservatism

Compassionate conservatism is a political philosophy that stresses using traditionally conservative techniques and concepts in order to improve the general welfare of society.

Origins of the term

Historian and presidential advisor Doug Wead may have been the first person to use the phrase "compassionate conservative". In 1977, Wead wrote a book about Kolkata, India entitled The Compassionate Touch. In 1979, he gave a popular speech entitled “The Compassionate Conservative” at the annual Washington Charity Dinner. Tapes of the speech were sold across the country at corporate seminars.

Wead contended that the policies of Republican conservatives should be motivated by compassion, not protecting the status quo. And Wead declared himself to be “a bleeding heart conservative,” meaning that he cared for people and sincerely believed that a free marketplace was better for the poor.

In 1981, in a perhaps-unrelated usage, Vernon Jordan of the National Urban League said, of the Reagan administration,

I do not challenge the conservatism of this Administration. I do challenge its failure to exhibit a compassionate conservatism that adapts itself to the realities of a society ridden by class and race distinction.

In 1982, Wead co-authored with Ronald Reagan's Secretary of the Interior, James G. Watt, the book The Courage of a Conservative and developed his ideas further in chapter five of the book, which was entitled “The Compassionate Conservative.”

In 1984, U.S. Representative James Robert Jones (D-OK) told the New York Times:

I think we should adopt the slogan of compassionate conservatism...We can be fiscally conservative without losing our commitment to the needy and we must redirect our policy in that direction.

Earlier the same year Republican Ray Shamie proclaimed that "I believe in a visionary and compassionate conservatism

In June, 1986, Wead wrote an article for the Christian Herald, describing then-vice-president George H. W. Bush, to whom he served as an aide, as a “compassionate conservative.”

According to journalist Jacob Weisberg, George W. Bush, George H. W. Bush's son, first picked up the term "compassionate conservative" from Wead, in 1987.

In 1992, when Doug Wead ran for U.S. Representative from Arizona, he wrote a campaign book entitled Time for a Change. The first chapter was called “The Compassionate Conservative” and outlined Wead’s philosophy that the masses didn’t care if Republican policies worked if the attitude and purpose behind the policies were uncaring.

Some insist the doctrine was invented by Dr. Marvin Olasky, who went on to memorialize it in his books Renewing American Compassion (1996) and Compassionate Conservatism: What it is, What it Does, and How it Can Transform America (2000), and Myron Magnet of the Manhattan Institute. Olasky has been called the "godfather of compassionate conservatism". The phrase was popularized when George W. Bush adopted it as one of his key slogans during his 2000 presidential campaign against Al Gore. Bush also wrote the foreword to Olasky's Compassionate Conservatism. Olasky said others had come up with the term first.

As a political doctrine

Compassionate conservatism has been defined as the belief that conservatism and compassion complement each other, particularly in opposition to common conservative party platform planks such as advocating laissez-faire economic policies. A compassionate conservative might see the social problems of the United States, such as health care or immigration, as issues that are better solved through cooperation with private companies, charities and religious institutions rather than directly through government departments. As former Bush chief speechwriter Michael Gerson put it, "Compassionate conservatism is the theory that the government should encourage the effective provision of social services without providing the service itself.

Magnet and Olasky said 19th century compassionate conservatism was based in part on the Christian doctrine of original sin, which held that “Man is sinful and likely to want something for nothing. … Man’s sinful nature leads to indolence.” (Olasky, Renewing American Compassion, 64, 41).

In the words of Magnet,

Compassionate conservatives [...] offer a new way of thinking about the poor. They know that telling the poor that they are mere passive victims, whether of racism or of vast economic forces, is not only false but also destructive, paralyzing the poor with thoughts of their own helplessness and inadequacy. The poor need the larger society's moral support; they need to hear the message of personal responsibility and self-reliance, the optimistic assurance that if they try – as they must – they will make it. They need to know, too, that they can't blame "the system" for their own wrongdoing.

Compassionate conservative philosophy argues for policies in support of traditional families, welfare reform to promote individual responsibility (cf. workfare), active policing, standards-based schools (cf. No Child Left Behind Act), and assistance (economic or otherwise) to poor countries around the world.

U.S. president George W. Bush said:

"It is compassionate to actively help our citizens in need. It is conservative to insist on accountability and results."

Bush began his presidency hoping to make compassionate conservatism his centerpiece. After the September 11, 2001 attacks, he focused less on this theme, but, according to professor and author Ira Chernus, its fundamental ideas became central in his rhetoric about the War on Terrorism.


Some left-wing critics of George W. Bush have criticized the phrase "compassionate conservatism" as simply sugarcoating, an empty phrase to make traditional conservatism sound more appealing to moderate voters. Liberal commentator Joe Conason, noting Bush's policy of tax cuts, wrote in 2003 that "so far, being a 'compassionate conservative' appears to mean nothing very different from being a hardhearted, stingy, old-fashioned conservative. Similarly, former President Bill Clinton described the message of compassionate conservatism as: "I want to help you. I really do. But you know, I just can't."

Others on the left have viewed it as an effort to remove America's social safety net out of the hands of the government and give it to Christian churches. "Liberals make a big mistake if they dismiss 'compassionate conservatism' as just a hypocritical catch phrase," wrote University of Colorado religion professor Ira Chernus. "For the right, it is a serious scheme to give tax dollars to churches through so-called 'faith-based initiatives.'"

Conversely, the policy has also been attacked from the right: commentator Herman Cain criticized compassionate conservatism as leading to the Bush administration's increased government spending, saying that it "completely betrayed conservative voters and their decades of grassroots activism," and "alienated the party's conservative base," noting Bush policies such as the Medicare Prescription Drug, Improvement, and Modernization Act, which increased the size of the Medicare program by around $500 billion.

Conservative commentator Jonah Goldberg has written that compassionate conservatism as implemented by George W. Bush differs markedly from the theoretical policy concept. He wrote: "...most conservatives never really understood what compassionate conservatism was, beyond a convenient marketing slogan to attract swing voters. The reality—as even some members of the Bush team will sheepishly concede—is that there was nothing behind the curtain. Sure, in the hands of Marvin Olasky and others, compassionate conservatism had some heft. But Karl Rove's translation of it into a political platform made it into a pseudo-intellectual rationale for constituent-pleasing and Nixonian 'modern Republicanism.' Similarly, conservative commentator Fred Barnes has described Bush's version of conservatism as "big-government conservatism".

Comedian Robin Williams has regularly described compassionate conservatism as sounding like "a Volvo with a gunrack."

In the United Kingdom

Recently, many modernisers in the United Kingdom's Conservative Party have begun to use the term. Unlike the U.S. counterpart, the UK form is unassociated with Christianity and instead incorporates many social democratic, liberal and environmental concepts into conservatism, while playing down traditionalist focuses on family breakdown, opposition to immigration, and monarchism. It is most associated with current Leader of the Opposition David Cameron. See also 'And' theory of conservatism

External links


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