Do you remember compassionate conservatism? It seemed vacuous when promulgated by George Bush pre-9/11 and even more so when David Cameron was going through his ‘hug a husky’ phase pre-crisis. It still seems vacuous now, at the point of its purported resurgence, though much more interestingly so given the broader ideological context within which an increasing number of influential figures within the Republican party are advocating its embrace as a solution to their growing electoral woes. In essence, it still seems to amount to a matter of ‘how do we get people to like us?’ but I think this question takes on an epochal significance in our current situation. Rather than solely being a matter of professional politics, with conservative modernisers seeking to catch up to their third-way predecessors on the centre-left, it comes to encompass an ideological project to rebuild a constituency for neoliberalism as the old one is coming to shatter (particularly demographically in the US), the spectre of populism looms and the prevailing ethical motif of the Thatcher-Reagan settlement (“a rising tide lifts all boats”) comes to seem like a hollow joke.
In this interesting podcast Bill Moyers debates compassionate conservatism with Arthur Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute. Leaving aside the noxious absurdity of hearing the president of a hugely influential think tank backed by the richest people and most powerful corporations in America complain about corporate power in Washington, it’s actually quite interesting to hear what he has to say and to use this as a basis to consider the future contours of ideological debate in the US. The think tank system in effect takes responsibility for road testing ideological constructs and providing the intellectual infrastructure for class politics in the country. So I think it’s important to take seriously what this man has to say, without slipping into a lazy conspiratorial mindset which assumes that just because he says it, it’ll be taken up as an organising motif by the Republican party for the next election. But he’s putting forward an ideational construct and seeking material sponsorship for it.
It’s partly a critique of the left, accusing it of monopolising the debate surrounding poverty while offering non-solutions that only serve to harm the people they purport to help. It’s partly a critique of the right, repudiating the quasi-technocratic discourse of the free market right that his own organisation did more than most to promote in American politics. It’s partly a reiteration of tired and familiar themes that serve to illustrate the intellectual vacuity of contemporary conservatism. However I was struck by how coherently it combined the tropes of compassionate conservatism (we need to take hard working families out of the tax system, enthusiastically supporting the safety net for the ‘truly poor’, invocation of a renewed philanthropy and public spiritedness) with the influential notion of Austrian origin that the problem is that contemporary capitalism is not capitalist enough. It’s not convincing because the coherency is only superficial, necessitating the suppression of the obvious structural link between how capitalist contemporary capitalism actually is and the communitarian values that are being sought, as Moyers astutely observes in the case of the Walton. family. But I find it hard to see another strategy that can sustain a constituency for the Republican party in the medium to long term and voter suppression can only go so far in the face of a changing country in which angry white men are an increasingly particular demographic group. The worrying thing is that the Democratic political machine is sufficiently spineless that, in the absence of someone like Elizabeth Warren running, it’s easy to see how the disciplined advocacy of this neo-neoliberalism could actually rob the opposition of any critical standpoint from which to make a case for even minute social change.
There’s a lot of nice responses to this which have been posted on the Bill Moyers website but this is my favourite. You can read the rest of them here. It probably goes without saying that I disagree with everything Arthur Brooks says, not least of all his appropriation of the Dalai Lama as a free market capitalist. But I’m sufficiently interested to read further. I guess my fear is that the glaring holes in his argument are ones which can only be pointed out on the basis of causal inference e.g. clientism and rent seeking are consequences of the principles he embraces rather than exceptions to them, unemployment is generated in part by the accumulated power he gets paid $700k per year to defend etc. The contemporary media environment makes it hard to make arguments of this sort in a sustained way.
Joel BergDirector, New York City Coalition Against Hunger
People, like Arthur Brooks, who proclaim that money can’t buy happiness usually have both. In 2012, Brooks earned $716,908 in total compensation from his American Enterprise Institute position alone. It’s nice that Brooks says that US poverty and inequality are too high, but, in this interview, he again indicates that he opposes every policy that actually reduces them. His claim that minimum wage increases kill jobs has been factually disproven repeatedly. It would be bad enough if he admitted that he opposes wage hikes because they harm his corporate funders, but it’s pure chutzpah to claim that they harm the people who get higher wages.
I also wonder about the potential alliance between a mainstream compassionate conservatism of this form and a populist radical right. Could the ‘moral reformation’ that Brooks calls for be invoked rhetorically against the radical right at opportune moments while nonetheless serving to solidify a ‘small government’ alliance? Would the Tea Party accept this way of talking? I suspect so if the distinction between welfare dependents and the ‘truly poor’ is drawn carefully enough and the proposed solutions to the plight of the latter are presented as a matter of working towards the remission of state intervention rather than entrenching it. The problem is how you sustain this given the inevitable need for some intervention. Compassionate conservatism would come to look a little implausible if support is withdrawn entirely, with all the social consequences that would ensue from this.