The real difference
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.