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Conservatism Is Compassionate

Friday, November 15, 2013

If people suspect you don't care about them, they will rarely follow you, no matter how right your solutions may sound. Therein lies the challenge – and promise – for conservatives.

In the aftermath of last week's elections in Virginia and New Jersey, much has been said about what the results portend for Republicans in the next election cycle. But let's not lose sight of the lessons learned only last year.

After the shellshock of the 2012 election wore off, the Republican National Committee released their “Growth and Opportunity Project” report, which rightly observed that “the perception that the GOP does not care about people is doing great harm to the Party and its candidates on the federal level, especially in presidential years. It is a major deficiency that must be addressed.” Wisdom offered by Aristotle over 2,000 years ago helps us grasp the severity of this problem.

Aristotle observed that what draws people to trust and follow a leader hinges on three main elements: competence (do they know what they're doing?), integrity (are they trustworthy?), and goodwill (do they really care about people like me?). According to Aristotle, the importance of one far outstrips the others: goodwill. If people suspect you don’t care about them, they will rarely follow you, no matter how right your solutions may sound.

That’s bad news for today’s Republicans.

In the 2012 presidential election, GOP standard bearer Mitt Romney polled 20 points behind his opponent on perceptions of the candidates’ “caring about average people.” In another poll, only 33 percent believed Romney “cares about people like me.” Aristotle would have needed no other data to predict the election’s outcome.

Here’s another prediction Aristotle might make: The GOP will not win another national election until it proves that Republican goodwill is every bit as strong as Republican competence.

Admittedly, if forced to choose, most people would opt for competence over compassion in their brain surgeon or electrician. And most thoughtful voters point to specific issues and policies — not to a vague sense of a candidate’s goodwill — when asked by pollsters what drove their vote.

Whether in a friend, spouse, teacher, coach, or president, we want most of all to know that those who will shape our future really do care.

But humans are mysterious creatures, and matters of the heart often influence each of us more than we could explain even to ourselves, let alone pollsters. Whether in a friend, spouse, teacher, coach, or president, we want most of all to know that those who will shape our future really do care.

Demonstrating genuine goodwill demands more than a vision for a stronger economy. It is evidenced especially in sincere compassion for the struggling: the aged widow, the recovering addict, the single mom with two jobs, the kid with high potential and little opportunity. If a leader cares about such people, Americans conclude, that leader would probably care about me, too.

Build on the Bedrock

To be clear, the point isn't that Republicans should start pretending like we care. Pretending is the worst thing we could do if we're serious about leading. The Republican brand must always be built on the bedrock of who we really are.

But in that is truly good news. Because the Republican bedrock is compassionate. We see that clearly in history, personal action, and in policy.


In the mid-19th century, the GOP was first forged out of a commitment to defending the lives and liberty of the oppressed. This commitment has remained over the decades, from the fight against slavery to confronting communist overlords during the Cold War. Even the 1964 Civil Rights Act received a much larger percentage of Republican than Democrat votes in Congress.

True, on policies that attempt to help the poor via massive bureaucracy or by privileging specific groups over others, Republicans have typically demurred. But when it comes to securing real justice and opportunity for all, Republicans most always have led.

Personal Action

As the research of American Enterprise Institute President Arthur Brooks has revealed, conservatives give a much larger percentage of their income to charity, volunteer more, and are even more likely to help a neighbor than liberals. Brooks found that conservatives give 30 percent more to charity than liberals of equal income levels. Meanwhile, the Catalogue for Philanthropy’s “generosity index” consistently finds red states to be more generous than blue.

Conservatives may resist the kind of compassion that includes taking other people’s money and redistributing it. But when it comes to their own money, they are decidedly generous.

Public Policy Goals

Conservatives seek limited government foremost because they know big government crushes the best in people. Among the wealthy and middle class, big government suppresses innovation, job creation, and responsibility to one’s neighbor. In poorer neighborhoods, it robs dignity, undercuts initiative, and encourages dependency. There is nothing empathetic about gargantuan government.

Even the 1964 Civil Rights Act received a much larger percentage of Republican than Democrat votes in Congress.

In sharp contrast to an overbearing state, conservatives desire to cultivate a vibrant community. That requires a balanced ecosystem of interdependent institutions: families, businesses, houses of worship, civic organizations … and yes, government. Each has a vital role to play. When any one dominates the others, it is not merely a philosophical problem: people suffer. Children grow up fatherless. Loneliness becomes rampant. The struggling may receive government aid, but lack the relationships and support necessary to transform their lives.

In short, conservatives know that human flourishing comes from aspiration nurtured in community. This is true for the poor and rich alike. So any policy or program that works against this goal isn’t compassionate; it’s destructive. Meanwhile, conservatism — properly understood — nurtures conditions in which all of these institutions together can elevate the lives of all citizens, including the poor, far more than government alone ever could.

That’s why conservatism is compassionate.

But that fact alone isn’t enough, because in politics, perception shapes reality. So if Republicans have an interest in winning a national election again, this simple truth must again be widely known to be our bedrock — both in what we say and what we do.

What will that require? First, we must re-explore this truth together — hammering it out on the anvil of serious discussion, just as the first Republicans did with their conviction that “all men are created equal” in the mid-1800s. Second, we must embody sincere concern for the struggling in our personal actions. Finally, we must articulate this vision by applying it in innovative policies.

We must do what the best leaders always have: apply timeless truths in timely ways.

The GOP hasn’t been doing that particularly well recently. As a Commentary magazine article by Mike Gerson and Pete Wehner pointed out: “It is no wonder that Republican policies can seem stale; they are very nearly identical to those offered up by the Party more than 30 years ago.”

Here are a few inherently conservative (read: “compassionate”) policy ideas to get the discussion started.

Specific Achievable Policies


The first community and the first economy of any society is the family. When policies cast marriage and parenting as a personal hobby, not a public good, we all lose. Republicans first introduced the child tax credit, then expanded it. We can build on this further.

As part of upcoming tax reforms, we suggest merging the existing child tax credit and the childcare credit into a unified child tax credit, retaining its existing refundability and indexing it to inflation. Parents should be free to choose the best care situation for their child without financial penalty.

In addition, we should affirm a holistic vision that prioritizes family by promoting adoption. This includes making the adoption tax credit refundable and further supporting adoption from foster care, which would also save taxpayers significant money over time.

No factor better predicts a child’s well-being than his or her parents’ marital status, so we must eliminate any and all financial disincentives to marriage, particularly those in programs designed to help the vulnerable. This includes both income thresholds and asset tests for all means tested government programs.

Conservatives may resist the kind of compassion that includes taking other people’s money and redistributing it.

Conservatives should never be shy in helping people see that fatherlessness is a sociological cancer. Children from single-parent families are four times more likely to live in poverty and are at much greater risk of teenage pregnancy, incarceration, obesity, and drug and alcohol abuse. In virtually every measurable sociological category, children from fatherless homes face longer odds to live healthy and financially independent lives. Changing marriage trends in struggling communities is no small task, but conservatives should be at the forefront of championing a wide range of community- and faith-based initiatives that encourage and support marriage.

We must also affirm the value of flexibility for working families. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor has recently proposed allowing hourly employees to use their overtime for flex-time. This would help parents who desire to pick up kids from school, go on field trips with them, etc. State and city employees have been allowed to convert overtime to flex-time for almost 30 years, but outdated federal laws don’t allow private hourly employees this freedom.

Civil Society

Communities cannot flourish without a vibrant civil society, from reading programs to blood drives to summer camps. Individual Americans gave $229 billion to nonprofit organizations in 2012. That’s about 1.7 percent of personal income. If we could grow that to just 2 percent of personal income, it would mean an additional $40 billion for civil society.

How? One way is to place individuals, rather than government, in the center of deciding which charities will receive the billions of dollars currently distributed to charities via government grants. Instead, the bulk of these dollars could be repurposed to incentivize additional personal giving.

Taxpayers who give to charity would receive a refundable credit — perhaps 33 to 50 percent of their giving, up to the amount of the credit. This would spur Americans to boost their giving, particularly those with lower incomes who don’t itemize and currently receive no tax benefit from charitable deductions.

The result would expand the net dollars funneled to charity while also democratizing the process. By shifting control of these funds from bureaucratic grant makers to individual citizens, organizations will be far freer to innovate, yet they will also be more accountable to local donors. Finally, we would predict a boost in volunteerism, since individuals are much more likely to volunteer with organizations they support financially.


The schools attended by many disadvantaged kids don't just fail to break cycles of poverty; they perpetuate them. Even the best educators and students can be crushed by a school's ethos of low expectations, crime, and general malaise. For many families, the opportunity to opt out of a failing school for a better one carries the only hope of a better future. Compassion demands we give them that chance.

Conservatives seek limited government foremost because they know big government crushes the best in people.

How? Republicans must drive reforms that allow the creativity seen everywhere else in our economy to lift the education of every American child. Most importantly, we must free local public schools from the assembly-line approach to education that often dominates public schools. That requires elevating parents and children from passive recipients of pre-fab services to empowered citizens who can select what's best for each child from among multiple options.

Allowing parents to take their child’s public funds to any school of their choosing would certainly accomplish this goal. Charter schools, which are not stifled by regulations and union priorities, liberate parents, students, teachers, and administrators alike.

Ultimately, shifting control of children’s education from state bureaucracy and unions to parents enables schools to innovate. The result is an ever-expanding range of opportunities — already seen in states that are embracing charter schools, from Louisiana to Indiana to Arizona.

As families vote with their feet for the best schools, the worst are closed. Their space is readily filled with creative new charters: magnet schools focused on science, art, or language; international baccalaureate; hybrids of classroom-home instruction; and more.

The wealthy already have access to these benefits. It’s time to expand that opportunity to all American kids.

International Involvement

Our vision must not just be for the struggling at home, but must also affirm the role that the United States has played as a champion for freedom and an advocate for the downtrodden worldwide.

This legacy — much of it initiated by conservatives — includes the application of American might to confront human trafficking, protect human rights, and promote religious liberty across the globe.

Meanwhile, over the past 20 years, the number of people living in extreme poverty has been cut by more than half in the developing world, from 43 percent to 21 percent. About two-thirds of that improvement comes from economic growth, and conservatives must articulate how free markets are the greatest anti-poverty engine. At the same time, we can also champion innovative public-private-nonprofit partnerships that lift those whom markets leave behind.

One such example is the remarkable success of PEPFAR, a program created under President George W. Bush that has dramatically reduced the rate of AIDS in Africa and beyond. It centers on locally based solutions, personal responsibility, and measurable results.

Juvenile Justice

Change the trajectory of a child headed in the wrong direction and you change just about everything: lower prison expenditures, higher future employment rates and tax revenue, safer communities, healthier families, and much more.

The brilliance of American innovation has hardly touched American public education in decades.

When unnecessary, incarceration of non-violent juvenile offenders costs the taxpayer in both monetary and social metrics. The annual cost to taxpayers can be as high as $50,000 per prisoner in many states, an amount higher than the yearly salaries for many public sector employees. And it’s not just the financial impact; the 60 percent unemployment rate and very limited earnings opportunities that face ex-convicts help create a nearly inescapable spiral of poverty as well as a high degree of recidivism. Conservatives must take the lead in efforts that divert non-violent juvenile offenders from prison to mentoring programs, tutoring, and other relationships proven to help break cycles of incarceration.

Foster Care

Finally, conservatives should take the lead in addressing foster care in our communities. Across the United States, roughly 100,000 children hope against hope for adoption into a family, and about 300,000 others need temporary care in loving homes. Foster youth who age out of the system without being adopted have no stable family to guide and support them and often find it difficult to navigate education, jobs, and relationships. By their mid-20s, 80 percent of the young men have been arrested and nearly 70 percent of the women are on public assistance. As we have seen in Colorado, these numbers can be vastly improved through state reforms that make fostering and adopting easier, alongside private initiatives to recruit and support families through the joys and challenges of foster care and adoption.

Conservative principles lend themselves well to policies that could transform the lives of countless children, boosting the percentage of children raised by married couples, reducing incarceration, and finding loving homes for children who lack them.


The RNC report concludes that “Young voters are increasingly rolling their eyes at what the party represents, and many minorities wrongly think that Republicans do not like them or want them in the country. When someone rolls their eyes at us, they are not likely to open their ears to us.”

Now is the time to reverse this watershed concern by digging deep into our historic bedrock. As a first step, we recommend that a representative of Republican leadership on and off the Hill follow up the Growth and Opportunity Project with a detailed policy agenda to provide focus for the party through the next several years until a presidential nominee is able to better articulate our vision for all Americans.

The future success of the Republican Party and conservative movement lies not primarily in better messaging, wider outreach, and more sophisticated technology, as important as these are. The future lies in our willingness to rediscover and articulate in policy a simple truth: conservatism is compassionate.

Mark Rodgers founded the Clapham Group, a company that seeks to influence culture upstream of the political arena. He spent 16 years working on Capitol Hill. Jedd Medefind is the president of the Christian Alliance for Orphans. He served in the White House as a special assistant to President George W. Bush, leading the Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives.

FURTHER READING: Alex Brill writes “Time for a New GOP Grand Strategy” while Jonah Goldberg asks “What Is the Future of Conservatism?” James V. Delong explains “The Compassion Trap” and Lee Harris contributes “Can the GOP Be Saved? The Myth of the Demographic Fix” and “Why Not Soak the Rich?” Steve Conover writes “Grand Old Party Poopers” while Cliff Asness argues “The GOP Must Lead (Again) on Civil Rights.”

Image by Dianna Ingram / Bergman Group

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