The Problem with ‘Compassionate Conservatism’

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This post first appeared on AlterNet.


House Budget Committee Chairman Rep. Paul Ryan. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

Nobody in Washington talks much about the poor in America these days, even though they are more and more with us in the economic aftermath of the Great Recession. Perhaps that is why The Washington Post welcomed Paul Ryan’s recent declaration that he wants to fight poverty “with kinder, gentler policies to encourage work and upward mobility.”

The Wisconsin Republican confided to a Post reporter that he has been “quietly visiting inner-city neighborhoods” — too quietly to gain any favorable publicity, until now — and consulting with all the usual suspects in the capital’s right-wing think tanks. He wants everyone to understand that he is seeking to figure out the problems faced by poor folks and how he can help.

As a 2016 presidential hopeful, Ryan evidently intends to rebrand himself as a “compassionate conservative” — the same propaganda meme deployed by former President George W. Bush and Karl Rove during the prelude to the 2000 campaign for president — at a moment when the Republican Party badly needs appealing new images and ideas. The Bush gang dropped that gimmick well before they entered the White House, and it was never glimpsed again. But whenever a Republican spouts kinder, gentler, compassionate-conservative babble, the vaunted cynicism of the capital press corps gets washed away in a warm bath of credulity.

But just to be clear, there is nothing new in Ryan’s perspective on poverty, which is impoverished indeed when set next to the outlook of his late mentor Jack Kemp, who became a conservative icon in Congress before he joined the cabinet as secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Although Kemp belatedly recognized the role of government in alleviating poverty, Ryan and the current crop of Republicans in Washington talk about volunteerism, charity and spirituality as the only legitimate ways to address social problems — while all government support for the poor must be slashed or eliminated, as prescribed by their budget.

When Ryan suggests that volunteerism and charity will salve the injuries of the poor, he is merely reviving the “thousand points of light” hoax perpetrated by George H. W. Bush back in 1988, when as Ronald Reagan’s vice president, he had to distinguish himself from the cold-hearted attitudes and actions of that administration to run for presidential office. It was nonsense then and it remains that way, because the volume of private charity in America is utterly dwarfed by the government programs that preserve the poor from starvation.

And when Ryan proclaims that religion will save those shiftless sinners, one soul at a time, he is echoing the same pharisaical pieties underlying George W. Bush’s “compassionate conservatism,” which was invented, after all, by an ex-Communist turned fundamentalist. This political abuse of faith, for a professing Catholic like Ryan, is rebutted by none other than Pope Francis, who has upheld the Church’s traditional social teaching, blasted the kind of “savage capitalism” Ryan admires and, in particular, criticized “ideologies which uphold the absolute autonomy of markets and financial speculation.” Like the ideology of Ryan’s idol Ayn Rand — “and thus deny the right of control to States, which are themselves charged with providing for the common good,” as he noted last May.

With the tin-eared rhetoric of the Mitt Romney-Ryan campaign still resonating in memory, it will be hard for the former vice-presidential wannabe to persuade any sane person of his profound concern for the underprivileged. There is far more reason to believe that he shares his patrician running mate’s haughty disdain for the “47 percent.”

But if he truly does care, Ryan could lift up America’s poorest simply by stifling his persistent urges to kill the minimum wage, reduce the earned-income tax credit, cut food stamps, wreck Medicaid or carry out any of the dozens of destructive schemes that are, in his perverse outlook, meant to help. And he could rid himself and his party of the rancid notion that there is something morally wrong with families surviving below the poverty line beyond the persistent dearth of decent jobs.

Joe Conason
A highly experienced journalist, author and editor, Joe Conason is the editor-in-chief of The National Memo, founded in July 2011. He was formerly the executive editor of The New York Observer, where he wrote a popular political column for many years.
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  • Gene Hill

    Ryan remains an evil man with no compassion in his hard heart.

  • http://fatherlouie.blogspot.com/ Beth Cioffoletti

    charity and justice go hand in hand.

  • Roland

    ‘Compassionate Conservatism’
    “Hedonistic Puritanism”
    “Fair Cheating”
    “Vegan Steak Tartar”
    “Puritanical Libertine”
    “Trustworthy Republican”
    Roland

  • Jo Clark

    Ryan disgusts me beyond words. Does anyone actually believe HE believes all his “volunteerism, charity and spirituality” crap? He knows better. He absolutely knows better. We have to accept the fact that he just simply doesn’t care who gets hurt, who gets sick, who’s hungry, or frankly, who dies. In his cold world, the more dead poor people, the better. I don’t know how his wife stands the bastard.

  • Roland

    “the ideology of Ryan’s idol Ayn Rand”
    ???? Rand’s “ideology” was the ideology of Debbie does Dallas. Her two books are porn with the same plot: Clever (and beautiful) girl lands Uberpowerful mogul, before whom all the little people should prostrate themselves.
    Roland

  • Roland

    “… the more dead poor people, the better.”
    The surplus population.

    “I don’t know how his wife stands the bastard.”
    Perhaps she was cut from the same tawdry cloth? Sociopaths come in both sexes. (How many women use material wealth as the primary criterion in choosing a mate? As one wag noted, women say they value a good sense of humor, which is why comedians have all the hot babes. I suspect Ryan is easier to stand than Trump.)
    Roland

  • Anonymous

    A “compassionate conservative” wants to quietly reach into our pockets through the taxing process and give our money to their rich friends and do so in increments rather than toss people out of work all at once and then give trillions to corporations in bailouts all at once. The fallacy is that 30 years of the first leads to the second.

  • Anonymous

    He does know better. He is banking on most Americans being dumb enough to believe his lies,however.

  • Wildfawn

    Private charity has had more than 200 years to prove that it’s not enough. Anyhow, tending to the poor treats the symptoms. Only something as large as government can deal with the causes of poverty, such as income inequality, poor education, lack of health (and mental) care, etc. Ryan is just spouting terminology to try to sweet talk his way into office.

  • Anonymous

    Charity opens the door when Justice walks out.

  • Anonymous

    Also strange that he depended on Social Security benefits when his father died. I’m not saying he shouldn’t have used those benefits, just that it’s odd that he feels it was ok for him to use them and that others somehow don’t deserve to use them.

  • John Andrew Schmanek

    And the huge debts run up by governments shows they don’t have the resources either. But, is the suffering ever really alleviated? Where is the suffering receding? Where is it, that by the intervention of human activity ( private, religious, or governmental) suffering ever really recedes? Do we now have less or more suffering in the world? Maybe the truth points to the fact that you who are proposing these solutions are not based in reality but, fantasy. Maybe the truth is that you who propose the solution don’t have a clue as to the actual cause of human suffering. Trying to implement the solution to suffering without actually knowing the true cause of suffering always causes suffering to increase or at best, stay the same. This is the truth of the governmental solution to suffering.

  • Anonymous

    A pretty good bet.

  • Anonymous

    If Ryan wants to encourage work, he needs to practice what he preaches and start encouraging his own party to earn those salaries Americans provide them. Demonizing poor people, who often work more than one job, says more about his party’s detachment from working Americans’ economic reality than any genuine insight he might offer. I’m tired of their callous attitudes toward the non-rich.

  • Strawman411

    Well, the chief cause of the little guy’s suffering is not conservative Republicans, nor is it liberal Democrats. It is both parties who ensure suffering by serving as handmaidens for their corporate, big-money funders.

    Cheerleaders from each element of the duopoly can parse endlessly the shortcomings of those representing the opposing party, but it makes little quantifiable difference to us in the 99% whether the red or blue team is “running” things.

    We need, first and foremost, to get private money out of electoral politics, from president down to local dogcatcher. Once big money’s influence has been neutered, then we might see an alleviation of general misery among the common people.

  • Roland

    No, porn is what excites lascivious desires. Rand was the prototype of Harlequin.
    Roland

  • Anonymous

    Ryan’s photo op in an already closed soup kitchen, scrubbing an already clean soup pot and instructing his wife and kiddies how to feign working hard for the poor in the picture is as far as any neo-repugnant gets these days for having compassion for humanity. His favorite quote from Atlas Shrugged: “Robinhood robbed the rich to give to the poor. Well I’m the man who robbed the poor to give to the rich…let me rephrase that…to give to the more deserving rich.”

  • http://www.autodidactic.biz/ Nashville Kat

    Who is this Republican apologist pretending to intellectualism on these posts? Perhaps, he/she should find another site to post their drivel.

  • Roland

    Ideology? What ideology?
    Oh yes, that there are superior people who should mate and be served by all the lesser people. Other than the romance, the other plot elements make no sense. In _Atlas Shrugged_ there are magnates running a railroad in a small valley, and working mines without miners. The only thing lacking is Fabio in a morning suit on the cover. Rand makes _Conan the Barbarian_ seem profound.

    Roland

  • Roland

    Rands books were the prototype for Harlequin.
    Roland

  • Roland

    The huge debts run up by our government show they don’t have the resources toi try to conquer the world either. Most of the US budget ifs for military spending, which itself cause a great deal of human suffer both abroad and to our own canon fodder and their families.
    Back during the thirties, forties, fifties and sixties we were doing a very passable job of abating suffering domestically. Until the madman Nixon decided to wage war on the American people.
    Roland

  • Roland

    Everyone with whom you disagree has “a complete lack of understanding”? I see no evidence that you understand anything at all.
    The “true cause of human suffering”? Now what could that be? Disobedience to your God? So the answer to all human suffering is to bow down to your God and obey his commandments as relayed by your favorite Elmer Gantry clone?
    Ever hear of Savonarola? He had the same notion. After three year the people could not decide whether to hang him or burn him, so they did both.
    I suspect that most of us feel that major causes of human suffering are self-righteous demagogues like John Andrew Schmanek.
    Roland

  • Roland

    Get a clue. The first part of your post is all hogwash. You should take the second part to heart, since it describes you. Why do you keep repeating your lies and nonsense? I suspect it is because you fear that if you ever stop you may realize that your whole life has been a lie.
    Roland

  • Roland

    I know they call themselves “objectivists”. but that is a misnomer. There is no objectivity in the whole lot. Neofeudalist would be more apt.
    She ended up on Social Security married to a young stud who married her for her money. How appropriate.

    Roland

  • Roland

    Well, he is superior. The rest of us are not.
    Likewise, abortion was Ok for Santorum’s wife, but nobody else.
    Teenage pregnancy is fine in the Palin house, but a crisis outside it.
    Roland

  • Roland

    Hypocracy is a key value among the Rs.
    Roland

  • Roland

    That was just the way your father felt about FDR and Social Security. Some people never learn.
    Roland

  • Roland

    Please reconcile your comment with the fact that Raygun, Bush and Bush grew the government more than their predecessors or Obama.
    Roland

  • Roland

    It might be c., but I suspect he IS a church. He certainly has the wind and the gall to fleece rubes.
    Roland

  • Roland

    “You know what ideology”
    No, we do not. Please expound upon your ideology if you can.

    As for Rand, she had no ideology other than that she deserved to be a princess.
    Roland

  • Roland

    The Vikings robbed the very rich to sell to the rich. Even that helped end the Dark Ages.
    Roland

  • Anonymous

    Wouldn’t it be confliction if government involved itself in relief of poverty by encouraging charity and volunteerism? How about if government encouraged highly profitable corporations to supplement incomes to higher wages so people can afford education as a means to better themselves? How about if government encouraged the movement of small businesses it into impoverished neighborhoods spur growth? Does that give the impression of too much government involvement? Compassionate conservatism is nothing more then selling point to vote for me. GOP’s only concern is for corporate profit and Wall Street gains, thinking that’s going to help the less fortunate in our society. Well historically this has not proved a damn bit to actually work. Corporations don’t give a damn about people, bottom-line. As the existing the essence of their existence. Patting yourself on the back for providing jobs or producing the product people want or need is not compensation for those who get paid eight dollars an hour to allow the man to live in a friggin castle. The idea of unrestricted free marketeering is tantamount to foxes guarding the chicken cage. People are greedy. Face it. More never seems to be enough. Rules and regulations must be sitting place to quell such innate human propensity.

  • Todd Williamson

    Without sharing, there can be no justice… not sure from what high moral precipice you are now viewing the world from?

  • http://www.autodidactic.biz/ Nashville Kat

    Where the hell did this come from? I presume you think I was talking about you. A bit arrogant don’t you think? However, I will go back and read your posts so I can deem them appropriate for comment. There a plethora of comments on this particular subject, from a variety of people, with a multitude of viewpoints and to think I singled you out but didn’t call your name seems a bit paranoid. However, no harm no foul. I will go to you comments in particular and see what you have to say and if I feel your arguments have merit or lack it, I will comment and directly to you. And, although I despise politicians and politics, I have no loyalty or faith in the current or past political history. I vote for the lesser of two evils,which leaves me with an evil. The American political system has been broken for some time and has contributed greatly to national polarization rather than pulling the country together, but that’s a silly idea of mine that we all played for the same team.

  • Stark Zwillig

    I was waiting for the substance in this article; it never came.

  • Observer

    Corporations not paying their fair share of taxes is the problem. If they paid up what they owe, the country would be debt-free. Isn’t that a novel idea?

  • Robberbarons

    Compassionate Conservatism is an oxymoron. That’s like saying compassionate fascist. The only Conservatives are compassionate about is conning good hard working American Citizens out of their taxes, life, liberty and pursuit of happiness.

    They’re only uncertainty is how long they can continue to dupe their ignorant constituents and the general voting public. Now we know why they dislike a well educated society. Education turns their trickle down economics into financial quicksand.

  • Robberbarons

    Compassionate Conservatism is an oxymoron. That’s like saying compassionate fascist. The only Conservatives are compassionate about is conning good hard working American Citizens out of their taxes, life, liberty and pursuit of happiness.

    They’re only uncertainty is how long they can continue to dupe their ignorant constituents and the general voting public. Now we know why they dislike a well educated society. Education turns their trickle down economics into financial quicksand.

  • John Andrew Schmanek

    What does American social programs have to do with sanctions against Cuba? You are all over the place here.

    Most people who are on these social programs still live quite impoverished lives. And a much higher percentage of the people are on these programs. So how did they cut poverty in half? The debt and the inflation have cut the value of the dollar down to where the vast majority of the population is worse off. And, the debt and the economy are now approaching a very dangerous point. The amount of Citizens on subsidies is over half at this point, for the first time in history. And the cause of that can be shown to be traced to failed government programs and policies.

    But keep cheering on the destruction, right to the end. I know you will.

  • John Andrew Schmanek

    The idea that free people who do things for self interest do tend to be innovators does have some merit. And that people shackled by government rules and regulations do not innovate, this is also true. What Rand left out was the idea that true compassion comes from seeing the true nature of things and, for one to see the true nature of things, one has to be free. Her ideology was incomplete, but, so are all ideologies. Ideologies are fixed set of mental constructs which one uses to view reality. If one views reality through mental constructs one tends not to see it clearly or completely. Again, compassion is a result of seeing things as they truly are. So even the liberal ideology which screams “we are compassionate” misses the mark when it comes to compassion. That is why this article and most of the comments below it, are simply the bashing of someone who lacks compassion. Just mull that over a while – bashing someone for lacking compassion. What is next Physically beating someone for not supporting some program about non-violence? I would not doubt that for a second.

  • John Andrew Schmanek

    What do you call the bashing of someone for their lack of compassion?

  • Robberbarons

    I call it a lesson in what it means to live life as a real Christians with love, respect and dignity toward all other human beings. Acts of kindness for the common good.

    As a Christian Revolutionary, I see it as their penance to live a life of compassion the way Jesus did and would today.

    People forget that Jesus wanted us to live a life of Common Good not Commonwealth.

  • Paul Calhoun

    Paul Ryan in reality has never had to work a day in his life. What could he possibly know about people on the other side of wealth? That he is considered literate enough to speak authoritatively on anything is kind of a joke. Just once, it would be nice if these people who crow about independence and making it “on your own”, had in fact done that for themselves.

  • mrs x

    oh, please. your disconnect from real life is evident. The “receding” of suffering is done on an individual basis. the severely battered homemaker who was forced to flee and ends up homeless and disabled at 50 is very grateful for her meager ssi and foodstamps, as they are far better than sleeping on the sidewalk and starving. so for each person the relief is a huge improvement over the alternative! of course! these programs save lives quite literally, though they have been cut repeatedly, and restricted unnecessarily, so now we have a huge problem of thousands of homeless in every major city. small increases of tax on the top tier of incomes, and cutting of the bloat of military spending etc, and other subsidies to the rich, would make a huge difference to pay the debt and for programs save the accumulated poverty stricken of america.