A Conversation with Matt Lewis: On Disruption, Instability, and the Politics of the Future

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By Andrew Hyman, Class of 2019

There’s a drumbeat building in America these days: burn things down and start over. Rising voices at both extremes propose grandiose policies that would radically reshape the perceptions of America, from building a wall to keep out the tired, poor, huddled masses, to nationalizing healthcare in the land of free markets and capitalism. But some are standing athwart these forces, trying to pull the country back together. One of those voices is Matt Lewis.

I met Matt through the Institute of Politics. A visiting fellow during Spring 2018, he conducted a series of discussions about the history and future of conservatism in the US. Matt is a senior columnist for The Daily Beast, a regular contributor on MSNBC and CNN, the author of “Too Dumb to Fail: How the GOP Betrayed the Reagan Revolution to Win Elections”, and host of the podcast Matt Lewis and the News.

Recently, I sat down with Matt to talk about some of the biggest issues facing our country today, and what we can do about them. Whether or not you agree with him, his thoughtfulness and rationality make his opinions deserving of attention.

To provide context for our discussion, I asked Matt to describe his political philosophy. “I’m basically a down-the-line conservative. It’s what you’d think of as a mainstream Republican about 5 years ago; if you were looking at someone in office today, it’d be Ben Sasse.” From that broad description, he went on to key in on the most important tenets of his philosophy: “I’m more of a free-marketer with a focus on the rule of law. American conservatives are very different from European conservatives. We want to conserve liberal democracy. What we’ve inherited is very precious, so we don’t want to upend everything. And this is what puts us at odds with Donald Trump, who had a very radical message about overthrowing the so-called establishment.”

The disruption of recent years has affected his worldview. “I wrote a book warning against Trumpism, populist nationalism.” Trump’s success caused Lewis to re-evaluate some fundamental assumptions about the nature of US politics today. In particular, on the beliefs and core principles of the conservative base, he said, “When liberals talked about conservatives being kooky, racist… I really dismissed that as a laughably small fraction, but it definitely seems bigger today. I also assumed the base cared more about conservative philosophy, whether it was Burke, or Hayek, or whoever. I thought they were wedded to those principles. Now it seems like much more of a tribal issue.”

These changes have affected also how he talks to the other side. “In recent years, I’ve become more sensitive to liberals and their concerns, which has impacted how I communicate my ideas. I try to be more compassionate, more irenic.” That word sent me to the dictionary where I discover that it means “aiming at peace,” which is useful in his career as a commentator; he lives in the opposite of an echo chamber. “I’ve been going on networks like MSNBC and CNN, and writing for mainstream outlets with liberal editors who challenge my ideas.” The rise of Trump hasn’t significantly changed his view on particular issues, but it does seem to have altered his perceptions of the context in which our politics operates.

Having discussed political philosophy, we turned to a number of more specific and wide-ranging issues facing American society today, including inequality, automation, and racial injustice. On a few of the topics we covered, Matt made some particularly insightful points.

On technology as the cause of, and potential solution to, a lot of the problems we face today, he said, “Our problems aren’t caused by Donald Trump; technology is a big driver of a lot of [these problems], but I think there is a good chance technology helps swing the pendulum back.” An example is shootings of unarmed black men by police. “If you were a white conservative, you may have never dealt with police abuse. But you have to grapple with the fact that African-Americans have been dealing with this for a long time. Now that iPhones are ubiquitous, in the wake of one of these tragic shootings, this makes me wonder if the abuse is ubiquitous too.”

 (Photo Credit: Institute of Politics/Zane Maxwell) Matt Lewis, facing the camera second from the right, leading a seminar at the Institute of Politics with guest Matthew Continetti on The Roots of Conservatism. This was one of four seminars hosted by Matt, all reflecting on how the Republican party got to where it is today.

(Photo Credit: Institute of Politics/Zane Maxwell) Matt Lewis, facing the camera second from the right, leading a seminar at the Institute of Politics with guest Matthew Continetti on The Roots of Conservatism. This was one of four seminars hosted by Matt, all reflecting on how the Republican party got to where it is today.

As someone who loves reading news but hates the hectic shouting matches on the 24-hour news networks, I appreciated Matt’s point that he “gets paid to think about and lament the state of politics, and how media’s driven by entertainment; but the columns [he writes] need to generate clicks and buzz.” And when I brought up the rise of long-form conversations on political topics, Matt agreed that this is one particularly bright spot in the media landscape. “These discussions require respect, trust, and vulnerability. I have to respect you enough to speak with you; I have to trust you not to edit my words or try to trap me; and for the conversation to work, I have to be vulnerable, open, and willing to change my mind.”

The last problem we discussed was perhaps the most important one: how fear has begun to permeate society. “When people feel scared, whether that’s for their own economic or personal safety, then they’re much less generous. They get a hoarding mentality.” This fear, embedded deeply into both sides of the political divide, in turn drives the desire for radical change. “Bad news travels quickly; when we talk a lot about how bad things are, that tends to have a multiplier effect.”

I tried to get a little more specific: how might businesses and their leaders help improve the political culture? “Sadly, I think this is part of the problem. Let’s look at Nike [and their recently launched ad campaign starring Colin Kaepernick]. From a laissez-faire perspective, they made the right move by exploiting this issue to increase their profits. If one of the externalities is that the country gets a little more torn apart, so be it. But that also doesn’t feel right to me.”

When it comes to de-escalating emotional arguments, Matt noted that he hasn’t seen any tactics that have worked particularly well. But while our survey of the myriad problems we face was somewhat depressing, I wanted to end the conversation on a more hopeful note. We don’t live in an era of easy solutions, but I’m encouraged by our discussion about racial injustice and how smartphones have helped finally bring this problem to people’s attention. As Matt said, “Those videos have made me even more sensitive to this serious issue… if there is an African-American liberal who feels the system is rigged, I still may not agree with all of their policy preferences, but I can respect and understand where they’re coming from.”

A foundation of mutual respect is one of the things our generation needs to rebuild. We need to resurrect our societal memory of the fact that no matter how vehemently we disagree, the people we’re arguing with are real people too, with real hopes and real fears, and a real desire to make the country better. If we practice engaging in debate without erupting into violence and rage, we may be able to leave this place better than we found it. If not us, who?