Excerpt: Matt Lewis on the ‘Dumbing Down’ of the GOP
This is the dirty little secret of the conservative movement in America today: everyone knows that it has lost its lost its intellectual bearings. Empty-headed talking point reciters, rookie politicians who’ve never managed anything in their lives, media clowns such as Donald Trump, dim bulbs in tight pants or short skirts, professionally outraged shout-fest talking heads, and total political neophytes dominate conservative airwaves and the Right’s political discourse.
The Republican Party is called the Grand Old Party for a reason. It was founded on big ideas: abolishing slavery and holding together a federal republic. But the dumbing down of the GOP has gone on for so long that nearly half of Republicans don’t know what that acronym stands for.
I am not suggesting that liberals are immune to these problems. They faced similar struggles in past decades and settled for simplistic solutions. Over the years, liberals came to believe a university president could keep us out of war, a plain-speaking peanut farmer could restore honor to Washington after Watergate, and a community organizer could unite America. Democrats went through their own time in the wilderness, losing three consecutive presidential elections from 1980 to 1992. But their identity crises didn’t coincide with a time when respect for institutions was declining, when outside groups made it possible for backbench politicians to usurp a leader’s authority without fear of retribution, and when a technological revolution meant any Tom, Dick, or Harry could have a megaphone and a printing press on his smartphone.
Somewhere between Ronald Reagan’s “A Time for Choosing” speech in support of Barry Goldwater in 1964 and the most recent government shutdown, the conservative movement became neither conservative nor a movement. Hijacked by the divisive and the dumb, it now finds itself hostage to emotions and irrational thinking. It became more personal and less principled — more flippant and less thoughtful. It became mean. It became lazy. It became its own worst enemy. Where once the movement drew strength from its desire to win the philosophical argument over its adversaries, it now wears its lost causes as badges of honor — expected, like Coriolanus, to show these battle scars as a means of vote mongering.
This is the story of how that happened, and how the Republican Party has become the latest victim of a dumbed-down popular culture. Far from burying the conservative movement, I hope with this book — to borrow from Shakespeare — to save it.
Too Dumb to Fail
So why call it Too Dumb to Fail?
The title is a play on words — an allusion to Andrew Ross Sorkin’s Too Big to Fail, about the financial crisis of 2008. The crisis was brought on in part by the fact that individual actors (in this case, financial institutions) behaved unethically and ignored warnings that bubbles would eventually burst. And when they did, some of the actors were deemed too big and too interconnected to be allowed to fail, and were, thus, bailed out by the taxpayers.
It’s in everyone’s best interest to ignore the potential looming crisis. For example, the fact that Republicans have lost the popular vote in five out of the last six presidential elections should be cause for grave concern. Instead, it’s barely mentioned. Part of the reason is that individual actors (instead of financial institutions — think political candidates, organizations, etc.) are prospering. They have little reason to change their behavior because they profit, regardless of whether a Republican candidate wins the presidency. (In fact, they may profit more if a Democrat wins.) And, of course, although there are continual threats of third parties, the notion of abandoning the “too big to fail” GOP seems highly unlikely.
Speaking of a moral hazard, rather than addressing the serious problems (demographic, as well as rapidly shifting public opinion on a spate of social issues) facing the GOP, almost all the incentives — including fund-raising and media attention — reward a sort of dumbed-down, red meat-hurling style that kicks the can down the road. This book is about the irony that the dumbing down of conservatism has (so far) resulted in the worst offenders failing forward.
They are, in essence, too dumb to fail.
What This Book Is Not
This book is not an argument for a small, elite group of the best and brightest to rule us by using their sophisticated formulas and technocratic ways. While I was writing the book, a scandal erupted and revealed that Jonathan Gruber, one of the architects of Obamacare, had boasted that the health care law benefited from a “lack of transparency” and the “stupidity of the American voter.” This is the kind of snobbishness that fosters American skepticism about the “ruling class,” the “Washington cartel,” and the so-called “experts.”
Too Dumb to Fail is not an argument that intelligence is more important than wisdom or courage. Were that the case, Jimmy Carter, a nuclear engineer and graduate of the US Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, would have been preferable to Ronald Reagan, a humble graduate of Eureka College, and Bill Clinton, a Rhodes scholar, would have won my vote over Russell, Kansas’s, Bob Dole. In this regard, I agree with Theodore Roosevelt, a Manhattan intellectual turned roughriding cowboy: “Exactly as strength comes before beauty, so character must stand above intellect and genius.”
Wanted: Adults in the Room, a
nd in the Party
This book is not a criticism or an indictment of the many God-fearing good conservative activists and individuals who attend rallies and want to take their country back. Nor is it an attack on rural Americans (among whose number I counted myself for the first twenty-four years of my life) or Christians (I’m an evangelical).
What I am suggesting, though, is that the current challenges confronting conservatism have to do with a deficit of both intellect and wisdom — as well as discipline, humility, and prudence. What we need, in short, are adults. But somewhere along the way, the adults started acting like kids; they started wanting to be popular — to be liked, rather than feared or respected.
This book is also an indictment of the charlatans, organizations, and political candidates who attempt to exploit good conservative Americans and hijack the conservative movement. As such, my rhetorical crosshairs are reserved exclusively for those who would manipulate conservatives and besmirch their conservative cause — all for ulterior motives (cash, not least among them).
I want to debunk the notion that to be an intellectual is to be a liberal secularist. This may prove to be an uphill battle. The Left promotes the stereotype that to be conservative is to be stupid. Dan Quayle and Sarah Palin have been served up (often unfairly) as examples of this. But unfortunately, especially since the 1960s, conservatives — many of them highly educated in their own right — have been complicit in advancing this trope by playing the populist card and mocking “pointy-headed intellectuals.”
You’ll rarely hear a conservative boast that he (or a friend) is an intellectual. And this has nothing to do with humbleness. The word has a negative connotation on the Right. A liberal might be an intellectual, but a smart conservative — if he can help it — is a “man of letters.”
Today, it is not uncommon for “leaders” of the conservative movement to constantly lament the so-called “establishment.” Ironically, many of these men and women have lived in the Washington, DC, area (sometimes for decades) and have made millions of dollars during that time. In what world are they not part of it?
The highly intelligent are dumbing us down
One of the ironies of the current dumbing down is that it often stems from the work of highly intelligent people. There seems to be a misconception about well-traveled and highly educated people that suggests they are more open-minded and tolerant than the rest of us. Not only have I found little correlation between intelligence and open-mindedness, I wonder if the two may even be mutually exclusive. Some of the smartest people on either side of the aisle are also the most biased. They simply use their intellect to more effectively argue their biases. Some of the most pompous, partisan blowhards on the Right and the Left also tend to be the most intelligent and highly educated. What explains this? “It doesn’t matter how intelligent you are if you don’t use your brain,” says Daniel Flynn, author of the book Intellectual Morons.
Some of history’s greatest evils have sprung from very smart people who lacked wisdom. In Intellectuals and Society, Thomas Sowell put it this way: “The opposite of intellect is dullness or slowness, but the opposite of wisdom is foolishness, which is far more dangerous.” My purpose here is to encourage conservatives to seek both knowledge and wisdom, along with other virtues such as courage, authenticity, empathy, discipline, consistency, and humility. Intelligence is important, but without these other attributes, it is more dangerous than ignorance.
Fears about a dumbed-down America are nothing new. Richard Hofstadter warned us about Anti-intellectualism in American Life fifty years ago (his book won the 1964 Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction). But when Hofstadter wrote his book, John F. Kennedy — who combined style with intellectual substance — was president.
The Kennedy administration rewarded intellectualism and boasted of its own intellectual vigor. It brought top-notch artists and authors and thinkers to the White House and actually celebrated them. One could only imagine what Hofstadter would think now.
We refuse to embrace complexity in major public policy decisions. We reward and elevate leaders who lack either the depth or the experience to address major national problems (and yes, this is a criticism not just of the Right, but also of Exhibit A: Barack Hussein Obama). As a result, our culture is dumb. And our leaders are unprepared and often unfit for the offices they hold.
Holding Our Own Accountable
So why am I, a conservative-leaning journalist, writing this book when there are so many worthy topics out there? “Why not write a book talking about all the sins committed by liberals?” you might ask. My task may be a thankless endeavor. This business of constructive criticism is always fraught with danger. Because the mainstream media has long covered conservatives with the distortive filter of latent liberal bias, there is a sense that center-right journalists ought to eschew criticizing the Right, and instead, devote themselves solely to a tit-for-tat exchange with the mainstream media. In other words, I should be in the business of seeking revenge.
Many of my friends on the Right believe center-right journalists should exist solely to boost conservative candidates and causes—and to attack liberal ones. Whether this is a desire for payback or simply a push for journalistic parity is moot. These are their expectations of conservative media.
Perhaps, as some have suggested, we are headed back to the days when newspapers cast aside any pretense of objectivity and overtly aligned with political parties. I hope not. The notion that any journalist, even an opinion journalist, should serve solely as a mouthpiece for his tribe is not only a dismal view of journalism, but also ultimately self-destructive. Sometimes, your friends need an intervention.
Without intellectually honest center-right journalists holding Republicans and conservative leaders accountable, their bad deeds will metastasize to the point where the mainstream media has a field day exposing them.
The question is whether you want to be loyal to your friends or to a greater cause — including your readers and the general public. I would argue that anti-intellectualism, coupled with an unconservative brand of hubris, is among the most insidious diseases this generation of conservatives must eradicate.
Heretics and Lunatics
Anti-intellectualism and its natural by-product of scorched-earth populism have been around for a long time and exploited by both parties. However, today’s conservatives are disproportionately susceptible to them. The conservative movement’s weakness for rabble-rousing tactics poses serious long-term problems for both the movement and the Republican Party.
Demographic trends imply there will be more young, urban, college-educated Americans who will be repelled by obscuritanism, and proportionately fewer older, white, non-college educated Americans who grouse at what they might deem to be elitist lecturing.
Beyond the electoral consequences, the very viability of conservatism is at stake. There’s no reason a free market philosophy cannot compete and win in a free market of ideas.
It’s immeasurably more complex and less naive than the King Canute-style economics of the Left. But conservatism cannot thrive if its own champions do not treat it seriously. To those who doubt conservatism qualifies as an intellectually rigorous school of philosophy, a brief history of the conservative movement is in order, and my book aims to provide it.
In short, I essentially have two kinds of enemies: heretics and lunatics. Heretics are those people who think the only way conservatives can win is by becoming more liberal. Lunatics are those people who are hoarding Confederate flags and worried about black helicopters. This book rejects both extreme ends of that spectrum.
Excerpted from “Too Dumb to Fail: How the GOP Betrayed the Reagan Revolution to Win Elections (and How It Can Reclaim Its Conservative Roots)” by Matt K. Lewis, with permission from Hachette Books, a division of Hachette Book Group. Copyright 2016 by Matt K. Lewis.