The Case for Optimism
This week I had Tevi Troy on the podcast to talk about his latest column, “The Case for Optimism.”
This week I had Tevi Troy on the podcast to talk about his latest column, “The Case for Optimism.” Tevi is a presidential historian, former White House aide, and senior fellow at the Bipartisan Policy Institute. He is the author, most recently, of Fight House: Rivalries in the White House From Truman to Trump.
The following excerpt has been edited for length and clarity:
Matt: Why don't you start off by telling us the story about the Clarence Thomas hearings and the impetus for this piece?
Tevi: Yeah, there's a couple of impetuses that I'll talk about. Let me start with the Clarence Thomas story. I did work at the American Enterprise Institute, my first job out of college, and the heroes there were people like Judge Bork and Irving Kristol and as you walked around, you almost kind of did the “we're-not-worthy” bow before them. And they're watching the Clarence Thomas hearings, which, as you know, were quite the spectacle. And Bork, who was always the kind of more cloudy of the two, and Kristol was marginally sunnier. Bork said, “This is truly the end of Western civilization,” and Kristol took a long drag of a cigarette, and I paraphrase, although the exact quote is in the piece, said, “Yes, but at least we can live well in the process,” meaning, things are going downhill in western civilization, but there's all kinds of things that we can enjoy in life. And he was enjoying his cigarette at the time.
Matt: Bork’s book was called Slouching Toward Gomorrah, if that gives you an idea. Bork was kind of a pessimist.
Tevi: He was and I worked at AEI while he was working on that book. And he wrote about the depredations of American popular culture and how terrible it was. And this was a guy who was about as up to date as Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire, so it felt like he was really up to date on what Nirvana and Nine Inch Nails were doing, [because] he had two crack researchers…who were telling him what was going on in pop culture at the time. And you know, you sure there's always things that you can point to in pop culture that are bad, but there also things that you can point to that that are good and elevating and uplifting, and I talked about that in my piece, so that's one impetus. The second impetus is at the time I worked for Ben Wattenberg, and Ben Wattenberg as a former presidential speechwriter, a demographer, a political columnist, and an irrepressible optimist. Ben was always seeing the sunny side of life, and two things I learned from Ben were about how to use data and how to look on the sunny side or the bright side of things. He even wrote a book called The Good News Is The Bad News Is Wrong. He unfortunately passed away a few years ago, but he was a real influence on my life. And then the third thing is, there was a great article by Christopher Caldwell in the mid 90s. It was in the late lamented Weekly Standard, and Caldwell talked about ways that things are better today. And he talked about things, some which don't even exist anymore, like Borders bookstore, but he tried to find things that are, I think he called them unalloyed benefits, things it is unambiguous that these things are better and making lives better. The fact that you can get your glasses redone in an hour, the fact that you can go to a bookstore that has these huge selections—he didn't even know about Amazon at the time—the fact that we can get much better coffee. So I said, I know we're all talking about how sad things are and how terrible things are, and we don't like our politics, and isn't it awful, and wringing our hands all the time. But let me go back to those Ben Wattenbergian roots and think about that great incident between Kristol and Bork during the Thomas hearings, and try to find some positive things to look at. And then, it's not just to say, “‘oh, la dee da things are positive.” I'm not a Pangloss or anything like that, but what can we do as conservatives to highlight the things that conservatism brings to the table that can help make things continue to be better in the future?
Matt: You talk about food and technology, things like that. And I agree, those things have gotten better. But I guess the criticism here would be that those are materialistic things, and that man has a deep hunger for spiritual things. And so, while we are simultaneously becoming more prosperous as a nation, if we lose our sense of meaning, then we are going to be sad and depressed, and that seems to maybe be the case.
Tevi: It is true that there are many people who lack meaning, and are sad and depressed, there's no doubt of that. But what I'm saying is, the tools are out there, if you want to find spiritual meaning. As you know, I'm a religious Jew, Orthodox Jew, and for me, if I want to set ways to study the Bible, the tools for me are unbelievable. Every week, I prepare a Torah script… I prepare it using unbelievable tools that are available on the internet that let me see every kind of translation, every kind of interpretation, all kinds of rabbinical descriptions of what has happened in the past, and the things just wouldn't not have been available to me in my house growing up in Queens in the 1970s. So I think you can use the tools available to you to find things that will enable you to find spiritual meaning, and in the piece, I don't just talk about my own religious beliefs. But I talked about how you can find the collective works of Shakespeare or Homer, where you can find the Bible in any translation you want, or the Quran, or whatever holy book you're looking for. So the tools are out there, you just have to go and find them. And I don't think that the government can tell people how to be spiritual and how to find virtue, I think people have to find it for themselves. I think good government policies can enable a situation where we have more tools, and we are more materially prosperous, and we also live in a peaceful era. I mean, I remember, in the 70s, worrying about Soviet nuclear missiles, destroying the entire world, it's not the same concern. Obviously, I know, we are on the cusp of a contest with China, and I do worry about it, and I have been critical of the Chinese government, and there's good reason to be critical of them. But they do not appear bent on world destruction or conquest in the way that the Soviets were. They want other things, the things that we need to push back again, and things that are problematic, but we just need to look at the bigger picture a little more. And I think if you look at the bigger picture, you can find positive things if you want to go looking for them, and that's what I try and identify in the piece.
Matt: I have, you know, I'm playing devil's advocate here. I'm going after the one guy who said things are good, and trying to take him down a peg.
Tevi: But look, you're right now because of the the editors of the Examiner—good smart folks—they said to me, “You want to make sure that this piece isn't just ‘Hey, now we have avocado toast, let's be happy,’” because I'm trying to do something more than that. I say, “Here are some good things that are out there. Here are ways we can take advantage of it. And here are ways that we as conservatives can instead of fighting say these are things that we bring about through conservative beliefs in hard work and markets and actually believing that math is something real, as opposed to liberal, “woke” nonsense about rejecting hard work and saying that math is somehow biased against systemically underprivileged people.”
Matt: These tools at our disposal really lend themselves to people who take ownership of their lives and decide to read some Shakespeare. That takes some self discipline and ambition. This puts more responsibility on the individual, as opposed to a simpler, more traditional society, where you have fewer choices, and the government or the culture pushes you toward a virtuous end. What do you think of that?
Tevi: I defy you to find me, the government that pushes us towards a virtuous and more effectively. I mean, look at the Soviet Union, they tried to push the other citizens towards their idea of virtue, and it was a complete disaster, both from a material perspective and also a spiritual perspective—they tried to eliminate God. Now, I would argue that God won, religion won out, and the Soviet system died. But I just don't think that government can make it happen. I think government can create a world that enables it to happen. If you have the drive and the wherewithal and the interest, you can create a spiritually meaningful life.
Matt: So you mentioned China earlier. It strikes me that people who were in the optimistic camp thought giving China a taste of economic freedom would inexorably lead to political freedom. The game's not over yet, so maybe the optimist will win, ultimately. But as of now, it looks like we were on the wrong side of that bet.
Tevi: I think that there is definitely a case to be critical of China, and I am still in critical of it, and I think that that bet that [Permanent Normal Trade Relations], which was the recognition of China in the late 90s, I think it was a bad bet. I think that they have infected us more than we have brought about the positive in them. However, as you say, the game is not over, and I think America in 2021, is now waking up to the extent of the threat. And again, I don't think it's like the Soviet threat. I think it's different and requires different tactics. And on the Chinese side, too, they have studied America and the nations that America has defeated and outlasted, including Germany through military means, but also Japan through economic means. Remember, in the 80s and 90s, it was all about how Japan's gonna come eat our lunch and well, that didn't happen. And they studied the Soviet Union. They are determined not to make the same mistakes as some of the other challengers to America. But that said, you know, we have a lot of drive in entrepreneurship. You know, the people of China are terrified of the Communist Party, but the Communist Party is also terrified of the people.