Former President George W. Bush’s speech today was an important one. I’m skeptical that it will change anything, but this was a speech about very big (and pressing) ideas, coming from the last Republican president, and quite pointedly (if not explicitly) directed toward the current Republican president.
Since everyone will make the obvious points (mainly how refreshing it is for someone of his stature to talk about values and to reject the evils of bigotry and white supremacy), a larger discussion is in order. To facilitate this, I will refer to a few quotes from his speech.
"Our identity as a nation, unlike other nations, is not determined by geography or ethnicity, by soil or blood,” Bush averred. Here, Bush echoed remarks made this week by Sen. John McCain.
Bush is correct, of course, but the siren call of identity politics is growing louder for one simple reason: Arguing that America is a creedal nation united by shared ideas feels esoteric—especially in a world where we have fewer and fewer shared values, and where tribal identity is increasingly the greatest predictor for where you will come down on any given issue. Bush does suggest the remedy of “civic learning,” which makes sense to me. After all, how can we expect people to share America’s creed if we don’t teach it? We have dropped the ball in terms of this form of patriotic assimilation.
In a recent interview, French President Emmaneul Macron lamented the way post-modernism and today’s media destroys our “grand narratives.” “Why is a portion of our youth so fascinated by extremes, jihadism for example?” Macron asked. “Why do modern democracies refuse to allow their citizens to dream? Why can't there be such a thing as democratic heroism? Perhaps exactly that is our task: rediscovering something like that together for the 21st century.”
This is arguably our biggest task, and Bush summoned us to this duty Tuesday. But it’s also fair to say that Bush, and the rest of us, share in some of the blame for our current state of affairs. “[W]hen we lose sight of our ideals,” Bush conceded, “it is not democracy that has failed. It is the failure of those charged with preserving and protecting democracy.”
He’s right. The problem is not our system of government; it is that we have permitted this. We live in a reality TV world. Is it any wonder we elected a reality TV president? We’re all to blame for the cultural degradation that has led us to this point.
But while we all bear some blame, Bush, specifically, bears responsibility. The rise of Donald Trump was, to some extent, a backlash against the kind of compassionate conservatism that morphed into adventurism. And here, I’m not sure Bush has learned his lesson.
The war in Iraq set off a chain of events that led us to Trump (granted, you could argue that every past historic event has led us here, but Iraq was a big deal).
Bush’s worldview and rhetoric betrayed a Wilsonian belief that we could spread democracy to places that lack the tradition or experience that would enable them to receive it. (This has nothing to do with race or ethnicity, but everything to do with culture.) But despite everything that has transpired, Bush hasn’t lost his quixotic notions or soaring rhetoric.
“We know, deep down, that repression is not the wave of the future,” Bush assured us today. “We know that the desire for freedom is not confined to, or owned by, any culture; it is the inborn hope of our humanity. We know that free governments are the only way to ensure that the strong are just and the weak are valued.”
It’s hard to argue with this, except that we actually don’t know which way the arc of history will bend. Let us hope it is toward freedom.
Bush also seems to discount the importance of culture. Yes, at a philosophical level, I believe that (as the song says) “People everywhere just want to be free.” But culture matters. From 1215, when the Magna Carta was signed, until today, Western society has been a work in progress—an evolution. There have been huge bumps along the way, and it has still taken us hundreds of years to get where we are.
It’s absurd and imprudent to presume that other cultures want what we want—or are prepared for it.
Interestingly, this is an area where Trump’s instincts were actually more traditionally conservative than Bush’s. “The most important conservative figures—including John John Selden, Montesquieu, Edmund Burke and Alexander Hamilton —believed that different political arrangements would be fitting for different nations, each in keeping with the specific conditions it faces and traditions it inherits. What works in one country can’t easily be transplanted,” wrote Yoram Hazony in the Wall Street Journal.
If conservatism is about defending the traditions we inherit, then it’s a problem that our traditions are going by the wayside. When Trump exploits the culture wars to promise that Americans will be saying “Merry Christmas” again, this is at least partially why that message resonates.
Unlike Trump, Bush is a good and honorable man. Today, he delivered a serious and eloquent speech about profound topics that are too often ignored on cable TV. It was refreshing to hear his voice. But we should not allow our thirst for decency and moral clarity to cause us to forget that at least some of the dark clouds gathering today—the alt-right, nationalism, etc.—are a backlash on the right against the misguided, if well intentioned, policies that an unprepared president named George W. Bush loosed on the world.