Restoring Civility with Governor Jeb Bush

On March 27, 2018, Buckley Fellows had the pleasure of having lunch with former Florida Governor and 2016 Presidential candidate Jeb Bush in New Haven. Here, he spoke with a group of a dozen Buckley Fellows, touching upon a wide range of political topics. The following is one fellow’s reflection on his experience.

By: Andreas Ravichandran

Governor Bush touched upon topics from education policy to gun control, but the issue that struck a chord with me was his discussion of civility in politics. He presented a bleak picture of American politics, one that I expect most Americans on both sides of the political spectrum sense. Politicians no longer talk about policy and it seems that Congress is more dysfunctional than ever before. Drama and maneuvering dominate the headlines; bipartisanship always seems dead on arrival. When he was asked to reflect upon the current state of our political culture, Bush was exceptionally pessimistic, citing the growth in personal attacks and the toxicity of the 2016 election. But his most interesting point came while attempting to explain the causes of this. Rather than pointing to the obvious figure of blame (whom Bush refused to mention), he instead highlighted that “our politics mirror culture.” In his eyes, insults took precedence in 2016 not just as a result of the actions of our politicians, but because the culture of America condoned and even endorsed them. One illustrative example that he pointed to was the unnecessary drama of reality television programs such as The Bachelor, which exemplify the public’s desire for this type of drama, which seeps its way into politics.

In the eyes of many, including Bush, the culture of America seems to be corroding. Social institutions such as churches and community organizations have seen declining membership, and Americans are less engaged in person with others than ever before. Citing Bowling Alone by Robert Putnam extensively, Bush lamented the decline of a social safety net and community ability to support those in need. I certainly felt the same, and the rise of social media seems to be an inadequate substitute for the type of religious and community organizations that can provide real, substantive aid to those in crisis. Instead, we see the rise of online communities that group us with those who think like us, which contributes further to a toxic culture of tribalism in politics.

As Governor Bush highlighted, groupthink caused by social media and a culture that tolerates abrasive politics further weakens the social safety net in real communities, increasing reliance on larger institutions like the government. One interesting observation by Bush has been the rise in the language of “positive rights,” such as the right to food and the right to health care as examples of the rising expectations for government intervention that come alongside fractured social networks.

Governor Bush’s lunch presented quite a pessimistic outlook on the future of American politics and the country’s broader culture, but I remain hopeful that a restoration of the American spirit can happen through an idealistic younger generation more centered on social engagement and experiences rather than material objects. I am thankful to the Buckley Program for giving me the opportunity to engage in such a thought-provoking meal, and hope to mull and read about these issues in the future.

Note: One book I began reading in the past week after this lunch was Fractured Republic by Yuval Levin. I would recommend it to someone interested in this topic, as it touches upon many of the same themes.

Andreas Ravichandran is a junior in Benjamin Franklin College.