I had thought that Matt Lewis’s new book about the conservative Republican future, Too Dumb To Fail, had a title that was accurate but a bit ahead of its time. Then, on the eve of the book’s publication, Sarah Palin endorsed the Republican frontrunner, Donald Trump, with a rambling “speech” that thoroughly earned a New York Daily News front page headline “I’m With Stupid”. When real life proves your point more than any publicity campaign possibly could, it’s time for concerned conservatives to see what Lewis teaches us.
Lewis argues that the current conservative crisis stems from an intellectual crisis he terms the dumbing down of conservatism. As conservatism has increasingly become less tied to serious intellectual arguments, Lewis contends that it has become defined by its lowest common denominator, anger at the left. This, combined with the rise of an establishment that profits enormously from stoking that anger (he calls it “the Con$ervative Movement”), has created a conservatism that is both unable to argue rather than assert and uninterested in persuading Americans who are not already true believers to join their cause. This has resulted in “a sort of red meat-hurling style” that harms rather than advances the opportunities conservatives have to govern and change America. Moreover, since “the dumbing down of conservatism has (so far) resulted in the worst offenders failing forward,” (i.e., their stature and income grow as they make conservatism less appealing to the broader swath of Americans), “[t]hey are, in essence, too dumb to fail”.
Lewis, an up and coming conservative journalist with gigs at The Daily Caller and Morning Joe, does not shy away from naming names. Trump and Senator Ted Cruz come in for criticism, the latter for his futile and counterproductive crusade to shut down the government rather than approve a budget that included funding for Obamacare even though there was never slightest chance of funding repeal becoming law. Talk radio and television heavyweights Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, and Laura Ingraham get called out for their roles as ringleaders in the “conservative entertainment complex”. The august Heritage Foundation’s new lobbying arm, Heritage Action for America, also gets knocked for its increasingly strident efforts to enforce a conservative orthodoxy of its own definition through money and muscle.
This book is far from a standard D.C. “if only they listened to me” critique. Lewis’ essential argument is that the current crisis is decades in the making, the unintended consequence of a series of understandable decisions made decades ago to help address the challenges the movement faced in the 1980s and 90s. The first was the decision to court Southern evangelicals. Lewis is himself a Southern (West Virginia) evangelical, so here he criticizes his own when he notes that evangelicals have long shied away from engagement with the less-devout world. This has meant they as a group tend to lack intellectual curiosity and rigor. Bringing a decidedly unintellectual group into the movement, Lewis contends, encouraged the movement itself to move away from its strength, its use of argument to explain America’s challenges and propose real solutions that solve them.
The second was the decision to create an alternative conservative media universe. In the face of the left’s domination of the high ground of intellectual discourse (universities, newspapers, and television), this was both necessary and helpful. But, combined with the appetite for red meat arguments from the newly converted base, it has led to a conservative ghetto where well-meaning conservatives can live without ever coming into contact with people who disagree with them. Pandered to by “leaders” who profit enormously from keeping their flock sheltered, this has created a worldview in which conservatives are an embattled majority suppressed only by the betrayal of elites and their putative leaders. “Informed” by such falsehoods, it is no wonder when we ponder a future as I write of a Republican party led either by a demagogue or a charlatan.
How to get out of this rabbit hole? Lewis offers a host of ideas, but they boil down to one phrase: Get smart. Conservatives should start to read deeply in their own tradition (he proposes a set of books to get started with). They should learn how political engagement really works if they want to become politically active (starting with learning how campaigns really work), and those who want to engage the culture should become excellent at their craft (literature, movie making, music) rather than simply use mediocre talents to advance their views. They should spend some time outside of the conservative ghetto to understand the broader world they live in, and in so doing sharpen their arguments to make conservative victory more, not less, probable.
I have my quibbles with some of Lewis’s advice. He correctly observes that demographics will force the current GOP to change, as its core white, non-college-educated base shrinks in size and Hispanics, Asians, and college-educated whites grow in numbers. In the short term, however, I believe the only path forward is to court non-evangelical non-college-educated whites, as they both currently in motion between the two parties and are the decisive voting bloc in the electoral vote rich Midwest. Doing so will also help conservatives learn in the long term how to increase their support among Hispanic and Asians, as those voters tend to come from lower-education and more communal backgrounds that make them less hospitable to an individualistic, purely classical liberal economic message. Hispanics, according to polls from the Public Religion Research Institute, favor increasing taxes and government spending over cutting taxes and letting the private sector work by a 2-1 margin. Learning how to court working- and lower-middle-class voters, which is the only way to both win the Midwest and increase the GOP’s vote share among Hispanics and Asians, requires more than simply arguing for lower taxes.
But this quibble is merely a difference among allies about strategy. Indeed, such an approach requires more of exactly what Lewis says the movement and the party need: practical intelligence, pragmatism and skillful deployment.
Conservatives who feel dismayed at the current state of affairs should run out and buy Lewis’ book. He will show you how to begin to stop being too dumb to fail, and start being smart enough to succeed.