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Jeb Bush featured in Hoover talk on governance trends, democracy

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Former Florida governor Jeb Bush was among a panel of decorated speakers who gathered on Tuesday to discuss how modern social and political dynamics are affecting the current state of government, journalism and policy in America. 

The Hoover Institution hosted the panel on Monday as part of its “Governance in an Emerging World,” a series led by former Secretary of State and Hoover fellow George P. Schultz. 

Moderated by Jim Hoagland, Washington Post editor and Hoover visiting fellow, the panel included Bush, Washington Post journalist Karen Tumulty, Dan Henninger of The Wall Street Journal, Chris DeMuth of The Hudson Institute and Amanda Daflos, the chief innovation officer for the mayor of Los Angeles. 

Bush, who emphasized public education reform while governor of Florida, spoke at length about the current state of education policy in America. An advocate of charter schools and school vouchers, he highlighted the fact that more than half of all Florida students go to a school chosen by their parents. He also stated that Hispanic children in Florida are two and a half grades ahead of their Californian counterparts and that Florida went from being the state with the lowest graduation rate in the country to being above the national average. 

“It was a long, arduous journey but now young people — irrespective of the color of their skin, or whether they have an accent or whether they were born in this country or another county — have the ability to learn,” Bush said. “If our system wants to survive as a republic and we want our democracy to survive, we better make sure that the next generation gains the power of knowledge.”

He also praised the role of entrepreneurship and innovation in Silicon Valley in creating new educational opportunities, highlighting the work of organizations like Khan Academy. He believes these companies can be a part of the education and job training that are necessary in the modern world. 

“We should have many more high school students graduating with a high school degree, with college credit under their belt and a nationally recognized certificate that says they can go get a job of relevance,” Bush said.  

Conservative commentator Dan Henninger, who serves as the deputy editorial page director of the Wall Street Journal and as a contributor to Fox News, spoke about the worldwide state of democracy. He warned that democracy is in trouble both domestically and abroad. 

“It’s kind of like a governance virus that has infected the world’s democracies and the United States,” Henninger said. He pointed to gridlock in Congress as a sign of dysfunction in the U.S., along with controversial issues in Europe like Brexit, the Yellow Vest protests in France and the migrant crisis in Germany. 

Henninger cites the growth of the power of the state as one possible reason for these trends. He pointed to the supposedly excessive regulation and bureaucracy of the European Union as contributing to Brexit and other institutional breakdowns. 

“Over the last 70 years, after World War II, the world’s political leaders decided they needed to rebuild the West,” Henninger said. “They created institutions, they created bureaucracies that were supposed to rebuild after the horrible experience of World War II. After 70 years of the growth of all this, it has gotten to the point where it has reached a state of sludge. It just simply is so big that it doesn’t function very well anymore.” 

To bolster American democracy, Henninger advocated drawing on federalism, shrinking the involvement of the federal government in state and local affairs. 

“We have to get smaller, at least in the United States,” Henninger said. “We have reached a point where we are obsessed with national politics. Every issue has to be brought out at the national level. Obviously these problems do not get solved.” 

Karen Tumulty, a columnist for the Washington Post, spoke about the changing nature of journalism under the Trump presidency and in the internet age. She commented on Trump’s tendency to tweet out important announcements. 

“It has really transformed the institutional balance of power in Washington,” Tumulty said. “The agenda is set every morning whenever Trump wakes up and starts tweeting.”  

She described Trump’s tweeting as a way he is able to control the establishment base of the Republican Party and keep them in line with his agenda.   

She then added that the trend of presidential social media use did not begin with Trump. Tumulty pointed out that former President Barack Obama built a Twitter following of millions of people and did things like host Google hangouts. 

“Increasingly, technology gives presidents the power to connect with their constituency,” she said. 

Tumulty also lamented the vanishing of smaller news outlets and local news coverage, claiming that studies have shown that polarization increases as local news sources disappear. 

“This is something we should be concerned about,” she said. “The old watchdog model that local newspapers and local TV stations play is keeping an eye on the mayor and the sanitation department and the police department. There is no one to do that anymore.”

On the topic of polarization, Jeb Bush added, “There are big differences in the country and we have lost our shared identity for the moment. We need to regain that.”

He continued by saying that many people view those of different political opinions as enemies, instead of engaging with their ideas. 

“It’s not that they’re wrong or they have a different view, which would have been the way it was in the Reagan/Bush era,” Bush said. “Now they are the enemy and even though you agree, you cannot support something that the enemy supports. This is a cultural change that requires a cultural change.” 

He criticized the hyper-partisanship among politicians that has intensified in recent years, he said, fueled by controversy surrounding the Iraq War and the 2008 financial crisis. He called on politicians to become less polarized in order to serve their constituents. 

“There are 330 million people in this country and the highest-ranked cable show gets maybe four million viewers,” Bush said. “Everyone else is watching ‘Dancing with the Stars’ or something. We aren’t as obsessed about Washington politics as people in Washington think we are.” 

Bush also criticized politicians who are too easily swayed by opinions expressed on social media. 

“You have politicians just scared of the feedback on Twitter,” Bush said. “I mean, it could be a Russian bot. The whole idea that we are scared about something in the cyber world, I think they need to put their big boy pants on and start doing what they were elected to do.”

Contact Sophie Regan at sregan20 ‘at’ stanford.edu.