Conservatives and the Language of Compassion

by David French

I highly recommend Arthur Brooks’s outstanding opinion piece in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal. Brooks makes a crucial point:

Conservatives are fighting a losing battle of moral arithmetic. They hand an argument with virtually 100% public support—care for the vulnerable—to progressives, and focus instead on materialistic concerns and minority moral viewpoints.

The irony is maddening. America’s poor people have been saddled with generations of disastrous progressive policy results, from welfare-induced dependency to failing schools that continue to trap millions of children.

Meanwhile, the record of free enterprise in improving the lives of the poor both here and abroad is spectacular. 

In other words, while we have the better policy prescriptions for poverty, the other side wins the battle of hearts and minds. Our core anti-poverty message, which combines personal responsibility with a thriving free-enterprise system, has become anathema to a generation of Americans. At the risk of over-simplifying, we are the party of “no” while the Left is the party of “yes.” We say, “stop sleeping around, get married, stop taking drugs, and study hard” — a prescription that, quite frankly, works but is hard to hear and requires short-term self-sacrifice. I’m not going to say that the Left’s countervailing message is “sleep around, divorce, take drugs, and drop out,” but they tend to support abundant benefits regardless of personal choices, a policy position that works to incentivize destructive behaviors.

The plain fact is that fighting poverty is a tough, person-by-person battle — where the message of personal responsibility is best delivered individually, within the context of a meaningful relationship, and demonstrated by example. Several years ago my wife and I were leaders in a ministry that reached out to our county’s poorest and most troubled teens. We quickly learned that the best message was no substitute for personal relationships, and that financial support could be extraordinarily destructive without the right moral foundations.

Brooks advocates making the poor and vulnerable a primary focus of our outreach, and I don’t disagree. His prescription:

By making the vulnerable a primary focus, conservatives will be better able to confront some common blind spots. Corporate cronyism should be decried as every bit as noxious as statism, because it unfairly rewards the powerful and well-connected at the expense of ordinary citizens. Entrepreneurship should not to be extolled as a path to accumulating wealth but as a celebration of everyday men and women who want to build their own lives, whether they start a business and make a lot of money or not. And conservatives should instinctively welcome the immigrants who want to earn their success in America.

With this moral touchstone, conservative leaders will be able to stand before Americans who are struggling and feel marginalized and say, “We will fight for you and your family, whether you vote for us or not”—and truly mean it. In the end that approach will win. But more important, it is the right thing to do.

I would modify this a bit. We can and certainly should oppose corporate cronyism, and I love his description of entrepreneurship, but we need to be ever-mindful that we can never outbid the Left for the hearts and minds of the poor. Their governments will always want to outspend ours. But we can build on our ultimate advantage — our superior personal commitment. We give more. We volunteer more. A conservative movement that relentlessly and effectively highlights and empowers the anti-poverty efforts of our own fellow citizens could perhaps begin blunting the “compassion gap.”  

I know conservatives who have done astounding things for our poorest and most vulnerable citizens, but they’re much too modest to broadcast their own virtue. There is, however, nothing wrong with broadcasting the virtue of others. We should do that — often.  

Brooks is more optimistic than I am about our prospects for victory on this point. However, I do wholeheartedly agree that standing and saying, “We will fight for you and your family, whether your vote for us or not” is truly the right thing to do.

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