Justice trumps compassion
After explaining to Freddy that he has to distance himself due to damaging revelations that Tusk has uncovered, Francis offers to give Freddy enough money to keep the restaurant he’s worked years to build.The response is not favorable
“I don’t want your guilt money,” Freddy spits bitterly, preferring to sell his restaurant for a paltry $45,000 than to sacrifice his pride, even to a powerful friend of 20 years.
Republicans – especially the sort who complain about the party’s hard-edged rhetoric – could learn a lot from this scene.
Virtually no serious observer of the American political scene believes the GOP’s political approach can persist in its present form, either rhetorically or substantively. Yet recognizing the necessity of change says very little about the content of that change. Many would like the GOP to double down on its most conservative elements, believing attempts to water down its principles have only made the party sound incoherent. Others believe the GOP needs either to sacrifice its more callous principles or reformulate the language it uses to sell them. Among those who subscribe to the latter view, there is special concern that the GOP simply sounds uncaring, or deaf to the plight of others. As Arthur Brooks wrote recently in Commentary.
Mitt Romney’s unfortunate claim that “47 percent” of Americans “believe that they are victims [whom] the government has a responsibility to care for” and that they could never be persuaded to support his campaign did little to combat misconceptions. And the caricature of Republican callousness has been repeated so often that conservatives can even fall into a kind of political Stockholm Syndrome. In a 1999 study, researchers at UCLA found that subjects viewed liberals as generous and conservatives as “somewhat heartless,” without regard to their own political views.
While I agree that GOP rhetoric needs to change, you can color me unconvinced. Despite Brooks’ accurate diagnosis of GOP woes, his prognosis for political messaging strikes me as appealing to the wrong moral foundation.
In his book “The Righteous Mind,” political scientist Jonathan Haidt identifies five different foundations – care, fairness, loyalty, authority and purity – that shape our moral calculus. While liberals tend to be very much concerned with the first two – care, or the desire to prevent harm, and fairness, or the desire for equality and/or justice and fairness – conservatives have a more balanced diet, and care about all five, though less strongly than liberals care about the first two.
Brooks tells us that conservatives should stress their desire to prevent harm. But today’s progressive rhetoric – unlike in the “I feel your pain” Clinton era – tends to be grounded in fairness, or “justice.” In fact, it’s a rare liberal cause that isn’t sold using the language of justice.
Left-wing college activism these days is carried out under the banner of “social justice.” Elizabeth Warren rails against the big banks not for their wealth, but for their ability to avoid prosecution for what she portrays as financial crimes. Crusaders for student debt forgiveness argue that subjecting an already economically struggling generation to a lifetime of loan repayment is fundamentally unjust. Discussions of income inequality and the minimum wage center on the idea that people have not been fairly rewarded for their increased productivity. Even President Obama’s infamous “you didn’t build that” gaffe was an accusation against the rich of unfairly hording wealth that they didn’t completely deserve.
The claim Democrats are making is not that they want to give money and power to the dispossessed because they care, it is that they want to return money and power to the dispossessed that is rightfully theirs. In short, they are appealing to peoples’ pride, rather than their sense of deprivation.
Contra Brooks, this narrative is much, much easier to adapt to Republican ends than one based on caring. Federal entitlements that take money from dispossessed millennials and give it to the richest generation alive offers one example. Another is the federal government’s egregious profiting off of inescapable student loan debt. The number of dying, noncompetitive industries that the federal government props up with subsidies scarcely bears repeating.
In short, the solution to conservative messaging woes is not a return to the discredited idea of “compassionate conservatism.” Rather, it is to internalize, as liberals have ironically done superbly, the words of Rush Limbaugh: “Compassion is not a substitute for justice.”