Last week, George W. Bush gave an Obama speech in the key of Reagan. The occasion was a conference in New York, “Spirit of Liberty: At Home, In the World.” Bush’s remarks clarified the deep agreement that unifies our dying political establishment.
Freedom, freedom, freedom was Bush’s theme. He spoke of “democratic freedom,” “free markets,” “free trade,” “free societies,” “free governments,” “free nations,” and “an international order rooted in freedom.” Our national security is “directly tied to the success of freedom in the world.” Freedom is “the defining commitment of our country, and the hope of the world.” Freedom “is the inborn hope of our humanity.”
Freedom is a cure-all. What are we going to do about the middle class hollowed out by economic globalization? We need even greater “global engagement,” so that our leaders can cultivate “new markets for American goods.” This requires standing up against those who speak of retrenchment, protectionism, and economic nationalism. Our prosperity depends upon “sustaining and defending an international order rooted in freedom and free markets.”
But wait, aren’t those “American goods” increasingly being made in China and elsewhere? Doesn’t the present international order favor Apple so that it can sell more iPhones made in China to people living in China? Or so that Uber can expand globally? Or so that Goldman Sachs can function in global capital markets? What’s in it for the guy in Topeka?
Not to worry. “One strength of free societies is their ability to adapt to economic and social disruptions.” Creative destruction is a marvelous thing to behold! To be sure, some American workers “may feel left behind.” But that’s just a feeling, not a reality. The right liberalizing economic policies—still more freedom—will “encourage robust economic growth by unlocking the potential of the private sector.”
No doubt Hillary Clinton would debate which policies to implement. But establishment, center-left Democrats agree with Bush’s freedom agenda. They’ve been ardent cheerleaders for Silicon Valley and have supported free trade deals at every step. They, too, speak about the sanctity of “an international order rooted in freedom and free markets.”
The convergence is particularly evident when it comes to immigration. Bush chastises those who have “forgotten the dynamism that immigration has always brought to America.” There are no downsides, no costs to social unity or the wages of low-skilled Americans. It’s pure upside. American’s future depends upon “the attraction of talent, energy, and enterprise from all over the world.” Our country will be the universal nation. We won’t need borders, because we are the world. Freedom!
And then there are inclusion and diversity—“the American creed.” “Bullying and prejudice” are anti-American. “Cruelty and bigotry” must be renounced. Hillary Clinton tilts these themes in a more rigorous direction than center-right Republicans like Bush. For Clinton, refusing to bake a cake for a gay wedding is bigotry. She might decide that refusing to allow boys into girls bathrooms reflects an un-American prejudice, or that too much talk about religious liberty (unmentioned by Bush in his speech) can license discrimination.
These differences aside, Bush and Clinton are united (as is Obama with them both). The great problem America faces is not an eroding unity. It is not the bitter politics that festered under the leadership of Bush and Obama. If questioned about why racial tensions worsened during his presidency, I’m sure Obama would say that it’s because we have not fought hard enough against bigotry and prejudice. And Bush would agree. Inclusion is like freedom. We just need more of it.
Obama perfected the rhetoric of denunciation. He was prone to respond to opposition by saying, “That’s not who we are.” In a similar fashion, the forty-third President returned to public life out of a sense of duty. “The health of the democratic spirit itself is at issue.” It falls on George W. Bush to defend America against—herself.
It never occurs to Bush, Clinton, or Obama that they did a great deal to create our present distempers. The Clinton-Bush-Obama regime imagines that it only failed insofar as it did not go far enough. “Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned. I did not give the world enough freedom. I was not zealous enough for inclusion.” With his usual forthrightness, Bush manifests with exemplary clarity the serene, reality-free self-confidence of our failing establishment. When faced with a world of their own making that is careening toward economic, cultural, and political disasters, they compliment their own leadership.
As Pierre Manent has observed, the West is being driven into a ditch by the “fanaticism of the center.”
R. R. Reno is editor of First Things.
Photo by Justin Brendel.