Compassionate Conservatism in Retrospect

A very short Paul Krugman post grumbles that “compassionate conservatism” was a code word for evangelicals and not really a philosophy of pro-welfare state conservatism.

Three things here:

  1. No matter what the facts are — new AIDS funding, drug benefits, NCLB, and other social program expansions under the aegis of Bush’s “compassionate conservatism” — “compassionate conservatism” cannot be what Bush said it was, it must be what the critics say it is. It’s important of course to not tie big government to Bush because the new, improved Krugman of the 00s likes big government (unlike the older model Krugman of the 90s who seemed positively DLC-ious) and fears that Bush will leave people wanting for — gulp — a smaller government.
  2. Second, even if “compassionate conservatism” is a code word, what’s wrong with religious code words that aren’t bigoted? The fact that Bush’s speeches have used religious messages has vexed liberals since they “discovered” it around 2004, and if anything it says more about liberals than it does about Bush. When Bush, for example, praised the “wonder working power” of the American people during a State of the Union in 2003, religious people — even non-regular churchgoers like myself — knew he was making a reference to a hymn, and for everyone else this was a sweet or strange or even silly turn of phrase. Yet it’s not insidious or actually exclusionary, anymore so than the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. making comparisons between the plight of (mostly religious, mostly Christian) blacks and the plight of the Israelites. My friends to the left, you do know what the “Promised Land” was, don’t you?
  3. Third, it may boggle the liberal mind, and it certainly angers the conservative mind, but I think the Bush domestic record is going to go down in history as an abortive attempt at Christian Market Socialism, an American version of Clement Attlee’s Christian Socialism, which thankfully Bush rolled out without reciting Blake’s “New Jerusalem.” Regardless, Krugman and other Democrats ought to be thrilled that Bush’s domestic agenda has had such an enervating effect on Republicans, otherwise the GOP might still be in fighting shape this year.

Update: My namesake Matthew Yglesias takes note of Krugman’s post, seemingly dismisses the “dog whistle” theory, then labels “compassionate conservatism” an exercise in pandering. (He also does a lot of Jacob Weisberg-bashing that might interest you if you’re into that sort of thing.) That also seems closer to the truth, especially since Bush always used the phrase “I’m a compassionate conservative” to mean “I’m not a nasty Republican.”

Carl Sagan, Reasonable Atheist

During my crosstown commute this evening I watched a recording of a late-1980s television broadcast, “God, the Universe, and Everything,” featuring Carl Sagan, Stephen Hawking, and Arthur C. Clarke. The trio and their host discussed the nature of the cosmos and of God, with a brief detour into Clarke’s fractal fetish. I’m struck that in contrast to fellow avowed atheist Richard Dawkins, Carl Sagan addressed questions of God and faith during the program without resorting to philosophical mouth farts. And so it was with his appearances on “Cosmos” and other programs. Even Sagan’s final work, 1996’s The Demon-Haunted World sets forth its arguments against religion in a reasonable way, and chooses to devote most of its energy to fighting pseudoscience.

It could be that Dawkins is more confrontational (I would in fact call it nasty) because times are different and the religious are now perceived as more of a “threat” to science by the atheist-humanist crowd. Though, as memory serves me, the debates involving politics and religion, and by extension, science, were awfully contentious during the 1980s. Margaret Atwood’s Christian fundamentalist-bashing dystopia The Handmaid’s Tale was released in 1985 and greenlighted for a movie shortly thereafter. At the same time, the threat of Islamic fundamentalism was already well-known in the West. We had already experienced kidnappings, terror bombings, and had to contend with fundamentalist leaders like the Ayatollah Khomeini, who issued his famous fatwa against Salman Rushdie in 1989. So if we discount the reality of “threat” to nonbelievers, and the effect it would have on tone, then the difference between atheists like Dawkins and atheists like Sagan seems to be one of style, substance, and perhaps even decency.

Where have all the nice atheists gone?