They tell a story about the late Bob Strauss, a Texas lawyer with a folksy drawl who wielded Texas-sized influence in American national politics for more than 50 years at the end of the 20th century. One day Strauss was standing in a conference room at his Washington law firm, Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld, watching a complicated multi-party transaction inch upstream towards its closing against masses of objections by fractious lawyers. Somebody asked Strauss, “Which party do you represent?” Strauss was ready. “I,” he said, “represent the deal.”
We can think of the American Deal as a set of political ideas that have persisted in this country over the past couple of centuries and, most of the time, have kept our political arrangements from falling apart. (There have been lapses. We had a Civil War, after all; and there were certainly other times when it looked like we were coming close.) What with the perpetual frictions among the country’s contending political opinions and interests, the Deal always needs representing.
Right now, the need is acute. It was triggered by the 2016 presidential election.
For liberals, the significance of the event was bracingly simple. In their view, the inauguration of President Donald Trump constituted an attack on the country. It followed that the only proportional response was what Trump’s critics call resistance and Trump’s supporters label presidential harassment. Among Democrats, this verdict hasn’t much changed. Their debate mainly involves tactics, about which their positions range from far Left to not-quite-so-far Left.
In contrast, American conservatives’ ambivalence about the President runs deep—and in contradictory directions. Christopher DeMuth of the Hudson Institute has provided a succinct, on-the-money summary of the crosscurrents:
Some conservatives were America Firsters to begin with, others have become converts, and others began and remain Never Trumpers who loathe the man and his policies. Some love his judicial appointments but are aghast at his protectionism. Some admire his nerve, media bashing, and political incorrectness but wish these were a bit more modulated. Some regard his nationalism as an overdue reassertion of American sovereignty and foreign-policy realism, while others see a destabilizing retreat from global leadership.
This intellectual turmoil seems to cry out for expression; thus, since the Trump inauguration we’ve seen a virtual tsunami of writing about the meaning of his presidency. Understandably, recent conservative writing about President Trump focuses not on the painful topics of his character and governance style but on particular administration policies and—even more—the American political fault lines into which Trump has driven his rhetorical and electoral wedges.
Along the shore of one of those fault lines lies national conservatism. Its current varieties share a sense that liberalism—or neoliberalism, if the speaker aims to tear away the doctrine’s idealistic veil and expose the rigid free-market scaffolding underneath—glorifies a barren individualism that has impoverished large swaths of America’s population economically, socially, or spiritually. It follows from this diagnosis that some type of collective non-market power— derived from civil society or government—needs to be applied to check neoliberalism’s underlying assumptions and the laws and institutions that embody them.
Beyond those general features, though, there’s no brief or easy way to summarize the varieties of current national conservatism. Perhaps the best-known articulation of the idea comes from political theorist Yoram Hazony, who contrasts nationalism—the theory that nations should be “able to chart their own independent course, cultivating their own traditions and pursuing their own interests without interference”—with “imperialism, which seeks to bring peace and prosperity to the world by uniting mankind, as much as possible, under a single political regime.” What “cannot be done without obfuscation,” Hazony states, “is to avoid choosing between the two positions.”
Other versions, like David Goodhart’s “somewheres” and “anywheres,” cited by DeMuth, strongly echo Robert Merton’s classic distinction between “locals” and “cosmopolitans,” from his landmark Social Theory and Social Structure. Though Goodhart’s analysis isn’t exactly neutral—“the people from Anywhere,” he judges, have “too often failed to distinguish their own sectional interests from the general interest”—even Merton was hard on cosmopolitans. “[T]he cosmopolitan influential,” he opined, “has a following because he knows, the local influential because he understands.”
Other flavors of national conservatism are less polite. “We made a political choice,” J.D. Vance, author of Hillbilly Elegy, put it acerbically at a recent conference, “that freedom to consume pornography was more important than public goods like marriage, freedom, and happiness.”
Then there’s the inevitable pushback. In this magazine, Gabriel Schoenfeld has noted some of the outrages perpetrated in the name of nationalism and confessed that he finds “astonishing” not just “the contention that liberalism promotes ‘vicious hatred’ while nationalism tends to be benign” but the fact that this argument has gained “currency in some quarters of the Right.” Adding more strands to the tangle, the 2020 presidential campaign has given exposure to a liberal populist nationalism—Elizabeth Warren comes to mind—that mirrors the arguments of its conservative counterparts. And, in a sign that the discussion has legs, it has spawned a sub-population of taxonomic review articles. Aaron Sibarium’s “guide for the perplexed” in The American Interest offers these categories: “rhetorical nationalists,” whose “reasons may have changed, but” whose “views . . . [have] not; “statist conservatives,” who insist on the need “for government to promote the good at some cost to individual freedom;” and “national conservatives,” who focus on an American people united by a common culture—something like the “mystic chords of memory” that President Abraham Lincoln offered in his first inaugural address. (Lincoln’s speech actually waxed mystical only in its concluding sentence, after pages of considerably more lawyerly argument. But you take your mystic chords where you can get them.)
This is a bare sampling of what’s going on. The Trump presidency is so deliciously awful, and so generous in the opportunities it offers to trade in consequential ideas, that it sometimes seems like a political intellectual’s relief act. You truly can’t tell the players without a program.
Still, even without the Trump embroidery, the Deal has always been confusing and contradictory. It is no accident that the quintessential American defense of internal contradiction—“I am large, I contain multitudes”—comes from Walt Whitman, the quintessential American poet. Little more than five years after Whitman first wrote that line, the then-American deal shattered from the weight of the country’s contradictory multitudes. If we now venerate Lincoln, it is in no small part because he, like a sublimely elevated Bob Strauss, tried to represent the deal.
But some of us who are advanced in age are impatient for the country to recover a sense of its center before the debates are over. So, here is a preliminary attempt at a shortcut. William Galston recently offered “Twelve Theses on Nationalism” in these pages. Following Galston, here are twelve theses about the terms of the present American Deal. To a certain extent they contradict one another. The Deal is large. It contains multitudes.
The Deal, Part One
The Deal has two parts, with six rules each. The first part reminds people who want to change the system why they shouldn’t expand their horizons too broadly or hold their fellow Americans in contempt. These first six provisions of the Deal tend to take care of themselves. The chief danger is that they’ll blow up in the faces of those who don’t give them enough respect.
Rule One: The Deal is federalism. Please, for now, shelve the complaints about federalism having degenerated into a mere ghost of its former self, a corpse on life support, done in by the bunch of German professors who spawned the administrative state. For better or worse, we’ve got plenty of federalism left. (I ride the New York City subways. Don’t get me started.)
The Federalists had the advantage of not having to write on a clean slate. The country they surveyed had pre-existing natural advantages like space, resources, and a relative, though by no means complete, absence of conflicts with geographic neighbors.
Still, the arrangements that the Federalists devised, with state powers divided among jurisdictions, branches, and levels of government specifically designed to block, impede, and generally torment one another, lie at the core of the Deal. This is a federalist republic, not a majoritarian one. In particular, it gives, as it was designed to give, an advantage to the type of diversity that arises from geography. Voters in New York and California will perennially get a raw deal. Government paralysis is in general a feature, not a bug.
In other words, though you can tinker at the edges, you can’t alter the system more profoundly without creating an essentially different arrangement with radically different and substantially unknown dangers and inconveniences. It would be a whole other deal.
We might as well live with what we’ve got.
Rule Two: The Deal is Tocqueville’s America. After Alexis de Tocqueville’s nine-month tour of the new American democracy in 1831, meant to study the country’s prison system, he gave birth in 1835 to Democracy in America. It explained that a country in which substantial equality is a birthright is profoundly different from a country that has achieved equality only by violently destroying the regime that came before it.
Tocqueville found many American characteristics that follow from this distinction. Among them, Tocqueville noted the tendency of our egalitarian individualism to provide both powerful incentives for cooperation, on the one hand, and, on the other, pressures towards conformity and threats to liberty. Both these characteristics, though they often pull in antagonistic directions, are foundational parts of the Deal. (It is large, it contains multitudes.)
Tocqueville also thought that lawyers were the closest America came to an aristocratic class. That is not part of the Deal. Letter to follow.
Rule Three: The Deal is that most Americans are, when push comes to shove, locals. Yes, yes, you think we’re getting homogenized. We’ve been getting homogenized at least since the building of the first north-south railroads. (Neil Harris of the University of Chicago noted that the railroads may have hastened the coming of the Civil War by bringing Northerners and Southerners face-to-face with the fact that they didn’t like one another very much. In much the same way, the modern equivalents have probably heightened the animus that MAGA supporters feel towards the country’s elites). Still, most Americans’ primary attachments are to their families, friends, occupations, affinity groups, and local communities. Look in the obituary section of any U.S. city newspaper if you have any doubts.
This is the pattern of attachments that has kept the population of a vast country, even in the age of social media, from becoming an undifferentiated mass ripe for tyranny.
True, some citizens have different sets of attachments—to universal principles, for instance, or affinity groups that span the globe. The same people often have more developed skills and resources than the locals, as well as superior arguments to justify their positions. These “anywheres,” as Goodhart calls them, can override local preferences—until they find out they can’t. That’s the Deal.
Rule Four: The Deal is that most Americans are religious, more or less. Today, lots of people are more inclined to call it “spiritual;” certainly large numbers of citizens have drifted away from organized religious denominations. As a result, we’re surprised when we get seemingly anomalous news, like the story of female religious orders that are growing once more because millennials are interested in becoming nuns.
Moreover, numbers aren’t the sole measure of the influence; there’s nothing like religion to remind us of the salience of intensity. Sometimes the story is that religious influence has prompted a state legislature to ban abortion after a term of eight weeks; sometimes the news is about Muslim, Jewish, and Christian clergy joining together to guard a sanctuary after a hate crime.
Almost nothing is embedded more deeply than religion in the American fabric. Other elements of the Bill of Rights may have equal respect, and at least one item—the Second Amendment—periodically explodes in importance, as it’s exploding now. But none of them matches religion, unruly and unpredictable, as an ineradicable part of the Deal.
Rule Five: The Deal is that Americans generally don’t express a desire to take other people’s property outright. The country has shown that it’s fully capable of regulating private property stringently—almost, some would say, to extinction. But the word “socialist” has long been anathema because, surprisingly, most people understand the term in its proper sense, meaning collective ownership of the means of production.
We will see whether the balance shifts, as figures like Bernie Sanders seek to reclaim “socialism” for a new era. But, as of now, this particular sort of wholesale appropriation is not a part of the Deal.
Rule Six: The Deal doesn’t generally include a hatred of the rich. As Tocqueville would have predicted, Americans have shown a distinct reluctance to storm the castles, or the equivalent Malibu beach houses, with scythes and pitchforks. There are perennial predictions, often in the context of political campaigns, that this reluctance is nearing its end. So far, the predictions haven’t come to pass.
The Deal, Part Two
Then, there is the second part of the Deal, the one reminding us that we’re Americans, not Hungarians or Poles. None of the elements of the second part of the Deal has unqualified or even natural support. Every one of them periodically disappears under one populist wave or another. To date, these elements have managed to re-emerge—but there are no guarantees.
Rule Seven: The Deal is liberalism. The old political saw—that John Locke is king of America—is right. The country has no genuinely ancient traditions or an honest-to-God feudal past, let alone communities of people as tied as medieval serfs to their plots of land.
This fact has placed distinct limits on the capacity to mount genuinely reactionary movements in America. The closest we came was the Confederacy’s defense of its 250-year tradition of slavery. This was the original campaign to make America great again, an effort that took five almost inconceivably bloody years to extirpate.
In contrast, when Abraham Lincoln invoked the “mystic chords of memory,” he did so in support of the liberal tradition in America. That’s our kind of mystic.
Rule Eight: The Deal is republican restraint on the display of wealth. The degree of restraint varies from place to place and year to year; but in comparison with counterparts in the rest of the world, the very rich in America tend to distinguish themselves through understatement, real or faux. Some of us remember Jacqueline Kennedy saying, when a reporter asked her about rumors that she spent $30,000 a year on clothes, “I couldn’t spend that much even if I wore sable underwear.” True or not, that remark is an iconic sign of respect to the mystic chords of American memory.
Like other elements of Part Two, this one has a perennially uncertain fate. American television used to romanticize, and to a substantial extent still does, what was once called the common man. The classic example of the genre was Roseanne, until tweets by Roseanne herself revealed that she was perhaps too much of a common man. Her show was replaced by The Conners, featuring a similarly lumpen theme. The new show has done well enough to be renewed for a second season.
True, times have changed. In this age of streaming, TV shows about ordinary folk vie for popularity with exotica like Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead, or high-minded fare like Succession. Indeed, there are moments, like one’s first look at the President’s Trump Tower apartment or the sight of a Kardashian, or even actually seeing Trump and a Kardashian together in the same room, when it’s hard to believe that there’s even a shred of republican restraint left. Still, provisionally, the norm persists.
Rule Nine: The Deal is a set of limits on inequality. This one has been severely tested in recent years. There are substantial arguments for the proposition that income and wealth inequality, as opposed to economic growth, should not be the touchstones of economic policy. But the rhetorical power of these arguments is hard to sustain once the numbers documenting the degree of inequality get big enough. Yes, it’s a matter of perception and partisanship; but these days the numbers do seem to be getting big enough. If that’s the case, the Deal counsels that it’s prudent to act. It’s certainly done so in the recent past, leaving Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid in its wake.
But—see Rule Five, above—the Deal has put limits on redistributionist policies, limits that would and do seem outlandish to denizens of European welfare states. This is one reason why we’ve twisted ourselves into a national pretzel trying to deal with health insurance. That’s the legacy of the Deal.
Rule Ten: The Deal is immigration. The country’s direction on this issue hasn’t been consistent; but it was set at the beginning of the republic, at a time when most Americans still thought of themselves as aggrieved citizens of Britain. In 1776 Thomas Paine, in Common Sense, argued that in fact America was not British but something new: the “asylum for the persecuted lovers of civil and religious liberty from every part of Europe.” Congress’s first law on the subject, the Naturalization Act of 1790, made U.S. citizenship available to any “free white person of good character” who had lived in the United States for two years.
Those terms don’t look especially liberal from the vantage point of the 21st century, but they were a down payment on Paine’s determination that we should be a country of immigrants.
Of course, that wasn’t exactly a definitive verdict. We’ve had periodic immigration crises since at least 1819, when Congress passed the Steerage Act to try to bring some order to the flood of immigrants that overwhelmed the major ports of entry after the War of 1812. As Peter Schuck points out in The New York Times, we are well overdue for a revision to the Deal, one that is concrete and reasoned enough to reduce the oppressive salience of the issue in U.S. politics. It’s going to be a heavy lift, but that’s what the Deal requires.
Rule Eleven: The Deal is world leadership. This is a recent accretion to the Deal. Historians may detect a precursor of the idea as far back as John Winthrop’s “City Upon a Hill” speech, but the prospect became concrete only with the disproportionate hard power that the United States accumulated and has largely maintained since the Second World War. Shorn of arguments about America’s moral superiority, the justification for elevating “world leadership” to an element of the Deal is that we’re watching in real time, as they say, what starts to happen in the world when the country abandons its decision to lead.
The dimensions of the leadership that’s required are open to debate, but not the need for the leadership. It has become part of the Deal.
Rule Twelve: The Deal is tragedy. There is no avoiding it: The “slavery in this country” that John Adams saw “hanging over it like a black cloud for half a century” has rained on us for 300 years. Nor is it the only such tragedy. The list includes—without limitation, as the lawyers say—slavery’s aftermath; the U.S. government’s slaughter and grinding down of American Indians, of which Tocqueville gave one of the most indelible accounts; internment, exclusions, and murders. This is not a litany of national sins or a serial expansion of the social justice agenda that should weigh on us. It is a reminder that, just as Part One of the Deal will exact a price from those who don’t respect it, Part Two of the Deal is capable of exacting its price as well. You can pretend that such issues don’t deserve inclusion on the list of public imperatives, but the Deal will insure that sooner or later you’ll have to come to grips with them.
The Deal, in other words, has given us work to do. But let no one say on that account that it doesn’t exist or isn’t worth defending.