Tevi Troy is a Senior Fellow at the Bipartisan Policy Center, a former Deputy Secretary of Health and Human Services and a best-selling presidential historian. His latest book is Fight House: Rivalries in the White House from Truman to Trump, named as one of 2020’s top political books by the Wall Street Journal. His White House experience in the George W. Bush administration culminated in service as Deputy Assistant and then Acting Assistant to the President for Domestic Policy. Dr. Troy has held high-level positions on Capitol Hill as well. inFOCUS Quarterly editor Shoshana Bryen spoke with him in recently.
inFOCUS: This issue of inFOCUS Quarterly is called “What Makes America?” What makes us who we are, and where do we get our American identity? Are we rooted in the founding documents? Do people still read those today?
Tevi Troy: Those are very different questions. We, as Americans, are indeed rooted in these founding documents. Ronald Reagan said, “Liberty binds us together.” We’re not bound by the color of our skin or our gender or our religion or our race or ethnicity. None of that is what binds us together as Americans. It’s liberty and a belief that this is a place where you can have institutions that foster liberty and allow people to live in a free society with certain rights, including the right to free speech and freedom of religion. And you can maintain that system with different waves of immigrants from different places over centuries. Thus far, this experiment has been working really well.
For the second part of your question, my answer is less optimistic and more disturbing. “Do we still read these founding documents?” I find the answer, disturbingly, is no. Not enough people are reading the documents. Not enough people are celebrating the values – like free speech. And not enough people are seeing that what binds us together is liberty, as Ronald Reagan said.
Instead, they’re saying we’re bound, not just by race or ethnicity or gender, but also by our grievances. I don’t think that is a healthy way to foster a long-term free society where people respect the rights of others.
iF: You can’t become Chinese; they are defined by race. You can become a citizen of France, but can you really become French? In Russia, they look at it as the land you live on. If Russian people live in Ukraine, they’re not Ukrainians, they’re Russians. What does that say about assimilation?
Troy: Assimilation is crucial. But I just want to be clear on what assimilation is. Assimilation, in some quarters, is a dirty word because it means you’re rejecting your heritage – you’re a sellout. But here assimilation means accepting the ideals of America, buying into the American system, part of a larger project that’s trying to advance freedom.
Bari Weiss has a great statement that I think encapsulates what assimilation is in her book on antisemitism. She says, “In Europe, Protestants and Catholics used to kill each other. In America, they have brunch.”
Protestant and Catholic, they’re assimilated in that they are no longer holding the angers and the grievances of the old country. They’re still Protestant. They’re still Catholic. They go to different church services on Sunday morning. But they can meet together after and have brunch, recognizing that they’re both citizens of a free society.
You and I are both observant Jews. I consider myself a fully assimilated American. I believe in America. I believe in American ideals. I want my kids to stay in America. I am patriotic. I love July 4th. But also, I keep the Sabbath. I keep kosher. I wear a kippah. I do all these things that indicate that I am Jewish and continue to respect the Jewish traditions, but I am American in every way.
That is possible in America. It does not seem to be possible in many other places in the world.
iF: How much of a change came in the United States with the presidency of John F. Kennedy?
Troy: Absolutely. Kennedy wasn’t the first to run for president as Catholic, but he was the first to win. And he handled that question adeptly by saying that he’s loyal to America. He had a religion, but his country is America. And he was not adherent to the Pope in politics or national policy or in strategic thinking. He was an American.
And he’s still pretty well viewed by most Americans – obviously, the tragic assassination made him a martyr. But I think we got over that Catholic hump with the Kennedy administration. And it’s interesting. You look at Joe Biden as Catholic. Nobody talks about it. Nobody said in the 2020 race, “Oh, my gosh. Joe Biden’s a Catholic. Is he ever going to be able to win? Is that possible, to run and win as a Catholic? Is he going to show fealty to the Pope instead of America?”
There is criticism on the other side, as in, “As someone who’s so ardently pro-choice, is he an adherent enough in his Catholic faith and Catholic tradition?” I think we’ve gotten past that issue. And I also think, if you look, there’s the Jewish question. Look at Sen. Joe Lieberman in the 2000 race, where it seemed as if Lieberman was a benefit to Vice President Al Gore rather than a detriment. Obviously, Gore didn’t win, but it wasn’t because of people rejecting Lieberman, an Orthodox Jew, for being on the ticket.
iF: Are we losing our limited government in a way that could affect us in terms of assimilation, in terms of our identity?
Troy: It’s a really good question. I am a proponent of limited government, but we are not in a place of limited government. It has gone away over the course of the century for multiple reasons. Even things such as the creation of the automobile and highways led to a situation where you had government in charge of roads and traffic laws.
People who were in America over a century ago, let’s say the beginning of the 20th century, had almost no interaction with the federal government other than the US mail.
But then, you had the creation of the income tax, and you started having the road system. And now we have all sorts of transfer payments, and the federal government is part of everybody’s life on an almost daily basis. It’s just a different country. I would’ve made some different policy choices over the years, and I’d like to see less government and more freedom. But we are going to have to find a way to make this democratic experiment work, even with the much larger government we have today than we have in the past.
iF: Wasn’t FDR the boundary between less government and more government?
Troy: It’s a bit like the frog in water. As the water heats up, eventually it starts to boil. I wouldn’t – put it any one demarcation. And I think the creation of the income tax was a big step. But the creation of the automobile was important.
In the Second World War, you got your healthcare from the army if you were called up into service. Then, you went back to your farm, and said, “Well, there’s no healthcare here.” But people wanted healthcare in a way they didn’t before, so the government became much more involved. These are elements of the government growing. And FDR definitely gave it a push. LBJ gave it a push. But I don’t think that there’s one single demarcation.
iF: Can we cut it back?
Troy: It’s not easy. But Calvin Coolidge came into office and said he was going to prune things back. Obviously, he was pruning a smaller tree. Government was smaller at the end of Coolidge’s tenure than it was beforehand. I would like to see a Republican president in the future talk about this.
I served with George W. Bush, and there was some talk about limiting government, but there was never much action on it. In fact, Bush, after 9-11, was not really thinking about shrinking government, but about developing a Homeland Security state to keep us safe. I understand why he made that strategic shift. But you have not had a Republican president who seriously talked about reducing the size of the federal government in a very long time.
iF: Did Donald Trump talk about that?
Troy: Shrinking government was not part of his mantra. And he famously rejected ideas about trimming, reforming Social Security and Medicare so that it would be available for future generations, and stave off bankruptcy. He didn’t think that was politically where he was going to get his voters. He really didn’t talk about shrinking the size of government.
The Role of the Draft
iF: Everybody today who came of age after the draft was abolished in 1973 has not had to go to war for our country. The First Gulf War, Afghanistan, Iraq. All these were done by volunteers. First, does that change the relationship between citizens and their government? The government cannot order you to go and die for it, which it could before. And second, does it change the relationship between groups of Americans, as in service people and veterans, and those who chose not to serve?
Troy: Absolutely. It’s a very different thing when you have a strictly volunteer military and you don’t have a draft. There’s no sense that, if there’s a war, you would be called up.
There were reasons to abolish the draft, and maybe there are other ways to bring about that sense of devotion to the nation. William F. Buckley wrote a book about national service, although I’d be wary of what the national service people did. I wouldn’t want them to create left-wing activists on the government dime. We already have enough of those. But there are things to consider that we can make people more integrated into the American system without necessarily instituting a mandatory military draft.
National Service and Conservatives
iF: Could you, for example, do national service in exchange for college tuition, as you do with service people?
Troy: Potentially. This could be a whole other conversation, but I’ve got concerns with what’s going on in colleges, right now – the type of education you get, the type of indoctrination you get, and whether you can actually get an education that celebrates America and recognizes the merits of our system. It seems as if in college, you go in, and on orientation day one, you learn how terrible America is and how terrible Americans are. And that’s not the kind of thing you want to learn.
Students go on campus and never hear an alternative point of view. I think that’s dangerous. And having some kind of mandatory national service that the goal of is to get everyone into a college that will not necessarily be teaching American values, I think it is problematic.
You have a system where you have to pretend to be something you are not in order to advance. Natan Sharansky talks about the double think in the Soviet Union. People say things, but not what they believe. They have to hide who they are in order to survive and advance.
Creating Intellectual Diversity
iF: Couldn’t a draft also work in terms of overcoming barriers? Because you all have to live together, train together, eat together. Could that help encourage intellectual diversity?
Troy: College is also supposed to do that. But yes, there is value to some kind of program that requires people to give something back to the country. You would have to be really careful how you design it so it doesn’t become an indoctrination camp that makes people who think a certain way have to hide who they are.
iF: In recent (diversified) polling, about 20 percent of the population of the United States now responds, “None,” when asked about religious affiliation. But John Adams said, “Our constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” Was he right?
Troy: I think he was right. You do, in a limited government society, need to have some level of trust that your fellow citizens are going to act in a moral and appropriate way. Religion can be a check on people’s bad behaviors. It can also, as we’ve seen in many places, lead to certain bad behaviors and fanaticism. We have to be careful on that front.
But I’m more comfortable in a society where there are more religious people. Those people tend to get married and have children and go to church, and also be happier. Happiness is an important part of the equation, because there’s a sense that gratitude is one of the key tenets of conservatism. People who are happy and grateful will be more likely to want to preserve the great system that we have. Whereas people who are aggrieved and unhappy and ungrateful want to tear everything down.
iF: You’re suggesting that the left is motivated by grievance.
Troy: If you look at some of these new language policing efforts, things like saying “the American dream” or “hard work” are not allowed, that there’s somehow some kind of an offense or microaggression. There is a sense that each group is rated based on its level of grievance. The more grievance you have, the more celebrated you are.
That is not a fruitful way to advance. People should be looking for ways to advance themselves and celebrate and appreciate the American system and thrive in the American system, rather than necessarily looking back to things that happened in the past. Obviously, we talked about assimilation, you don’t want to reject your past. But you can’t let it handcuff you, either.
The American Dream
iF: As an observant Jew, a proud American, and a patriotic guy, how do you see the American Dream?
Troy: The American dream is the ability to leave your children better off than you were. You go, you participate in the system, the system gives enough freedom for you to find rewarding work, to find the level of education you need. Then your children can go off and potentially be even more successful than you are.
If people can’t advance and don’t feel like their children have a chance and don’t feel like they can make things better for themselves and the future generations, then you get a sense that the American dream is lost.
iF: How does that work if you’re looking at reparations? If you are looking forward in your American dream, can you go backwards and fix things?
Troy: Ronald Reagan said, “I believe that, for America, there’s always a brighter day ahead. The future’s always brighter.” I try to look at it from that perspective. We are trying to make things better for the future than trying to fix a past that can never be fixed, because, by definition it is in the past. As Faulkner said, “In the South, the past isn’t dead. It’s not even past.”
That’s not the American way. While celebrating and honoring and recognizing our history, flaws, and warts, and all, we need to look forward. And America has been a forward-looking nation throughout our history. The way out of our current challenges is to continue to be a forward-looking nation.
iF: It was Reagan who said, “Morning in America,” the implication of which is, in the morning, you get up and move forward.
The Worst Time?
Question from iF staff member: I have friends, on the left and the right, who are relatively plugged in. Both groups say we are living in the worst time in American history. And these are people who know some history – the Civil War, the Civil Rights Movement, and the LA riots.Where’s the disconnect? How do we get people to not look so negatively and to think about the long term and the trajectory we’re on versus in the moment, right now?This may be a cycle question.
Troy: It’s a great question. If you obsess in sites like Twitter, which is just about getting clicks through finding the latest outrage, you’re going to see things that make you think things are worse now than ever. But it is just affirmatively not so.
I actually wrote an article about ways that the world is better today than 25 years ago. I didn’t want to go back a hundred years, just 25 years – within our lifetimes. I looked at things like your ability to travel, food, entertainment, the intellectual opportunities out there, and more.
We have so much more today than just 25 years ago, but I don’t think people recognize that. Now, people talk about how we’re so divided. They’re right to point to the Civil War, but what about the 1960s when there are race riots every summer in Lyndon Johnson’s presidency? Nobody talks about that.
And crime in the 70s? You were afraid to walk the streets in New York. Yes, things have gotten worse recently in New York, but they’re still not as bad as they were in the 70s and 80s. As late as 1990, there were 2200 murders a year in New York City.
There are more opportunities. The Internet, in addition to creating Twitter and some of the hysteria, also opened up worlds of possibilities that didn’t exist for us. So, it’s hard to see it, but perhaps we’re living in the best of all possible worlds rather than the worst of all possible worlds.
I remember the 1990s, which everybody looks on today as some kind of halcyon wonderful era, but the 1990s seemed – at the time – pretty tumultuous. I was not sitting around saying, “Oh, peace and prosperity.” I was sitting around saying, “Oh, my gosh. The Republicans want to impeach Clinton. There’s such division. And the Congress is turning over. And there’s a new fight every day. And there’s an independent council. And what’s going to happen?”
I think the 2020s are just not as bad as people are portraying.
Geographic and Political Sorting
I’m not Pangloss. There are divisions in this country. You don’t have the same kind of bipartisan legislation that you had in the past. But that’s not necessarily because Republicans and Democrats hate each other more. It’s because a great geographic sorting took place in the 90s, where you no longer had conservative Southern Democrats and no longer had liberal Northeastern Republicans.
The parties actually resorted themselves into what their natural tendencies were. The conservatives are in one party and the liberals are in the other party, reflected in our current divisions in the political world. But if you get out outside of Washington, DC, we are still in a country where the Protestants and the Catholics have brunch.
iF: Is this the coming of George Washington’s belief that political parties were going to drive people in the wrong direction?
Troy: Yes. Madison talked about the problems of faction. And the parties are problematic. A typical person will say, “I don’t necessarily endorse everything that Democrats do. I don’t necessarily endorse everything the Republicans do, but I’ve got to pick a home.”
I think if there was a kind of Manchin-Romney-type party, that would probably get plurality, if not a majority, of the vote. But structurally, that party is not going to exist.
Democratic Capitalism Abroad
iF: Some foreign policy analysts argue that where the American military has stayed, we had had an impact on the evolution of democratic capitalism in places that hadn’t had it before.On the other hand, we had some really miserable failures after the Arab Spring. So, do we help? Do we hurt? Do we know what we’re doing? Or do people evolve independent of us?
Troy: Jonah Goldberg wrote a great book, The Suicide of the West, where he talked about this spirit of democratic capitalism not being natural to humanity. The natural tendency of humanity is to fall into your affinity groups. But democratic capitalism requires you to break out of your affinity groups and have economically rational relationships.
It’s not easy. You can’t always impose that on every society. The U.S. military and U.S. aid has been able to do it successfully in some places, including Japan and South Korea. Those are two of the best examples. It’s not easy to do it in the Middle East. Part of the issue is America’s lack of certainty with itself and its own system. We don’t feel comfortable saying our system is something that should be replicated. And there was a lack of constancy about our efforts, certainly, in Afghanistan.
It’s hard to get people who, for centuries, have thought a different way to think differently and in a new way. And especially today, when we talk about “cultural imperialism,” it’s hard to get America on board with the project and to doing it for a long term.
Walter Russell Mead wrote in the Wall Street Journal that there was a time when people from all around the world wanted to come to American campuses. And now, that is less so because of some of what they’re learning in class, but also, from our perspective, the broader lesson. People come from countries that may not have free societies and the lesson they learn on our campuses is that it’s acceptable to limit speech that we find uncomfortable. And what’s going to happen when those people go back to Saudi Arabia or China? They’ll say, “Well, on American campuses, they limit speech. We should continue to do it in our country.”
iF: Would you call yourself an optimist as you look at the scene here?
Troy: I’m absolutely an optimist. My mentor was Ben Wattenberg, a Democrat speech writer who migrated to the right. Although he denied it; he said the Democrats left him. He always had an optimistic view on things. He wrote the famous book called The Good News is the Bad News is Wrong. He me taught me how to look behind and beyond the headlines. The headlines are designed to sell news by giving you the worst possible spin on everything. And it’s not necessarily the case. Look at data.
And I think things are even better now than when he was giving me those lessons in the early 1990s.
We need to have the courage of our convictions and recognize the benefits of the great rights that were asserted in the Bill of Rights and believe in those rights and make the case for them.
iF: Tevi Troy, on behalf of inFOCUS Quarterly and our readers, thank you for a very enlightening conversation.