The Public Interest

Can compassionate conservatism govern?

Daniel J. Mahoney

Winter 2001

WHAT does it mean to govern in a conservative manner?  Even to pose this question is to challenge the core libertarian presuppositions underlying conservative political rhetoric over the past two decades. For a generation now, conservatives have been the antigovernment party, championing the vitality of civil society against the intrusions of an overweening bureaucratic and regulatory state. If business-oriented conservatives have been preoccupied with threats to individual liberty and unshackled economic activity, social conservatives have drawn attention to the increasing hostility of the national government to traditional values. But conservative discomfort with the very idea of national government has placed them in a quandary: They wish to govern but fail to articulate a sufficient sense of the legitimacy of national government or the dignity of political life in general. The gap between what conservatives say about politics and how they practice it has become too striking to ignore.

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