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Feel good politics


WASHINGTON -- In the first minute of his recent 55-minute C-SPAN interview, Texas Gov. George W. Bush was asked to explain his goal of "prosperity with a moral and spiritual center." Mr. Bush answered by citing the need to "rally what I call the armies of compassion all across the state of Texas to interface with our young, to help and to mentor," and so on. But he finally said, "It's really all based around a story."

The story is that Mr. Bush visited a juvenile justice facility, where a boy asked him, "What do you think of me?" Mr. Bush said, "It was a question that was just so profound and so right." It meant, Mr. Bush says, "Is there a role for me in society?"

Maybe that is what the boy meant. Certainly Mr. Bush's answer means he is attuned to the times. He is fluent in the emotive language of today's therapeutic ethos. This fluency of a Republican raised in Midland, Texas, testifies to the ubiquity of the culture of emotional vulnerability.

Early in his presidency, President Clinton took his Cabinet to Camp David for a sensitivity session, complete with people to facilitate the sharing of feelings by participants who were in recovery from reticence. A participant told the Washington Post, "Don't try to make this sound weird." Heaven forfend.

One of Newt Gingrich's first acts when elected speaker was to hire a "corporate psychotherapist" to help Republicans communicate their feelings to the public. Such recourse to the "caring professions" is now normal. The sensitivity industry is booming, there being more therapists than firefighters or librarians or mail carriers.

Government cannot be hermetically sealed against the culture. Mr. Bush's rhetoric, like Mr. Clinton's which it mimics, is evidence of more than just conservative panic about the public's receptivity to Mr. Clinton's belief that pathos is the primary business of politics. Rather, Mr. Bush's manner of speaking is evidence that Mr. Clinton's political style is not idiosyncratic but symptomatic. The conflation of culture and government is far advanced.

James L. Nolan Jr., professor of sociology at Williams College, understands the implications of the dialectical relation between compassionate government and the therapeutic culture. In his book "The Therapeutic State: Justifying Government at Century's End," he argues that government tends to expand; that expansion tends to produce a crisis of legitimacy; that the therapeutic mission both fuels and legitimizes government's expansions into new spheres of society's and individuals' lives.

The therapeutic ethos increasingly infuses civil case law that elevates the status of emotions by awarding damages for distress unrelated to physical injury. It treats crimes as pathologies, in drug cases especially, but also sometimes regarding burglary, prostitution, domestic violence, writing bad checks and other offenses.

Recidivism is not proof of failure in "treatment" because relapse is part of recovery from the "sickness" of crime. Proof of recovery is the "client" pleasing his government therapist by assenting to the pathological interpretation of his behavior and thus to the ideology of victimization: Crime is caused by an abusive or otherwise pathological childhood.

The therapeutic orientation of education postulates that a prerequisite for learning is a government-approved and encouraged frame of mind -- "self-esteem."

Clintonesque, meaning self-referential, rhetoric is part of the substance of therapeutic politics.

Mr. Bush, avatar of "compassionate conservatism," began his answer on C-SPAN by endorsing "limited government." However, compassion means the prevention or amelioration of pain. A compassionate government's work is never done. That work, and the government that undertakes it, is unlimited.

The truthful answer to the question the boy put to Mr. Bush -- "What do you think of me?" -- would be: "Young man, I don't know you, and it is not the business of government to get to know everyone personally. Society would be suffocated, and individual liberty jeopardized, by a government that tried to." But Mr. Bush, like all thoroughly modern masters of the politics of pathos, understands that the therapeutic ethic sternly forbids such sternness.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 2/07/99

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