Advice for conservatives: ‘The first principle is that you must not fool yourself’

Matt K. Lewis Senior Contributor
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This morning, I wrote about how important it is to put yourself in the other guy’s shoes. It’s such a timely topic right now as conservatives quarrel, that I wanted to elaborate on it a bit further.

Whether you’re a voter, a journalist, a strategist, or a politician, the worst thing that can happen to you is to lose touch.

The good news is, there is an easy (and positive) way to avoid this fate. As Sean Hackbarth noted (in response to my post), “Empathy leads to understanding which leads to connection.”

Empathy, of course, defined as the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. A lot of our problems could be solved by being more empathetic — by putting ourselves in someone else’s shoes.

But as we confront this current conservative schism, this won’t be easy. That’s because, when it comes to the grassroots conservatives versus establishment conservative schism, both sides live in different bubbles.

Let’s take the center-right journalists, for example. Even the most sincere of these insiders can sound like a cynical appeaser when he (correctly) notes that the defund idea won’t work. These journalists must struggle not to see grassroots conservatives as either frauds or rubes. The risk is, they’ve spent too much time around other DC elites, so that — like Pauline Kael — they don’t know anybody who voted for Nixon.

Likewise, professional political operatives in DC must be scratching their heads, wondering why such a quixotic notion such as the defund strategy would catch fire. This is bad news for their clients, who must win the votes of heartland Americans. As Dick Morris (who is guilty of losing touch with reality) once said: “The hardest thing to do in politics is to think like an outsider when you’ve become an insider.”

Meanwhile, tea party conservatives (who are fed a steady diet of conservative media and have their opinions reinforced by their like-minded neighbors) risk losing touch for different reasons. They assume the insiders are wrong, but it’s hard to beat a man at his own game. And the insiders clearly understand the political process better than the amateurs.

So it comes down to this: The insiders risk losing touch with their base, while the base risks losing touch with reality (in the sense of knowing what is politically possible).

We are all susceptible to “drinking the Kool-Aid.” How then can any of us be saved? By being vigilant.

In his recent column, George Will warns against delusions of grandeur: “Those people who are best at deceiving others first deceive themselves. They often do so by allowing their wishes to be the fathers of their thoughts, and begin by wishing that everything has changed.”

This is an important point. But I think Richard Feyman probably put it best: “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool.”

Indeed. Or to put it another way: You’ve got to check yourself before you wreck yourself.

Matt K. Lewis