What Does It Mean for Conservatism to Be 'Compassionate'?

George W. Bush used to speak of "compassionate conservatism," when in fact his presidency was not particularly compassionate or conservative.  In reality, it represented a weak conservatism that attempted to hold back the floodgates of change via compromise and appeasement.  Bush was far better than the alternative, Al Gore, but in the end, his weakness played into the hands of progressives and elected Obama/Biden.  When he left office, Bush was one of the least popular presidents in modern American history.

Still, though he was not the real deal, Bush was on to something.  Conservatism ought to be compassionate, and at heart, it is.  Conservative policies produce a safe and orderly society in which the weak are protected and well cared for.  Conservatism defends America against enemies who are far from compassionate, and it affords a thriving capitalist economy in which all classes are better off.  Most important, under conservatism, life is vastly more free: conservatives believe in small government overall and states' rights over federal control.  And they do not believe that the FBI or any federal agency has the right to storm your private residence and haul off documents on a politically motivated fishing expedition.

Progressivism is the opposite of conservatism, and it is anything but compassionate.  It produces a slow-growth economy and weak foreign policy that results in greater international conflict and, ultimately, war.  And toward all of this suffering, progressives seem entirely callous, as is Biden when asked about the effects of inflation on ordinary Americans.  His answer: it's a "transition" to something better, so just accept it. 

It is difficult to quantify "suffering," since it exists on so many levels and in so many forms, but at its core, Biden's low approval rating results from the awareness that he has caused suffering.  His administration is callous in having allowed open borders, unlimited drug importation, rising crime rates, attacks on moral traditions and faith, attacks on the First and Second Amendments, high inflation, low job participation and productivity, defunding of police, disrespect for America abroad, and so much else that causes suffering.  Altogether, Americans are less free, less safe, and less affluent under Biden's progressive government.

Had not Trump been cheated out of a second term, America would be in a very different and more compassionate condition.  It's not necessary to list all the ways in which Trump's administration would have differed from Biden's, including the appointment of yet another conservative Supreme Court justice.  The key point is that these policy differences emanate from an entirely different vision of the nature of human beings and of society.  The earliest progressive leaders were Bismarck, Wilson, Mussolini, and Hitler, and what all of these had in common was a propensity for centralized state power, dictatorial control through censorship and surveillance (including the gross abuse of federal agencies), and war.

Biden follows the example of earlier leaders so closely that his administration is almost a caricature of progressivism.  Biden exhibits a bizarre combination of "woke" pretense to goodness and apparent blindness to suffering.  His dilatory response to providing defensive weapons to Ukraine, and total lack of leadership on this front, is just one example.  Now that the Russians have announced a "second phase" of the war, involving expansion to western cities and greater commitment of arms and personnel, it is clear that the horrific assaults on civilians will continue through the coming winter and perhaps well beyond.

Ironically, Biden's diffidence toward involvement is just the sort of progressive weakness that will lead us into a broader war.  Just as Carter's weakness emboldened Iranians to take hostages and Clinton's wrist-slap response to earlier terrorist attacks enabled 9/11, Biden's refusal to properly aid Ukraine may embolden Putin to invade neighboring countries.  The suffering this would cause is almost beyond belief, but there is no compassion on the part of progressives.

Much the same is true of Biden's border policy.  By signaling that he will permit unlimited illegal immigration, Biden has set off a flood of migrant caravans and along with them the creation of a border cartel run by vicious criminal gangs.  Migrants are brutalized en route to America, and they face a dangerous final leg of their journey across the southwestern deserts.

By contrast, conservative policy ended the flood of aliens and properly cared for and processed those immigrants who arrived legitimately.  Trump brought order to the process, thereby protecting both migrants and American citizens from the overwhelming flood of illegal aliens, drugs, and human-trafficking that now exists.

In a broader sense, Trump's border policy reflected the conservative instinct for independence and self-control.  At the heart of conservatism is the principle of self-government, under which individuals, not government, provide for their livelihood and regulate their behavior.  That same principle of self-control applies to the management of our borders: nations have the responsibility and the right to turn away those who come illegally, and a forthright enforcement of this policy is far more humane than the current laissez-faire, open-border policy.

The most convincing evidence of the compassionate nature of conservatism can be found in the numbers: a recent 9.1% annual inflation rate under Biden versus 1.2% when Trump left office, tens of thousands of military and civilian deaths in Ukraine (exact numbers are impossible to determine), fentanyl deaths exploding (96,000 in the year ending in 2021 and over 71,000 so far in 2022 versus 35,000 in 2019 under President Trump), a record crime wave, and much else.

 During his first term, Trump had just begun to heal America, and much remained to be done, but already the border was closed, inflation was almost under control, crime rates were low, and there was no war in Ukraine.  In sum, America was prosperous and free, and there were no overseas wars — all because, as a conservative, Trump cared about the lives of individuals.  Biden seems only to care about a lame recital of wokism and climate change, no matter the effect on individuals.

It is conservatives who are compassionate, not progressives.  Left-wing promises of welfare and equity lead to enslavement and poverty, not to the promised Perfect Society.  Conservatives truly care about individuals because their philosophy is based on self-responsibility and the freedom of individuals to govern themselves.  At its center, conservatism reflects a fundamental human instinct of respect for life and a willingness to protect life, especially that which is weak and vulnerable.  It is crucial for the American electorate to grasp the difference between these two opposing viewpoints and to vote accordingly.

Jeffrey Folks is the author of many books and articles on American culture including Heartland of the Imagination (2011).

Image: CBS Sunday Morning via YouTube.

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