Ira Chernus  

The "Compassionate Conservative" Scam

George W. Bush's "compassionate conservatism" is a brilliant scam. Even liberal politicians and pundits are endorsing Bush's plan to give billions in tax dollars to churches and other religious groups. After ticking off all the dangers of the plan, they conclude that nevertheless we should give it a chance because, they say, it works.

In fact, we still don't know if it works. The evidence that religious groups do better than others at helping the poor is all anectodal. There is little hard research available. But right-wing PR agencies are bombarding us with the anecdotes so thick and fast that many liberals now take them as indisputable truth.

Even if it does work, it treats only the symptoms of poverty, not the underlying disease. The disease is the rampant capitalist greed. To the apostles of the unregulated market, poverty and all its attendant ills are just collateral damage that can be fixed up with a few well-placed bandaids. I remember when liberals were liberals precisely because they insisted on curing the disease itself. Now many have become neoliberals, and bandaids are apparently enough. So the nation lurches another big step to the right.

But Bush's "compassionate conservatism" offers an especially dangerous kind of bandaid. It is based on the old-fashioned theory that most of the poor are poor because they are lazy and would rather live on welfare than work. Of course this is blaming the victim, blaming the symptom for the disease. But "compassionate conservatives" really believe it. Their endless anecdotal success stories all have the same plot: I was selfish and lazy, living only for pleasure. Then I got religion. Now I work hard at a job, and even though my wages barely keep me at the poverty level, I feel good about myself. I'm pulling myself up by my own bootstraps.

These are genuinely sincere stories, to be sure. But the essence of the "compassionate conservative" bandaid on poverty is to indoctrinate the poor with conservative ideology. If it works, the victims accept all the blame. They come to believe that the only way to atone for their past sins is to work diligently and happily for poverty wages.

Inflation is the real sin that Republicans are always out to cure. Republican orthodoxy says that inflation comes from ordinary workers demanding too much pay. And when recession looms, profit margins depend even more on keeping up productivity while cutting wages. So employers are glad to jump on the "compassionate conservative" bandwagon, which promises them an endless supply of dependable low-wage labor.

"Compassionate conservative" is designed to mask the symptoms of capitalist greed while it keeps the disease, the unregulated market, rolling along. It's like covering an infected wound with a bandaid soaked in bacteria. The best way to fight it is to unmask the scam and to do what liberals once did, to insist on our collective public responsibility to remove the underlying causes of poverty. "Compassionate conservatism" is most dangerous because it can so easily divert our attention from that goal.