Review by Steve Parkhurst
“Conservatism is at a crossroads.”
Matt Lewis does not open his new book, Too Dumb to Fail, with this warning, it shows up later after the facts have been laid out and the suggestions for survival have been made. But it is an important premise that was important throughout Lewis’ new work.
Too Dumb To Fail is a page turner for sure. Given the title of the book, you might suspect the book was written by a vitriolic blonde bomb-thrower from Fox News. Fortunately for those of us who want to win and grow the movement, this is not the case. The subtitle of the book illustrates its true purpose: How the GOP Betrayed the Reagan Revolution to Win Elections (and How It Can Reclaim Its Conservative Roots).
Too Dumb to Fail moves at a nice pace because Matt Lewis is an interesting writer. He writes clearly and does not overcomplicate topics that are easy to muddy-up. The difference between Matt Lewis and so many other writers is that he cares about the conservative movement. He is not looking back at 40 to 60 years of activism and then condemning everything about the future. Matt Lewis is as much a part of the future of our movement as he is a part of its past. Some of us campaign-types heard Matt teach sessions at party conventions, some of which included his first book, Teaching Elephants to Talk. Matt’s ability to teach us to talk, is perhaps what makes him such a good writer. He is not a lecturer; he is a teacher.
Lewis walks us through a brief, yet thorough history of the conservative movement, which of course includes Barry Goldwater’s 1964 presidential campaign, an edited version of William F. Buckley’s arrival in the movement, and of course Ronald Reagan’s slow but steady rise to the highest office in the land. Chapter 1, “A History of Brilliant Conservatism,” concludes with a section titled “Conservatism Was Smart.”
That eventually leads us to a really interesting chapter that discusses the hucksters who fleece our movement of dollars, yet produce nothing. Lewis humorously identifies these people as the Con$ervative Movement. For instance, Lewis writes about a group of PACs that spent roughly $54 million, but not quite $4 million of that was actually spent on getting Republicans elected. $50 million in conservative dollars wasted, possibly extorted, just in the 2014 election cycle alone. That story will get your blood boiling. We did well in 2014, but we could have done even better.
Lewis similarly discusses the 2013 Virginia race for Governor where Ken Cuccinelli nobly took on Terry McAuliffe. One group took in over $2 million saying they were going to help get Cuccinelli elected, yet they spent “less than one-half of one percent” on Cuccinelli’s losing campaign. Lewis also briefly touches upon “Joe the Plumber” (a phenomenon I never understood) and his brief stay in the limelight of the Con$ervative Movement.
There are so many great examples in this book that really highlight the problems we are up against, even within our own movement. Lewis points to absurd statistics thrown out by Donald Trump, which is one thing. Then we realize he got the phony statistics from one of Ann Coulter’s books, and the statistics have been thoroughly discredited. Then there is Donald Trump’s lack of understanding that the money that funds Planned Parenthood “is fungible.” Followed later by Ann Coulter declaring, this time via Twitter, in response to Donald Trump’s immigration plan, “I don’t care if [Donald Trump] wants to perform abortions in White House after this immigration policy paper.”
One more point about Ann Coulter, and this is not covered in Matt Lewis book per se, but this illustrates the deeper point. South Carolina recently held their Republican primary and Marco Rubio finished behind Ann’s guy, Donald Trump. Coulter tweeted, “Could someone please have Marco’s bartender dad make me a mojito? I’d like to toast Trump’s amazing victory.” Marco Rubio’s dad passed away in 2010. This is why sometimes we seem like we’re swimming against the tide, within our own movement.
Lewis puts great emphasis throughout this book on intellectual thought in the Republican party, more of it in the distant past than in its present. Ours is a movement founded upon solid philosophical and intellectual arguments and principles. Lewis is not writing this to tell us that we are dumb now. He is telling us why this intellectual foundation matters. “When you lose intellectuals, you lose popular culture and, before you know it, you’ve lost the culture war,” writes Lewis.
Why did Obama’s “you didn’t build that” remark not really matter to the outcome of the 2012 election? Lewis has an interesting take on this in the wider view of our culture wars.
Lewis challenges us not to simply walk away from pop culture, but rather to influence it and affect it. “Christian conservatives must work to authentically engage the culture, instead of trying to ape what’s already popular.” As Lewis notes later, “By first rejecting the culture and turning inward, and then focusing almost solely on politics, conservatives now find themselves increasingly shut out of major conversations that average Americans are interested in.” Lewis arrives at a sensible and pragmatic solution, “The answer is for conservatives to make good art, not necessarily to make conservative art.”
Do you think pop culture and the conservative movement do not go together? Lewis correctly points out that, “Winning elections means having a tent big enough to attract a majority.” He follows that up later with an entire chapter titled, “Modernize, Don’t Moderate.” He was right to do this because too often the “big tent” concept gets labeled as something it is not, and those in pursuit of a bigger tent are labeled as well.
We have some demographic realities to face. Whether it is race, education, age, location, or marital status, our movement is losing ground in many of the numbers that matter. Lewis writes, “the conservative moment appears to want to keep the GOP a party almost exclusively for older, whiter, more rural Americans.” He continues, “For Reagan-Kemp conservatives, this is a philosophical and mathematical problem.” Rather than “doubling down on cohorts that are losing population,” Lewis is instead suggesting ways that we can grow the movement without dumbing down our principles.
On election day 2012, when Mitt Romney would fall short of unseating an incumbent President, exit poll respondents were asked about four qualities of each candidate, Romney and Obama. Mitt Romney won on three of the four qualities, but it was the one quality that Obama won that made all the difference. On the question about which candidate “cares about people like me,” Obama won in a landslide. Lewis tells us what that number was, and why it matters.
Lewis has a message for talk radio hosts, read the book to see it, it is important. Lewis talks about the faux warnings from some hosts and what he terms “apocalyptic punditry.” If we “never leave the echo chamber,” Lewis warns, we are more prone to believe the “apocalyptic punditry” or even buy into the unbelievable election predictions, like the one Dick Morris made in 2012 about Romney winning 300 electoral votes on his way to a 5 to 10 point win. (Romney got 206 electoral votes, Obama got 332, and Romney lost by nearly 4 percentage points). Lewis humorously notes, “Morris’s predictions were so egregious that Fox News actually dropped him as a contributor.”
So, what should conservatives do today? Lewis writes, “The real answer, I suggest, is to look to the Reagan model-but not in a way that looks backward or assumes nominating a hard-core conservative is a panacea. Reagan looked to the future, and so should we.” This will not be easy, change is tough. But change can also be our missing ingredient. The reality about the Right, is as Lewis notes, “it has to be better, stronger, tougher, smarter.” Too Dumb to Fail can help with all of that.
Finally, readers will get twenty book suggestions at the end. I am going to do what every author wants done and suggest you get a copy of the book and read the list (and the entire book) for yourself. Lewis’ book suggestions are not typical. If you go in expecting to see books by Sean Hannity, Dick Morris or Michael Savage, or any of Ann Coulter’s books, you will be disappointed. This list is deeper than all of that.
There is so much more in this book. For instance, what is pastor Tim Keller doing that is worth replicating within the conservative movement? What are “Ideological Immigrants”? Why are we implored to “Teach Your Children Well”? What about think tanks that are now becoming activists as well? What is “The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind”? And what is the reality about how to “Appeal to Hispanics”?
This all amounts to a very interesting book at a very good time.
I have intentionally been vague on many of the topics discussed in Too Dumb to Fail because I want to really encourage you to read this book. It is a quick read, it is succinct and well written, it is a critique and not a condemnation, and perhaps as important, it is aspirational. Too Dumb to Fail is a book I will go back to over the next few years and make sure I have properly implemented many of the suggestions that Lewis makes.
As a final tease for Too Dumb to Fail, any book that can recall a scene from the baseball movie Bull Durham, which involves a great scene between Crash Davis and Nuke LaLoosh, and can relate that to political messaging, that’s a job well done. Enjoy.