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George Bush and the Death of the US Elite
European Straits #98
George H.W. Bush is not the first sitting American president I remember: I was born under Carter and grew up under Reagan. But his is the first US presidential campaign I have memories of. I didn’t know what Democrats and Republicans were about at the time, as I was only 11 in 1988. Mostly I remember thinking that the candidates had very cool American names. (Yes, if you’re French and don’t know a word of English, “George Bush” and “Michael Dukakis” sound like very cool names—and you don’t even realize that “Dukakis” is actually Greek.)
Reflections on the elite
The passing of the 41st US President led to the publishing of many obituaries and articles about his personality, his politics, his family, his legacy. It’s normal that most of those articles were rather friendly. When someone dies, nobody wants to speak evil of them; even if you didn’t like the person, you’d rather remain silent and wait for the inevitable judgement of history. But I was struck by two articles that really deviated from that ‘nice’ line: Franklin Foer’s “The Last WASP President” and David Greenberg’s “Is History Being Too Kind to George H.W. Bush?”.
To better understand George Bush, it’s important to have a few things in mind. First, blue-blood American dynasties such as the Bushes exist not because of but despite American institutions. The American Republic was, after all, built against the British Crown and the aristocratic order that came with it. Article I, Section 9, Clause 8 of the US Constitution famously prohibits the federal government from granting titles of nobility. And as written by political scientist Louis Hartz in his masterful The Liberal Tradition in America, it’s impossible to understand the history of the US if you don’t realize that it’s devoid of an aristocratic heritage.
That being said, there is indeed an American aristocracy, and Bush was heir to that tradition. The fabric of the American aristocratic elite has long been made of various elements, such as their Protestant heritage, attending a prestigious Ivy League university, working in both the private sector (to make a fortune) and the public sector (to serve one’s country). There are many books that serve as fascinating insights into that world, among them Walter Isaacson and Evan Thomas’s The Wise Men: Six Friends and the World they Made (about the businessmen turned public servants, such as the legendary Averell Harriman, who effectively shaped the Cold War order).
What’s interesting in the case of Bush, however, is that his personal journey reveals something different. Unlike others, he had an early and prescient feeling that the elite world to which he belonged was about to come to an end. A clear sign of that is his moving from Connecticut to Texas at the age of 24. In doing so he revealed two things. First, that the nature of the elite was changing, now more attracted to money than to public service, and more diverse as well (one of his sons, Jeb, even married Columba Garnica Gallo from Mexico, which wouldn’t have happened if the family had stayed in Connecticut).
The second thing is that you could hedge your bets. Leaving the elite circles of the East Coast was a risk, but Texas wasn’t a particularly risky destination. Even if it doesn’t have an aristocratic legacy, it’s a state that, unlike Florida, for instance, has long sent prominent politicians to Washington, DC—from John Nance Garner to Sam Rayburn to Lyndon B. Johnson to John Connally to Lloyd Bentsen to the Bush family. Indeed there have been few periods in modern American history when Texas didn’t have its man, Democrat or Republican, in a very high place. (And, as you know, Beto O’Rourke might be next!)
Somehow Bush had understood that power was shifting: from the old blue-blood dynasties to the self-made businessmen; from the smoky rooms in the exclusive society of New England to the oil fields of Texas. He probably had the fantasy that he could have it all, retaining his heritage as a New England Brahmin while gaining the credentials of a Texas oilman—and that having both was the only way for his dynasty to survive.
But ultimately, he failed. As I wrote in an article back in July 2016,
The entire political history of the Bush family can only be understood if you see them as a pure byproduct of [the] Second Era [in US political history]: very close to big business interests; extremely good at raising big money; fundamentally uninterested in non-business conservative issues yet willing to play the game of making friends with the NRA or proclaiming themselves strong enemies of abortion.
This playbook, as you can guess from 2016, has stopped working, and it’s yet another sign of the shift to the Entrepreneurial Age. Donald Trump, and Barack Obama before him (and Emmanuel Macron as well), are pure byproducts of what I call the Third Era of politics. They emerged from outside national politics. They didn’t have an experience curve. And they compensated for that not with family connections, but with their capacity to inspire people and to harness technology so as to turn that inspiration into political capital. In this new world, that of the Entrepreneurial Age, it’s become useless to be part of the old elite—whether you’re established in New England or in Texas. And as illustrated by Jeb Bush’s badly losing the Republican presidential primary in 2016, the Bush political dynasty couldn’t survive that.
Recent and upcoming talks
Here are a few things that I’d like to highlight:
My next talks about my book Hedge are tomorrow (Dec 6) in Paris (you can register to attend the event at the Fondation Jean-Jaurès) and next Monday (Dec 10) in London (follow the link to register for the talk at Nesta with Geoff Mulgan and Jenni Russell).
The experience last week at the Drucker Forum was great. I spoke about the topic of activism and trust in tech companies, and I adapted my talk into my latest article in Forbes, which you can read here: A Mission Isn't Enough: You Need Trust To Build A Successful Tech Company.
Further readings on the question of trust
The Web as random acts of kindness (Jonathan Zittrain, TED, 2009)
Trust and the Fall of Public Relations (Robert Phillips, January 2014)
Uber and Airbnb could reverse America’s decades-long slide into mass cynicism (Arun Sundararajan, Quartz, June 2016)
The Science Behind Hillary Clinton’s Trust Deficit (David Rand and Gillian Jordan, The New Republic, July 2016)
Believing is seeing: New technologies will make society richer by cultivating trust (The Economist, August 2016)
Sorry, Uber. Social Data Validates The Lyft Growth Story And Valuation Demands (Andy Swan, Forbes, August 2016)
The death of hitchhiking is a modern tragedy (Anne Perkins, The Guardian, September 2016)
Uber Just Put Every Tech Company In Danger (Kyle Hall, The Family, February 2017)
Sorry, Jeff Bezos. Amazon Key won’t get online retailers through the front door (Marcela Sapone, Recode, November 2017)
Why America Slept (Tim O’Reilly, WTF, March 2018)
Ideas can now spread and scale through networks, rather than hierarchies (Nilofer Merchant, LSE Business Review, April 2018)
Facebook and the Responsive Chord (me, The Family, May 2018)
Warm regards (from London, UK),