The Politics of Compassion

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.

June, 2000