The real dif­fer­ence

Chicago Tribune (Sunday) - - PERSPECTIVE -

My re­search sug­gests that voter at­ti­tudes about the role of com­pas­sion in pol­i­tics are shaped not only by per­sonal phi­los­o­phy, but by party lead­ers.

Po­lit­i­cal speeches by Repub­li­can and Demo­cratic lead­ers vary in the amount of com­pas­sion­ate lan­guage they use.

For in­stance, po­lit­i­cal lead­ers can draw at­ten­tion to the needs of oth­ers in their cam­paign speeches and speeches on the House or Se­nate floor. They may talk about the need to care for cer­tain peo­ple in need or im­plore peo­ple to “have a heart” for the plight of oth­ers. Often, lead­ers al­lude to the de­serv­ing na­ture of the re­cip­i­ents of gov­ern­ment help, out­lin­ing how cir­cum­stances are be­yond their con­trol.

Demo­cratic politi­cians use com­pas­sion­ate rhetoric much more often than their Repub­li­can coun­ter­parts and for many more groups in Amer­i­can so­ci­ety than Repub­li­can lead­ers do.

Do cit­i­zens re­spond to such rhetoric dif­fer­ently de­pend­ing on what party they af­fil­i­ate with?

When their lead­ers use com­pas­sion­ate po­lit­i­cal lan­guage, such as draw­ing at­ten­tion to other peo­ple’s suf­fer­ing and un­met needs as well as the wor­thi­ness of the groups in need, Repub­li­cans in ex­per­i­ments are ac­tu­ally moved to be more wel­com­ing to im­mi­grants and to sup­port state help for the dis­abled.

This ex­plains how Repub­li­can vot­ers re­sponded pos­i­tively to Repub­li­can Sen. Robert Dole’s cam­paign for the rights of the dis­abled in 1989. It also ex­plains the suc­cess of pres­i­den­tial can­di­date Ge­orge W. Bush’s “com­pas­sion­ate con­ser­vatism” in 2000, which one Wash­ing­ton Post colum­nist wrote “won Ge­orge W. Bush the White House in 2000.”

It also sug­gests that it’s not nec­es­sar­ily the pub­lic, but the party lead­ers, who dif­fer so sig­nif­i­cantly in how rel­e­vant they be­lieve com­pas­sion should be to pol­i­tics.

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