The Politics of Compassion
by Norman Markowitz on Jun 15, 2000
George Bush has begun his campaign by talking about "compassionate
conservatism." After securing the nomination, Bush appears to be distancing himself
from the right-wing Republican leadership in Congress, following, some media
pundits suggest, the Clinton precedent of 1992.
But what's really going on in American politics? A new "era of good feelings" like
the "morning in America" politics of the 1980s, where both parties represent the
same conservative consensus and compete with each other over patronage and
personality. Perhaps recent history can help us understand these developments.
In the United States in the 1950s and 1960s, liberal Democrats such as Adlai
Stevenson, Lyndon Johnson, Robert Kennedy and George McGovern tried,
whatever their differences, to follow in the footsteps of Franklin Roosevelt. They
tried to combine compassion for a "third of a nation," the "ill housed, ill-clothed, ill
fed," with tangible programs to protect trade unions, establish minimum wages,
subsidize school lunches, develop food stamps, extend public housing, create
medical care for the elderly and the poor and provide pre-school programs for
low-income children. At the same time, they advocated such policies as National
Health Insurance, guaranteed annual incomes, and a "Marshall Plan" for inner cities.
Such policies, which sought concretely to raise the living standards of minorities
and the poor, were sharply attacked, first by Richard Nixon, who sought to fashion a
"New Republican majority," based on a strategy of appealing to the white South
and suburban lower middle classes. In response, the Democrats developed their
own version of Nixon's Southern strategy, turning to post-segregation Southern
Democrats Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton. These presidents combined shamefaced
apologies for the abuses of segregation and high profile positions for minorities and
women with a complete failure to strengthen labor laws, increase federal aid to
education and housing or establish a National Health Care program.
Clinton has substituted form for content in his definition of a politics of
compassion at home and abroad. Apologizing for the evils of slavery, he collaborated
with Republicans to sustain military spending, restrict social spending, and enact
"welfare reform," which abolished the New Deal's 1935 commitment to provide aid
for women with dependent children.
Internationally, Clinton's "politics of compassion" has come to mean
NATO/bomber diplomacy in the complex Yugoslav civil war. Also, he ordered
bombing to achieve treaty compliance in Iraq, without even pretending to address
the underlying economic and social inequalities that fuel crises throughout the world.
The "politics of compassion," as practiced by Bill Clinton's New Democrats and
their imitators abroad, make symbolic recognition of past injustices a substitute for
affirmative policies to deal with their consequences in the present. They thus
severely limit the kind of international planning for social welfare and the
environment envisioned by many of the founders of the United Nations. They do so
at a time when free markets usually mean more poverty, and less real democracy
for the non-Western world, regardless of the formal political procedures.
These policies also mean less real democracy in the United States as they blur
differences between "compassionate conservatives" and New Democrats, whose
posturing only produces complacency among those who vote, and indifference and
cynicism among the tens of millions who don't bother go to the polls.
For Democrats, who have lost their status as a congressional majority party in the
Clinton years, such presidential politics make it much harder to mobilize their core
constituencies — trade unionists, low income and minority voters, and those who
consider themselves progressive, giving their Republican opponents even greater
advantages in the upcoming elections.
Norman Markowitz is a member of the history faculty at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J., and a writer for the History News Service.