Election 2000: A New Dawn?

President Jimmy Carter kept two books on his Oval Office desk. One was James MacGregor Burns’s Leadership (kept at hand to no apparent avail), in which the author distinguishes between transactional and transformational leaders. If elected, Vice President Al Gore will be a transactional president, while Gov. George W. Bush has positioned himself to be transformational.

A transactional president is desirable when times are good. Gore is not fundamentally opposed to the current drift of American politics. He is at peace with the assault of the dominant counterculture on western orthodoxy, and he is party to the Clinton administration’s strategy of appealing to particular group and individual interests. Indeed, the principal appeal of the Gore candidacy is security—the absence of disruption in current government programs.

Our Declining Moral Character

But Gore must be experiencing the political equivalent of vertigo. At a moment when the economic life of the nation could not be better, the American electorate is not joining in the rituals of self-congratulation. What Gore and his adoring media do not recognize is the degree to which the American people think things are not going well. The single most important characteristic of this political moment is not the degree of satisfaction with the country’s economic performance but the depth of public anxiety about the character of our society.

The proposition that America suffers from a crisis of declining individual morality is affirmed by upwards of 80 percent in national surveys. In the CRISIS magazine survey of Catholics conducted in March of last year, 75 percent agreed with this proposition among all Catholics, 79 percent among weekly Mass attendees. While a majority of Americans will say the nation is generally “heading in the right direction,” when asked specifically about morals and values a similarly large majority will say America is “on the wrong track?’ For so many Americans to agree with any proposition is an extraordinary fact.

Consider the America we see when we look out our kitchen windows. We see a place where there is a high risk in being a child, a place of infanticide, abduction, abuse, and neglect. We see a place where crime is random and vicious, where violence is gratuitous and perpetrated by children. We have learned the names of places like Columbine and Springfield; Jonesboro, Paducah, and Pearl. We see a place where parents are demoralized, resigned to the onslaught of the culture and the cruelties of the outside world; we see parents who have to be encouraged to be parents by earnest public service announcements.

We see the highest court in the land so confused about the American project as to proclaim that a woman not only has a constitutional right to terminate a pregnancy but also to direct that her child be killed seconds from being born— even though at that moment the pregnancy has been effectively terminated.

Little wonder good people advise their fellow Americans to close the curtains and cease engaging the outside world. Little wonder that we have the growing phenomena of home schooling and Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone in America.

The nation is asking, in a great collective chorus, “What kind of society have we become?” Americans hunger for hope that this evident moral decline can be arrested. We hunger for a thorough discussion of where we are headed as a society. Such a discussion properly occurs in the political arena, yet there has been a conspiratorial silence among the major figures of the Washington political elite. The Clinton “values initiative” during the 1996 campaign consisted of proposals on adolescent tobacco use, family and medical leave, TV violence ratings, children’s health, curfews, and school uniforms. But none of these symptomatic treatments can be confused with an attack on the root causes.

Same Side of the Fence

If the single most important characteristic of our political moment is public anxiety about our social character, the most significant political dynamic of our time is the migration of religiously active voters out of the Democratic Party and into Republican habits of voting. In 1996, Bob Dole did twelve percentage points better among religiously active voters (49 percent) than he did among all voters (37 percent). Even with his weak candidacy, this continued the trend in recent elections of an increasing relative Republican advantage among voters of faith.

What’s more, the percentage of the electorate that is religiously active grew to 44 percent in 1996—closing in on half of the electorate. The social crisis and the anxiety it provokes among the electorate go a long way toward explaining why this migration has occurred. It also explains why active Catholics and Christian conservatives at this moment find themselves on the same side of the political fence. They share a common critique of American society.

Have Republicans earned this growing support among religiously active voters? This year, the GOP has fielded an unambiguously pro- life national ticket, while the Democrats toasted Kate Michelman of the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights League (NARAL) at their Los Angeles convention. Religiously active voters understand that the practice of abortion is inconsistent with the kind of society they want America to be; they understand it is a sine qua non of social renewal. But apart from reaffirming its commitment to protections for the unborn, the Republican Party has not articulated anything approaching a systemic renewal strategy. Religiously active voters have made a leap of faith to the GOP, so to speak, seemingly on the expectation of things to come.

The political behavior of religiously active voters is often thought of, incorrectly, as a lagging indicator of social change. In fact, it is a leading indicator: In the movements for the abolition of slavery, for temperance, and for civil rights, religious activists were on the cutting edge. In the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, religiously active Catholics gave a much larger share of their votes to Reagan than did their less-active coreligionists—this was the first time in American history that a Republican presidential candidate did better among active Catholics than among voters as a whole. (Less-active Catholics came around to Reagan four years later.) This means that a migration of religiously active voters is likely to presage a broader voter migration to follow. In other words, the religiously active aren’t just any other demographic group; they lead where others follow.

In the first phase of the migration to the Republican Party of religiously active voters, evangelical and born-again Christians found a comfortable home in the GOP. Even in 1996, Dole got 66 percent of their vote. When they left the Democratic Party, they moved directly into the Republican Party. But Catholics generally left the Democrats for independent status; they are classic swing voters.

If the GOP were to modify its message to address the apprehensions of swing Catholics about its commitment to life and the less privileged, the ability of the Democratic Party to be nationally competitive is questionable. As Adam Walinski wrote to candidate Jimmy Carter in a famous 1976 memorandum on the Catholic vote, “Catholics are the Democratic Party” in many states of the North and Midwest.

Catholicism of Compassionate Conservatism

Enter George W. Bush. “Compassionate conservatism” is his signature contribution to our contemporary political vocabulary. Confirming their disinterest in the content of politics, the news media have generally dismissed compassionate conservatism as “Bush’s move to the middle” or “tax-cut-and-spend Republicanism.” They certainly have not expended great quantities of ink analyzing it. This is a disservice, for compassionate conservatism is a coherent governing vision with the potential to remake the American political landscape. It is, in short, transformational.

Catholic voters familiar with the social principles of their Church will hear echoes of a distinctly Catholic character in compassionate conservatism. In fact, never has a political program been articulated that is so reflective of the wisdom of the Catholic Church on social matters.

Of what does compassionate conservatism consist? It begins with a “preferential option” for the poor. Governor Bush has placed care for those in need at the center of his governing vision. “The purpose of prosperity is to make sure the American Dream touches every willing heart. The purpose of prosperity is to leave no one out…to leave no one behind,” Governor Bush has stated often, as in his announcement of candidacy and in his seminal “The Duty of Hope” speech delivered in Indianapolis on July 22, 1999. Those in need, he has said, “are not strangers; they are citizens, Americans, our brothers and sisters.” Governor Bush gave programmatic details of his plans to help the working poor in his “New Prosperity Initiative” speech, delivered in Cleveland on April 11.

In retrospect, Governor Bush’s advocacy on behalf of the poor during the Republican Party’s nominating process was extraordinarily bold—the poor not being an organized constituency of the GOP. He gambled on Republican primary voters embracing his vision, and he won. He built his political identity on this ground and defended that ground throughout the long primary season.

Focusing on the needs of the least advantaged accomplishes several important political goals. It gets folks thinking about the investment we have individually in the quality of life of others in our political community. It, therefore, raises the matter of our collective interdependence and opens us to the perception that our own quality of life is at least partially dependent, in solidarity, on the general quality of life of the community.

Next, compassionate conservatism is rigorously empirical. This means it seeks to figure out what actually will help ameliorate human need. It surveys the totality of our efforts to help the poor and asks, “What works? What doesn’t?” It does not defend current programs; it is open to reasonable innovation.

Compassionate conservatism recognizes that to provide effective compassion, we must recognize the moral and spiritual dimensions of human need. To ameliorate these needs, we must confront the individual in his or her moral dimension. This can only be accomplished one-on-one, within the context of a charitable relationship. So we must seek appropriate vehicles for the delivery of such assistance. In the end, there can be no true charity through bureaucracy.

Elemental human need (food, shelter, clothing) in America today is more likely to derive from circumstances of personal character and responsibility than from any systemic denial of the means to fulfill those needs. Now, this reality does not alter our responsibility toward those in need, but it does affect our evaluation of how best to help. If our crisis is spiritual, then the federal response, if there is to be one, must be designed accordingly. Bush, again: “No one is finally a failure or a victim, because everyone is the child of a loving and merciful God….”

In another loud echo of Catholic social teaching, compassionate conservatism rejects the objectification of the individual. Pay attention to Bush’s language here: “We will make a determined attack on need….” Not on poverty but on need. Poverty is conceptually the objectification of the person, a condition the observer imposes on the observed. Need, however, can only be defined by the individual to whom we seek to provide assistance.

Fourth, compassionate conservatism acknowledges the limitations of our economic system—”The invisible hand works many miracles. But it cannot touch the human heart”—as it invokes a nonmaterialistic definition of the quality of life. This rhetoric is the sort of assurance many voters of faith, particularly Catholics, want to hear from a Republican presidential candidate. They want to know that this party is not just about money, not just for business.

Fifth, while compassionate conservatism is often suspicious of the efficacy of government programs, it is not ideologically antigovernment. Governor Bush rejects the ideological hostility to all things governmental held by a vocal faction of his own party. “There is another destructive mindset: the idea that if government would only get out of the way, all our problems would be solved,” Bush says. Taking up this theme on another occasion, Bush declared, “The American government is not the enemy of the American people. At times it is wasteful and grasping. But we must correct it, not disdain it.” Yet, government is susceptible to hubris: “In the past presidents have declared wars on poverty and promised to create a great society. But these grand gestures and honorable aims were frustrated. They have become a warning, not an example. We found that government can spend money, but it can’t put hope in our hearts or a sense of purpose in our lives. This is done by churches and synagogues and mosques and charities that warm the cold of life.”

Road to Social Renewal

In keeping with his empirical disposition, Governor Bush would hold government accountable for achieving the goals it purports to pursue. Bush says, “That should be our goal: a limited government, respected for doing a few things and doing them well.” Accountability in government—in the arena of social services and elsewhere—is a theme likely to dominate our politics for some time. After a dizzying array of Clinton administration miniscule measures, after government program has been layered on top of government program, there is a great need and popular desire to take a step back and assess what is actually working and what is not.

What is more generally known about compassionate conservatism is that it carves out a central role for communities of faith to deliver social services. Bush asserts, “These institutions, at their best, treat people as moral individuals, with responsibilities and duties, not as wards or clients or dependents, or numbers.” Faith communities do not objectify the individual.

This feature of compassionate conservatism accomplishes three worthy goals. First, it revisits the proper relationship between church and state. The campaign being waged against religious expression in the public square by groups such as People for the American Way (PFAW) and Americans United for the Separation of Church and State (AU) seeks to pervert the true meaning of the constitutional Establishment Clause. Compassionate conservatism will help to set things right by defining the dimensions of the partnership between the federal government and religious institutions.

Second, it will reinvigorate faith communities in the task of providing charitable good works. The federalization of antipoverty programs in the 1960s explicitly sought to drive faith communities out of the business of delivering social services. This campaign has been hugely successful. Compassionate conservatism returns a prominent role to communities of faith, many of which have atrophied in their charitable activities. Indeed, the difficulty of reengaging faith communities in this traditional role is compassionate conservatism’s greatest challenge—outside of court challenges by the disgruntled antireligious.

Third, invigorating nongovernmental institutions for the purpose of providing assistance creates opportunities for people to come together for the purpose of achieving worthy community goals, further helping to break down our individual isolation.

Is compassionate conservatism solely about modalities for assisting those in material need—a distinct minority of Americans—or is it a broader philosophy of government that, if implemented, might have an impact on a majority of Americans? Governor Bush’s explicit answer was that compassionate conservatism also concerns education and taxes and the moral ecology of the culture generally—in other words, things that touch us all. But mainly it is the first step on the road to social renewal.

Some critics on the political right have difficultly seeing anything conservative in compassionate conservatism. They would say Governor Bush has abandoned the traditional Republican suspicion of government. True, compassionate conservatism is not ideologically antigovernment. But it is unambiguously conservative in its commitment to the notion of social interdependence.

Mainstream conservatism holds that the moral ecology of a community has a bearing on the ability of the persons of that community to live well. It is a conservative notion to hold that we are each diminished by the degradation of any one of us; every abortion, every drug or pornography addiction, every person in despair diminishes each of us. Conservatism further holds that man does not have a moral right to do wrong. In this way it stands in opposition to libertarian indifference to how others live their lives. And of course, conservatism also rejects, on natural law grounds, the objectification of individuals that is characteristic of the liberal social welfare conceit.

As Don Eberly, chair of the National Fatherhood Initiative, wisely points out, government will always expand as necessary to take care of the social detritus—the human cost of our social pathologies. An indifference to the effects of the social environment on the morality of individuals—while ironically justified as being antigovernment—leads inexorably to larger government. In the long run, compassionate conservatism may be the more authentic government reduction strategy.

Jude Wanniski, author of The Way Things Work, equated voting to visiting a restaurant with a limited menu. A diner is set on ordering duck but finds only chicken and parrot on the menu. We make our compromise and select the item closest to our appetite. When we vote, we find two principal candidates, neither of whom will perfectly satisfy our appetite. But the American political system is very responsive. It doesn’t take many visits of people wanting duck before duck appears on the menu.

The evolution of the parties is, therefore, a matter of more than casual concern. And George W. Bush is dramatically evolving the GOP; if he is elected, his contributions to traditional Republican rhetoric will achieve institutional grounding and permanence. Among these changes: The GOP has become a profoundly pro-life party; with the selection of Dick Cheney, the pro-abortion wing of the GOP is left to wither. Under Bush, there will be early progress on the defense of life, advanced in the context of the larger question of the American project. The addressing of human needs will take a dramatic turn in favor of efficacy, jettisoning failed programs of the past. We will again speak in the language of common good; we will become solicitous of the moral ecology of this place. Most importantly, Bush banishes from the conservative movement the remnants of social Darwinism, which holds that the greater good for society is achieved by letting the infirm fail. A party or a movement cannot both be home to such sentiments and remain hospitable to persons of faith.

Division Looms

This brings us back to Gore and the Democratic Party. They are transactional, in Burns’s use of the term, because they have no alternative. They are structurally incapable of advancing fundamental social reforms. Their center of gravity prohibits it. They support—and are supported by—the dominate institutions of the prevailing counterculture, that is, the cultural and media elite that oppose the western canon, natural law, and traditional conceptions of morality. They support the political institutions seeking to marginalize religion, such as PFAW and AU. And what need be said of their stance on the central moral issue of our time, abortion?

They have had to publicly dissuade one of their members of Congress from having a fund-raiser at Hugh Hefner’s Playboy Mansion, but the real question is, what does it say that they would have scheduled the event in the first place? They stand for a redefinition of marriage and family to embrace same-sex unions and gay adoption. Their money comes from trial lawyers, so we can expect no tort reform and more government by massive class-action suits.

And their money comes from the entertainment industry. They tried, once, to confront Hollywood. Tipper Gore was a leading critic of the record industry and of TV content, but when her husband ran for president in 1988, she and Al made a pilgrimage to Hollywood to seek the forgiveness of the West Coast branch of the cultural elite. Al Gore distanced himself even from Bill Clinton’s show inquiry into Hollywood’s marketing of violent movies.

What if Gore is elected? One cannot argue that the election of a particular candidate will do irreparable damage to the health of the country. We can say with certainty that under President Gore, another five to six million children will be aborted, while we expect a substantially smaller number will perish under Bush’s watch—though in truth we do not know how many fewer. We can also say with certainty that another 20 million persons will come of age during a time when there is precious little social pressure against moral mediocrity.

We can predict with confidence that a Gore administration will do nothing to arrest the evident moral decline, because it just simply doesn’t see it. Under a Gore administration, more and more people will seek social refuge by separating from American society at large. The fabric that binds will fray a bit more, perhaps a great deal more.

We cannot say America will be irreparably damaged by a Gore administration. But recall the famous words of Thomas Jefferson, spoken in reference to the blight of slavery: “I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just: that his justice cannot sleep forever.”

What Would Lincoln Do?

Given the depth of public anxiety about the status of our society, one might wonder why Governor Bush doesn’t articulate a strategy for social renewal more directly. The short answer is that there is not yet a popular consensus concerning remedies. It takes political leadership to establish the policy options. Since there has not yet been a serious consideration of the matter by the Washington political class, social renewal has not yet reached this point of maturation.

Like George W. Bush’s, Lincoln’s strategy began with the engineering of an evolution of a political party. Lincoln came to lead an uneasy coalition of abolitionists and nativists; he crafted this coalition into an effective political vehicle for the demise of slavery. Bush, too, confronts factions in the modern Republican Party, which he is nonetheless making into a more effective, pro-life, socially concerned vehicle for the project that lies ahead.

Lincoln was a man of profound moral commitments; he felt moral indignation over slavery in the depths of his soul. Yet he was also a prudent man and perceived that “in this age, and this country, public sentiment is everything. With it nothing can fail; against it nothing can succeed.” Lincoln’s project was very political: He sought to establish political circumstances under which slavery would wither. And a major component of that project was the instruction of public opinion (although this aspect of Lincoln’s project was short-circuited by the bombardment of Fort Sumter). Still, it is often forgotten that Lincoln was not an abolitionist.

George W. Bush is demonstrably a man of deep religious commitment. He clearly understands the human costs of our current social environment. But one cannot ask him to be less prudent and more abrupt than was Lincoln. Public opinion concerning the strategy of social renewal needs time to mature into consensus. But make no mistake: Compassionate conservatism initiates this conversation, and that is why, in turn, George W Bush has the makings of a transformational, redemptive leader.


  • Steven Wagner

    At the time this article was published, Steve Wagner was president of QEV Analytics, a public opinion research firm in Washington, D.C.

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