Compassionate conservatism

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U.S. Politics
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Persons of interest
I want to help you. I really do. But you know, I just can't.
Bill Clinton on the nature of compassionate conservatism.
Bush presented himself as a would-be healer in chief who would direct the armies of compassion from Washington, D.C.
—Reihan Salam[1]
Compassionate conservatism? What, do they give you a teddy bear at the gallows?
—Inquiring minds want to know

Compassionate conservatism is an oxymoron. As an electoral position, it was advanced by George W. Bush[1] right before slamming civil liberties and invading a bunch of countries, and David Cameron before imposing a brutal program of austerity.[2]

Nobody would speak of a "compassionate liberal" (in the US sense of liberal) or "compassionate social democrat" — such terms would be considered tautologies. The term implies that a conservative being compassionate is unusual and noteworthy and that 'normal' conservativism is somehow by nature lacking in compassion (which is sadly often true), as to say that conservatism is compassionate, one must be capable of compassion, as well as, if possible, love, intelligence, and rational thought, and maybe even (imagine that) empathy. In practice, compassionate conservatism lies somewhere between a cynical electoral strategy and a vague dream of the sort advanced by beauty pageant contestants. Even then, it's hated by hard-right libertarians who believe it means big government and tax rises.[1]

In theory, it should be possible to operate a moderate, centre-right conservatism that moderates the effects of unregulated capitalism. It could draw on Benjamin Disraeli's One-Nation Conservatism, or Catholic social teaching, or the large amount of 19th century Russian literature about improving the condition of serfs. In practice, while David Cameron talked of a "Big Society" uniting state and voluntary sector in the provision of care, what he meant was cutting people's benefits so they're forced to rely on food banks funded by private charity. Ironically, Tony Blair's New Labour is probably the closest thing to compassionate conservatism in recent decades.

Marvin Olasky, who authored a book about 'compassionate conservatism', is a Dominionist. Thus, in his ideal of society, many people would be treated in a less than compassionate manner.[note 1]

The juxtaposition of these two words was first brought to the general attention by (then Texas Governor) George W. Bush (Olasky was an advisor to Bush in his first Presidential election campaign) in 1999. There was no small amount of self-interest involved in the movement: "Look, voters, you can have these massive tax cuts and still have balanced budgets!", or "Let's change the world by NOT changing the world!"[3][4]

List of actually compassionate conservatives who use the term[edit]

Two tumbleweeds rolling across the screen, from left to right.

See also[edit]


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 [1], Washington Post
  2. [2], The Guardian, 13 Jan 2016
  3. Extract from Wall Street Journal
  4. Joan Didion, "God's Country", "The New York Review of Books.


  1. Jesus Christ would not approve of such a compassion-less society, a fact that is lost on most Bible Belt "Christians".