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A Compassionate Consensus

Obama at the Democratic ConventionAs an alternative to the knee-jerk policy dogmas that give liberalism a bad name, an attitude of compassion was seemingly given the Democratic imprimatur the other night in Barack Obama’s stunning nomination acceptance speech.

That’s the promise of America, the idea that we are responsible for ourselves, but that we also rise or fall as one nation, the fundamental belief that I am my brother’s keeper, I am my sister’s keeper.

That’s the promise we need to keep. That’s the change we need right now.

I have previously argued for empathy—close in etymology to compassion—as a foundation for progressive politics. Maybe I can stop there and be satisfied and gratified that my thesis has been made into party marching orders (though of course I can’t personally take credit). But Obama’s posture thankfully points deeper. Even while he went on attack against McCain, he used every chance he could to erect a new consensus across the culture war divides—a new bastion and a new culture.

We may not agree on abortion, but surely we can agree on reducing the number of unwanted pregnancies in this country.


The—the reality of gun ownership may be different for hunters in rural Ohio than they are for those plagued by gang violence in Cleveland, but don’t tell me we can’t uphold the Second Amendment while keeping AK-47s out of the hands of criminals.


I know there are differences on same-sex marriage, but surely we can agree that our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters deserve to visit the person they love in a hospital and to live lives free of discrimination.


You know, passions may fly on immigration, but I don’t know anyone who benefits when a mother is separated from her infant child or an employer undercuts American wages by hiring illegal workers.

Of course, “compassion” has been a watchword in the conservative discourse at least since the 1990s, and that gives it genuine bipartisan appeal. Martin Olasky’s Compassionate Conservatism (2000), which had a foreword by George W. Bush, turned a watchword into a doctrine, and a doctrine with religious implications. Take, for instance, this bit from Bush II insider David Kuo’s memoir, Tempting Faith:

Pointing out that “compassion” literally means “suffering with,” Olasky argued that “help” wasn’t just about food, but about life transformation through God’s power.

In fact, [by adpoting compassionate conservatism,] Speaker Gingrich was showing Republicans how to co-opt compassion from the Democrats. Government welfare programs had produced poverty, teen crime, illegitimacy, joblessness, and general hopelessness. The way out was through families, churches, and neighborhoods. And while government wasn’t the answer, it couldn’t run away from the problem, either. (p. 75)

No Republican has gotten more mileage out of compassion than George W. Bush back in his 1999-2000 presidential campaign. The White House has a special fact sheet on its website on the subject, quoting Bush thusly:

I call my philosophy and approach compassionate conservatism. It is compassionate to actively help our fellow citizens in need. It is conservative to insist on responsibility and results. And with this hopeful approach, we will make a real difference in people’s lives.

The rest is history. As soon as he was in the Oval Office, Bush abandoned both compassion and conservatism in favor of pulling out of Kyoto, building wasteful weapons systems, and passing unfunded education mandates. To say nothing of his senseless response to 9/11.

What might the agenda of a new compassionate consensus look like? Obama wants us to believe that it would be his agenda, but that is hard to believe. Much of the substance of that same acceptance speech was so full of partisan rhetoric that Obama’s call to being each other’s keepers probably means transcending even him.

Looking past the partisan platforms of the two major parties opens the door to a new kind of compassionate common sense. This wisdom is already inscribed into majority opinion, so long as one doesn’t ask questions in language that requires knee-jerk responses (gay marriage? abortion? gun control?). See, for instance, this fascinating poster “on what Americans want” from Yes Magazine. (Thanks to my good friend Bryan Farrell for this.)

Or else look to the worldwide activist movements chronicled in Paul Hawken’s Blessed Unrest—common sense-driven and non-partisan, yet deeply committed.

The challenge that remains is whether a new compassionate consensus, whether heralded by Obama, a George Bush III, or something more organic and grassroots, can be a real, habitable politics. Or is it doomed to be just a cruel trick, used by politicians upon the quiet compassion that lurks in all of us?