Engagement is not Agreement: Thoughts on Governor Bush and the Buckley Program

During his visit, former Florida Governor and 2016 Presidential candidate Jeb Bush took the time to sit down with fellows for an informal chat over coffee in New Haven. The following is one student fellow’s reflection on the discussion, as well as assessment of campus culture surrounding engagement with conservative thought through the Buckley Program.

By: Eric Wallach

“You’re in the Buckley Program?” a friend asks, trying to restrain her face from its inevitable wince.

Through this question and many others, I’ve encountered a certain oddity on Yale’s campus—a presumption which is sly, seemingly innocuous, and yet fairly malignant: if you’re engaged with anything Conservative, then you must identify as a Conservative.

Simply put, this wince and its underlying assumption reflect the fallacious idea of ‘guilt by association.’ In other words, that because there are so-called ‘hateful’ Conservatives in the Buckley Program, anyone who associates with them must also identify as Conservative, or—at the very least—they must support a repulsive and regressive brand of conservativism.

But aren’t these hasty generalizations exactly what liberals detest? For example, that acts of terrorism and crime by select Islamic groups should not be associated with increased security against all observers of Islam?

“No,” they’ll point out, “most observers of Islam are peaceful—they’re not complicit in the extremist violence.”

But I, on the other hand, am supposedly complicit—either actively, passively, or by virtue of my silence, I am viewed as responsible for the ‘wrongdoing’ of the Buckley Program.

In my mind, this belief is fundamentally linked to the way in which Yale students receive and deploy a certain kind of social capital as liberals within a predominantly left-leaning institution. The largely uncritical use of terms like ‘intersectional’ is in vogue—and so too is shaming or delegitimizing people who are open to conservative ideas.

What more evidence is there that being liberal is a form of social capital? Consider this anecdote from my Psychology 110 class earlier today. Professor Bloom was lecturing on how people tend to value their ingroups—social groups with which a person psychologically identifies—even when that group is arbitrarily determined.

For instance, Professor Bloom showed a video which was set during the Q&A section of one of the Republican presidential debates. In the video, a somewhat older, white woman asked why the U.S. spends so much of its money on foreign aid despite the continued existence of so many domestic problems. In other words, her question espoused the view that the U.S. should prioritize its own citizens above those of other nations.

When Professor Bloom asked the class whether this woman’s question was a good one, less than ten students raised their hands. But what if, instead of Fox News’ logo hovering in the corner of the video, it was BBC’s logo? Or what if, instead of an older, white woman asking the question, it was a minority?

After all, the idea that nationality is a morally relevant feature of one’s identity is not a new idea; in fact, it’s quite common. In ancient Greece, for instance, a man would identify himself as a citizen of a particular polis, or city-state, and thereby signal to what and to whom he held his allegiance. The political culture idealized by Aristotle and Plato was—in fact—uncosmopolitan, much as the view of this woman.

Was the assumption behind her question correct? In my opinion, it was not. The nonpartisan Congressional Research Service reported that in 2015, only 1.3-percent of the federal budget was devoted to foreign aid. It seems clear that the amount of foreign aid the U.S. provides is not in substantial conflict with any obligation the nation may have to its own citizens.

But Professor Bloom didn’t ask if her question was well-informed—he asked if her question was good. Based on the historical conflict over cosmopolitanism and the fact that most citizens are not well-informed on matters of the federal budget, it’s hard to say that her question wasn’t fair or at the very least important.

So the reluctance of my classmates to raise their hands seems to be ample evidence of the social capital in disassociating from conservative views—a fact that becomes even more evident by looking at the statistics. According to a 2016 campus survey, for instance, 75-percent of Yale’s student body believes that our campus is unwelcoming towards Conservative viewpoints, and only 12-percent of the student body self-identifies as Conservative.

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All of that said, Governor Bush’s coffee chat and following presentation were exactly why I—someone who leans liberal but also values independent thought—decided to join the Buckley Program and continue to celebrate its efforts. His discussion and presentation of a 21st century brand of conservativism showed conscientiousness and level-headedness. As Carol Liebau, President of the Yankee Institute for Public Policy, remarked after the event: “To me, the talk wasn’t a matter of controversy. It was Governor Bush’s vision of where conservativism needed to make sure it was mindful in order to remain relevant.”

Bush added that “the 21st century conservative agenda cannot be nostalgic about the past,” urging his audience to consider the impact of job displacement from automation. He even went as far as to say that the Republican party must actively fight against those who condone sexual assault, adding that if Bill Clinton had worked in the private sector, he likely would have faced severe legal penalties for the way in which his personal conduct was an abuse of power. For many reasons, according to Governor Bush, Washington politics is inherently dysfunctional due to its sheltering from America—that is, the real problems, penalties, and people that comprise the United States.

There’s more to add, but my key takeaway was this: The Buckley Program is not a group of radical, ill-intentioned Conservatives trying to stay relevant through sensationalizing trivial news, but rather a group of conscientious and pragmatic thinkers who seek truth in a complex society—much as all Yalies are here to do. I came to the coffee chat with ten questions prepared, but ended up asking none. I felt that my questions would detract from the fruitful and largely impartial conversation spurred by the other students in the room—a true testament to the rigor of those in the Buckley Program.

As I’ve said to many of my friends, I was thoroughly impressed by how reasonable Governor Bush was at the coffee chat and his following lecture. That doesn’t mean I support Governor Bush, and that certainly doesn’t mean I think he’s a flawless person. However, it does mean that I found his perspective useful, and that I sincerely value the time I spent with him due to the hard work of the Buckley Program.

It still astounds me that walking out of Governor Bush’s event, I overheard someone remark that “it was actually a great event! But the Buckley Program is still repugnant,” as if they had to diminish Governor Bush and the Buckley Program in order to preserve their reputation. Yet I remain hopeful that politics can be disassociated from social capital, and that people on all sides of the political spectrum can learn to appreciate the phenomenal opportunities made possible by the Buckley Program.

Eric Wallach is a first year in Grace Hopper College.