A compassionate history

Where does "compassionate conservatism" fit into the political conversation? Steven Teles explains its intellectual and political past, present, and future in this piece for National Affairs, a promising new policy journal. The idea is much misunderstood, possibly because of its association with Bush 43, but it lurks behind many areas of domestic policy. In short, it embraces the goal of social justice but uses conservative precepts, such as market forces, efficiency, and efficacy, to aid those in need. The narrative of education policy is illustrative, Teles notes. For the most part, compassionate-conservative policy in this domain means an acceptance of the federal role (though many conservatives, as late as 1995, were calling for abolition of the Department of Education), while couching education as an issue of social justice. Such cherished conservative reform ideas as charter schools and vouchers turned into tools for improving the education of the poor and minorities. This enabled conservatives (and Republicans), at least briefly, to seize leadership of education reform from traditionally liberal (and Democratic) status quo groups like teacher unions and education schools. The pragmatic emphasis on what works over ideology served to boost compassionate conservatism even when its political bedfellows, namely the Republicans, fell out of favor. Sticking with its bipartisan allies, forecasts Teles, rather than aligning to political lines, is compassionate conservatism's best hope for the future. Though conservatism in general is presently in eclipse in this and other policy domains, and its future direction is uncertain, the history recounted by Teles is both illuminating and heartening.

"The Eternal Return of Compassionate Conservatism," by Steven Teles, National Affairs, Fall 2009

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