As has so often happened during great debates over domestic policies since the 1930s, Republicans seem to be walking again towards what I call “the Compassion Trap”. If you’ve been involved in, or watched and listened to these debates long enough, you know what I mean.
The Compassion Trap arises when liberals play the last card in their hand—when they claim that a policy promoted by conservatives will hurt groups of individuals by changing, reducing or eliminating a financial benefit currently provided by government. In response to such accusations, enough conservatives try to avoid being labeled as heartless that they refuse to support the policy. In turn, their decision splits conservatives so that the policy initiative fails. In the end, the liberal policies that keep or expand government power and control continue by default.
As our Republican representatives cruise toward the August 2nd debt-ceiling deadline, the Democrats and their media allies are again setting the Compassion Trap. The short-run question is, will enough Republicans avoid the trap and hold the line to accomplish meaningful change, or will enough of them fall into the Compassion Trap again and raise the debt ceiling without gaining meaningful, long-term policy changes?
In the long-run though, the real question is, how can we conservatives destroy the Compassion Trap before it is set again?
I, for one, don’t think it will be destroyed by labeling ourselves, or our movement, as being “compassionate”. George W. Bush tried that approach and it didn’t work. It didn’t work with conservatives because it offended many of us who believed we already were compassionate, and it seemed to imply that some of us had not been compassionate. It didn’t work with independents, because the label ran counter to the long-ingrained perceptions they held about conservatives. Advertisers and marketers will tell you that you can’t simply change the public’s perception about a brand by changing its label.
Quite frankly, if we are going to change the way this game is played and avoid the Compassion Trap in the future, conservatives are going to have to look in the mirror and realize that our approach to political debate must change. We must reflect on the most basic reason politics and governments exist, and reshape our approach to voters accordingly.
What do I mean?
First, let’s go back to the Declaration of Independence and really look at what it says—
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.
What Jefferson is saying is that the purpose of a legitimate government is to secure the rights of Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness to its citizens, and to allow for the exercise of those rights within an environment that “shall seem most likely to effect” the “Safety and Happiness” of its citizens. Jefferson is not focusing on abstract ideas and formulas—that will come later during the Constitutional Debates during 1787-88—instead, he is stating that for government, and therefore the politics of government, to be legitimate, it must create and secure an atmosphere in which individuals have the freedom and opportunity to achieve their full, God-given potentials and dreams. That means that Jefferson envisioned people—living breathing people—living and working as family members and neighbors in communities, with the freedom and safety to live the lives they wanted to live.
Now here’s a news flash: both liberals and conservatives care about people. The difference between us is what Thomas Sowell has called “A Conflict of Visions”. Unfortunately, our conservative rhetoric rarely engages the public in a debate over these visions and how these different visions impact their lives.
Sometimes we conservatives talk about politics as if we’ve forgotten about those living, breathing people—including ourselves, our family members, and our neighbors—that Jefferson envisioned, so we fail to talk about the hopes and dreams they have, which government is supposed to allow and protect. Instead, we talk about formulas and models and constitutions and markets and theories and rights and history, but too often we never talk about people. On the other hand, liberals incessantly babble about people and how government should not just provide a secure environment for them to flourish, but should actually dictate what peoples’ hopes and dreams should be, and how and when they can achieve those hopes and dreams. By talking about what they will do for people, rather than about the proper mechanics of government, liberals have convinced voters that they care about the common man and that we don’t.
We won’t change that perception with new labels—the perception is simply too deeply ingrained. We will only change that perception when we start talking about our neighbors as living, breathing people, and about how our vision, and our policy ideas, will help our neighbors pursue their happiness. In essence, we need to paint a picture of the Shining City on a Hill and explain how we get their and how it will allow our neighbors, and our neighbors’ children, to live better lives.
So, to those Republicans currently in the trenches fighting over the debt ceiling and facing the Compassion Trap, and to those Republican candidates who will face the voters (and the Compassion Trap) during the next campaign, re-arm yourselves by changing the way you talk about what you believe and how you would perform in office. For example, talk to Americans about what a reduced federal government will mean for their lives, their schools, their communities and their local governments; how greater local control and individual responsibility will allow them greater freedom to improve their lives and their communities, and greater opportunities to fulfill their dreams for themselves and their children. Help your neighbors see how individual volunteering and activism changes lives and builds communities, in contrast to the deadening dependence on government and bureaucrats that is at the end of the liberal vision of the future. Help your neighbors see a greater future—to see themselves living, working, volunteering and raising families in that Shining City on a Hill—and you will not only win the next election, but we will finally destroy the Compassion Trap and we will be able to enact the policies needed to again create and secure the society Jefferson envisioned.