Former President George W. Bush delivered an impassioned speech in which he warned of the threats to democracy and civility. It was a powerful message from someone who has lived through the trials and travails of sitting behind the Resolute desk, but also experienced, from his unique perspective, the erosion of the moral, civil and political climate.
Those are enormous and weighty topics and President Bush dealt with them expertly. How sad, but predictable then, that the entirety of the reporting about the speech is summed up in the New York Times’ headline: “Without Saying ‘Trump,’ Bush and Obama Deliver Implicit Rebukes.”
Ironically, President Bush took pains in his speech to warn America about this tendency to break down unifying messages into political aspersions.
“We have seen our discourse degraded by casual cruelty,” Bush said. “At times, it can seem like the forces pulling us apart are stronger than the forces binding us together. Argument turns too easily into animosity. Disagreement escalates into dehumanization. Too often, we judge other groups by their worst examples while judging ourselves by our best intentions — forgetting the image of God we should see in each other.”
Nevertheless, a speech that was fundamentally about discussing the things that trouble us, renewing the institutions that support us, and fighting for the issues that bind us, gets boiled down—as almost all things do nowadays—into a statement about President Trump. It’s purposeful. And it’s infuriating.
Once again the media is neglecting its foundational place in our democracy, instead engaging in a seeming effort to tear at the frayed seams of democracy. Stoking political polarization is de rigueur among so-called journalists because it’s click bait. Those who agree with the craftily-worded headline gleefully click to see their thoughts validated by the press, while those who don’t, angrily click in order to rail against the groupthink of the opposing side. And yet nobody who comes to the story is better off for having done so.
Little wonder then that President Bush is left to worry that “public confidence in our institutions has declined.” That discontent has “deepened and sharpened partisan conflicts.” That “[b]igotry seems emboldened.” And that politics seem vulnerable to conspiracy theories and outright fabrication.”
Our institutions no longer play to our better angels, instead preferred to play the part of the demon on our shoulder. If those institutions were paying attention, they would have seen that it was they, not Donald Trump, that spurred President Bush’s righteous ire.
“[O]ur democracy needs a media that is transparent, accurate and fair,” Bush said. “Our democracy needs religious institutions that demonstrate integrity and champion civil discourse. Our democracy needs institutions of higher learning that are examples of truth and free expression.”
Sadly, that cultural and moral leadership hasn’t just been in decline, it’s been nonexistent, creating a vacuum that has been all-too-happily filled by malevolent forces whose purpose is to divide us and, perhaps worse, a creeping sense of self-doubt about America and its place in the world. The latter seems especially true among young adults, who have experienced nothing but the hardened politics and economic malaise of the last decade, and are left to search for something better.
“There are some signs that the intensity of support for democracy itself has waned, especially among the young, who never experienced the galvanizing moral clarity of the Cold War, or never focused on the ruin of entire nations by socialist central planning,” Bush described. “Some have called this “democratic deconsolidation.” Really, it seems to be a combination of weariness, frayed tempers, and forgetfulness.”
Whatever the cause, the results are dangerous. They push us toward nativism, isolationism, and resentment. As President Bush conveyed, we must fight against these feelings for America and we must guard against them in ourselves.