In the current political climate, it’s not often that opportunities are presented where open, respectful dialogue across the aisle is encouraged and celebrated.
So when Emily Galik, a first-year School of Law student, heard about Jeb Bush, the 43rd governor of Florida, coming to Penn on Wednesday evening—conversing with the Penn Political Union, no less—she knew she wanted to attend.
“Even if we don’t necessarily agree with everyone it’s important to understand their perspectives,” said Galik, from Baltimore. “You can learn a lot from someone you don’t wholly agree with.”
Bush, speaking to nearly 200 politically diverse students on campus for the first time since he was named the University’s newest Presidential Professor of Practice, in the Andrea Mitchell Center for the Study of Democracy, was a bit of an open book—using his deep experience to frankly discuss topics that have come up during his time as a candidate and leader at both the state and national level.
While introducing Bush in historic College Hall, President Amy Gutmann—a political philosopher, scholar of ethics and public affairs, and of the role of education and deliberation in democracies— highlighted his ability to speak his mind “robustly, reasonably, and civilly,” and “to listen across differences and to act in a spirit of unity to move our country forward.”
“Gov. Bush is a man of exceptional character who has committed his life to public service and civic engagement,” Gutmann declared, “two things that our founder Benjamin Franklin has driven home to us as important for our own lives and the life of our democracy.”
Bush chatted for more than an hour in a candid discussion with Professor Jeffrey Green, a political theorist and director of the University’s Mitchell Center, which sponsors the Penn Political Union, a student organization re-established on campus in 2014.
With insightful questions, Green led Bush to engage on why he got into politics (to “pay back” his dad—“the greatest man alive”) and what advice he has for students looking to enter the field (“build a resume based on service to others, then run”); if political leaders should have to operate according to a different ethical standard (absolutely, Bush said); why Democrats and Republicans alike have become reactionary rather than aspirational (“give people hope that things will get better instead of using them as pawns for a political discussion without results”); and other topics challenging the U.S. today, such as inequality, immigration, foreign policy, and even social media.
“[Social media] is phenomenal for political communication, but what it’s not phenomenal about is having a dialogue or a conversation or a deeper dive into a subject where you could actually find common ground,” Bush said. “It’s not designed for that.”
He noted that such intolerance exists today in the U.S. because people are constantly constructing “cocoons” around themselves, creating a bubble that deflects curiosity about how other people think.
“You’re getting your views validated all the time and it makes you more righteous about it,” he said.
On this very topic, Sarah Root, chairwoman of the centrist caucus in the Penn Political Union, asked Bush if he thought there really were, in fact, any commonalities uniting those on the far right and the far left as Americans, and if so—what they are, and how they can be used to help progress the nation.
Bush responded by noting how states represent the act of working together—being able to compromise—to balance their budgets. Thoughtfully, and personally, he also explained how some of his views have evolved throughout time to be more liberal, with others more libertarian.
“We have the capability of actually thinking differently about different things,” he said, “but the narrative is dumbed down and it’s about the two tribes fighting and at the expense of a whole lot of people who may support some parts of one party’s agenda, some parts of another.”
The other four caucus leaders of the Penn Political Union—representing conservatives, liberals, progressives, and libertarians—asked additional far-reaching questions about tribalism, mass surveillance in the U.S., health care, and what Bush thinks is a growing issue that’s being ignored, of which Bush didn’t hesitate: entitlement reform.
“No one is speaking about it and it’s going to be a driver of structural deficits,” Bush said. “We’ve never had a fiscal situation where high growth has been overwhelmed, partially by the tax cut, but principally by higher spending. And it’s so-called non-discretionary. Who made up that term? We can’t do anything about it? Why do we elect people if they see this problem and aren’t dealing with it?”
There’s a way to protect and preserve Social Security for those who need it now, Bush reminded the audience, but, he said, we should be “preserving it for the next generation as well.”
Wrapping up the evening, Bush also took several questions from the general audience. He wondered aloud, in response to one, whether the post-Donald Trump era would return conservatives to their hopeful, optimistic, aspirational message, or if some will continue being reactionary, protectionist, deeply pessimistic, and angry.
“Our message can’t all be negative. It has to be, ‘You have the capacity to dream the biggest possible dreams and be successful, and I want to help you do that, I want to help you because when you’re successful, we’re all successful,’” Bush said. “That’s the message that traditionally conservatives win on, and now we’ve abandoned that. And it’s had some success politically—the president got elected—but I don’t think it’s the one that sustains the conservative movement.”
Bush said the nation will watch this phenomenon play out in the upcoming election cycles. But from then on, Bush explained, there needs to be a renewal—“a 21st century version of what I just described, that is focused on the future rather than nostalgic for the past.”