The West faces a cultural and political reversal

peak compassion

About 75 years ago, a racist cult known as Nazism overran most of the ancient territory of Western civilization. To aid the war effort against that cult, and later to participate in the postwar economy, a large fraction of women in Western societies began to work in factories and offices. To a far greater extent than people realize, those two connected events gave birth to the world we know today.

Hitler certainly knew how to exploit people’s emotional susceptibilities. But Nazism at its core was justified not by emotion but by an unsentimental logic. It started with simple first principles about the superiority of the “Aryan race,” and followed them coldly and unswervingly, all the way to mass murder on an unprecedented scale. Along the way, Germans under Nazism had to suppress the natural feelings of compassion for their fellow men and women (and children) that would otherwise have prevented their aggressions and atrocities.

The West’s reaction was not only to stamp out Nazism in war but also to embrace, in peace, the compassion that Nazism had so obviously lacked. Substituting compassion for more abstract and farsighted principles is arguably the essence of modern liberalism. Thus, while the Nazis had tried to enhance the perception of racial distinctions; the postwar West tried to erase them. And while the Nazis had punished or banished “degenerate” art, architecture, science, and lifestyles, the postwar West celebrated them. The West’s public policies became generally more compassionate—towards the poor, towards immigrants, towards foreigners abroad, towards criminals, towards anyone considered “traditionally disadvantaged,” even women.

When women began to enter the Western workforce in large numbers, first to support the war economy and later (starting especially in the 1960s) as permanent members of the peacetime labor pool, they naturally enhanced this trend towards compassion.

Women have always been viewed as more compassionate, on average, than men—and presumably the trait is needed for their traditional role in raising children. Psychological and political science studies also have shown that women are significantly more likely to prefer compassion-based policies and compassionate-sounding politicians.

As women attained greater cultural influence in their capacities as journalists, professors, lawyers, and even politicians, Western culture shifted more and more towards the relatively compassionate feminine mindset. As this happened, political parties in the West began to realign and readjust, to capture this “compassion vote”—a code for the women’s vote that is still used today. It is an under-appreciated fact of Western political life that many conservative candidates who lost key elections (such as Mitt Romney in the US in 2012) would have won if voting had been restricted to men.

Women’s labor force participation rate started peaking, in the US and other Western countries, about ten years ago, and women by then were achieving equality or even dominance in many professions. That influence has continued to strengthen since then, and I don’t think I’m going far out on a limb to suggest that women’s influence has never been stronger, in any large civilization known to history, than it is in the West today. It probably isn’t just a coincidence that in the past decade or two, as women’s influence has soared, the West’s compassion-based policies also have intensified, allowing disorientingly rapid cultural change.

Even so, the strong bias towards compassion in contemporary public policy cannot last. Compassion is a short-term impulse that basically ignores long-term, second-order, unwanted consequences, but one can’t ignore such consequences indefinitely: Eventually they accumulate and have to be addressed—by reining in the compassion that caused them. We’re at that point now in the West.

More generous welfare begets more welfare dependency, and less adult responsibility. Look at what has happened to the black family in the US. Overgenerous welfare policy also encourages the fraud and malingering that, for example, has made the US’s Social Security disability benefits system unsustainable. In general, Western governments spend proportionately far more on welfare now than they did half a century ago.

As for liberal immigration, it plainly, in fact by definition, causes a weakening of traditional Western culture, which is a sufficient reason to oppose it. But it also leads to a breakdown in social trust and cohesion, increased crime (because immigrants from certain developing countries bring their higher crime-proneness with them), wage suppression, inflation of home prices and other key asset prices, and a host of other problems (more dangerous roads, more litter, less tax compliance) that come from importing the developing world’s bad habits. And of course politicians are always tempted to open the immigration door wider for the selfish, arguably treasonous purpose of bringing in more voters for their parties. The backlash against all that has started now in the USA, where, despite their fears of losing the women’s vote and the Hispanic vote, mainstream politicians (who increasingly have names like Cruz and Rubio) are starting to walk back their prior enthusiasm for liberal immigration. Europe, having mass-imported a non-assimilating, increasingly adversarial Muslim culture for the past three decades, must now choose between its precious compassion and its survival.

Even in the realm of civil liberties, the compassion bubble is popping. In the US and UK, where political correctness—hypercompassion for women and other special groups—has been most severe, people are starting to hit back, or are simply mocking its bizarre, neo-Puritanical extremes (e.g., trigger warnings).

Against a tide of social liberality including the upending of the notion of the traditional family, people also are retreating into conservative Christianity or are otherwise demanding to have their traditional-values culture back. They’re realizing that compassion and social liberalism bring a “freedom” that no one really wants. People want their culture to constrain them in various ways, to make them better people, to make their lives easier and more meaningful. They want not individual liberty but cultural liberty—which the Left, in the name of “compassion” and “freedom” and “progress” and “history,” refuses to give them.

The problem, or anyway the interesting twist, is that despite being “democratic” the West at the moment has no easy way to reverse the trend towards compassionate policymaking. In the US, UK, France and Germany, left-leaning politicians who not only favor compassionate policies but have done much to strengthen them, are in place and are mostly entrenched—thanks in part to the rise of independent-minded women voters and increases in the numbers of immigrant voters. The present UK prime minister, though ostensibly conservative, is someone that Margaret Thatcher would have derisively called a “wet.” Ditto for Germany’s Angela Merkel, who has been decidedly pro-immigration. France’s Hollande may in the heat of the moment promise a “pitiless” war against Islamic extremists, but he would never put France’s suicidal immigration policy into reverse by mass-deporting French Muslims—even though a majority of non-Muslims in France probably want that now.

In the US, the problem seems particularly intractable. There is no end in sight to the Left’s political dominance. The splintering of the Republican party into libertarians and Christian social conservatives—two essentially incompatible groups—has essentially destroyed it as a coherent political force. The implosion of the party’s mainstream, “electable” candidates in the run-up to the 2016 election shouldn’t have come as a surprise. Republicans simply lack a unifying, secular vision of conservatism for the 21st century.

All this means that the pressure—to start tempering compassion-based policies with hard-nosed common sense—will continue to build, even if current governments manage to take some measures to let off steam (e.g., by playing up their war on Islamic extremists abroad). As that pressure builds, electorates will become more and more open to political extremism. It is a prospect that the Nazis would have relished.