Compassionate Conservatism

By Dave Shaw, Guest Contributor

Editor’s Note: The Lorian Association, as spiritual community, is nonpartisan, but our writers and readers come from diverse social and political backgrounds. Periodically we publish blog posts from both liberal and conservative perspectives that offer insight into how real people in our nation are working through our socio-political challenges and bridging divisions, even and especially the ones within themselves. Always our goal is to promote an Incarnational viewpoint.

Unlike many in the Lorian community, in last year's election I was not an enthusiastic supporter of Hillary Clinton and I did not, even for the briefest of moments, feel the Bern. In fact, my biggest hope was that a credible, thoughtful, moderate candidate from the center-right would win the Republican nomination. Then, I hoped, we would have a vigorous but very civilized debate between this candidate and the Democratic candidate on the appropriate role of government in general and the federal government in particular. This would have also led to debates on a wide range of specific policy issues.

Of course, this didn’t happen, and like many I have significant apprehensions regarding Donald Trump. In spite of this, I’m going to place my “Optimist” hat firmly in place and describe a political path forward that would align with my personal views, and might possibly work, at least in part, for many in the Lorian community.

My vision is based on the ideal of “compassionate conservatism.” (As some may recall, George W. Bush used this phrase when he first ran for president. I have no idea whether Bush genuinely believed in it, or whether it was instead just a campaign slogan for him; in terms of the value of the idea, it doesn’t really matter.)

One key aspect of compassionate conservatism is that the phrase is intended to describe a different type of conservatism than Ronald Reagan’s “government is the problem, let’s shrink it as much as we can” approach. (Those who have followed politics for a while are probably familiar with the film clip of Reagan’s famous quote “Government is not the solution to the problem, government is the problem.”) Compassionate conservatism acknowledges that government programs can do a lot of good, and that some Americans really need help from the government. That’s the “compassionate” aspect of the ideal.

The “conservative” aspect is based on the viewpoint that when a problem emerges, we should not initially or immediately look to large and intrusive government programs as the most likely solution. Instead, solving problems through such programs should be the exception, not the rule. One key reason for this is that most government services are delivered by an agency that faces no competition, and the absence of competition is often a real problem for those receiving the service. Another reason is that the compassionate conservative is reluctant to use government as a mechanism for redistributing wealth. (Note, however, the use of the word “reluctant,” as opposed to the word “unwilling.”)

Compassionate conservatism also emphasizes personal responsibility, but not without recognizing an important element of truth in the notion of “it takes a village to raise a child.” In fact, my personal interpretation of compassionate conservatism places strong emphasis on the fact that kids don’t get to choose their parents, and inevitably different kids are given vastly different opportunities. What I’d ideally like to see is government working passionately and effectively to give every kid a good shot at achieving his/her dreams, and then turning responsibility largely over to that “kid” when he/she moves into adulthood.

These ideas above are pretty theoretical and abstract, and it’s obvious that to make compassionate conservatism work, the devil would be in the details. But instead of delving into such details, I’d like to briefly connect compassionate conservatism to several spiritual themes. On a personal level, I’ve always felt a strong connection to the Buddhist tradition, and in this tradition, at least as I interpret it, there is a strong predisposition towards emphasizing personal responsibility. My understanding is that the historical Buddha claimed to be nothing more than a regular human being (i.e. not a god and not superhuman in any way) who achieved deep and great insights through intense, focused effort. It was this type of effort he prescribed for his followers. It should be added here that the emphasis on personal effort does not mean that the Buddhist tradition de-emphasizes the importance of compassion. And yet, I think there is also in this tradition a realization that the highest levels of compassion include discriminating wisdom, and that the solicitude needed by one person may not be the best thing for another person.

As these comments about the linkage I see between Buddhism and compassionate conservatism suggest, in my view the ideals embodied in the latter extend beyond politics. It is in this area where I currently do the most in my own efforts to “walk the talk” of compassionate conservatism. I am an instructor at a small regional public university, so I am employed by the government to provide a service that is partly funded by the government. This gives me a chance to try my hardest to implement the ideal described above: “… government working passionately and effectively to give every kid a good shot at achieving his/her dreams, and then turning responsibility largely over to that ‘kid’ when he/she moves into adulthood.”

In a nutshell, I try to do this by really challenging my students, while offering them help and support when they need it. I also challenge certain administrators at my school to move beyond an underlying viewpoint that, when stripped of its PR veneer, subtly encourages our school to settle for providing students a dumbed-down college education instead of the real thing. My efforts in the latter area have, I’m afraid to say, made me few friends and been met with little success. In spite of this, I continue with them. I was recently asked, “If your efforts aren’t succeeding, why do you continue? Why bother?” This prompted some reflection, and I realized the answer lies in a core value that I believe all spiritual traditions share: because I strongly believe what I’m saying is the truth, and, not to sound sanctimonious, I believe the truth is inherently a good thing.

Shifting back to the political domain, it would be reasonable for one who was skeptical of the notion of “compassionate conservatism” to ask for examples of this approach actually working. Without going into too much detail, I believe there are some. One is Orrin Hatch, the conservative Republican senator from Utah, working with Ted Kennedy to pass the legislation for CHIP (Children’s Health Insurance Program). It so happened that Hatch and Kennedy, while usually on opposite ends of political debates, were good personal friends, and Hatch supported the idea of giving more kids healthcare insurance. Going back in time even further, Republican Senator Everett Dirksen helped mobilize enough Republican support for the Civil Rights Act to pass in 1964. More generally, Republicans like Bob Dole and even Richard Nixon were often viewed as “moderate pragmatists,” at least on certain issues. (The EPA was created by the Nixon administration, and Nixon was once reportedly not too far from reaching an agreement with Ted Kennedy for universal healthcare in the U.S.)

In closing, I do not underestimate the enormous challenges in unifying the country to pursue the goal of compassionate conservatism. Progressives may well believe that the best way to achieve their political ideals is vigorous opposition of anything different, which likely will include compassionate conservatism on principle. Towards the other end of the political spectrum, the type of moderate Republican pragmatist I’ve described is often thought to be an endangered species in the  party; it’s sometimes said that Bob Dole, who served as Senate Majority leader, would not even win a Republican primary today.

The best counter-argument I can offer in support of compassionate conservatism is that on a range of important issues, such as climate change, healthcare, Social Security, and Medicare, we do not have time to waste. Change is inevitable in areas like this, and some modest steps forward are far preferable to moving backwards, because doing nothing is moving backwards. Moreover, the changes that truly last are usually achieved through compromise legislation.

Compassionate conservatism offers a path forward that doesn’t give the far left or the far right what it most wants, but does offer the hope of sustained, lasting progress.

This blog post was written on December 23, 2016, before the inauguration of President Trump.