There’s a fascinating profile of Jim DeMint, the new president of the Heritage Foundation, in BusinessWeek, which makes a good pairing for this NYT piece that focuses on the GOP’s “civil war” between establishment Republicans and Tea Partiers.
But one of the comments that really stuck out to me concerning DeMint’s move from the Senate to a think tank was his realization about what it would take to change the political culture in Washington. As Joshua Green writes, DeMint had previously worked to get a new brand of GOP legislator elected to Congress, including Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio. But later “DeMint gave up trying to purify the party from within.”
As DeMint puts it: “I recognized that, even after working to elect candidates the party really didn’t want, the only way to change Washington is to go directly to the people,” he says. “You have to win the debate on the outside to shape the culture.” And Heritage gives DeMint a “platform that the Senate had not” to take his case to the people.
On the one hand, it takes a special kind of perspective to view a think tank like Heritage as “outside” Washington’s political culture. But on the other, DeMint’s convictions about how to change the culture in the nation’s capital reflects an important insight about the way that the structures of political authority ought to flow: not from the top down but rather from the bottom up. There’s a sense in which this is the opposite of a “trickle down” political economics.
As DeMint puts it, rather than “making fun” of President Obama for “community organizing,” conservatives “need to realize that that’s how they’re winning on the left: empowering people on the grass-roots level and getting them organized and informed.”
The extent to which this grass-roots conservatism, a conservatism for the people, really has a constituency will certainly be put to the test. But DeMint’s convictions about changing the political culture in DC should ensure that this test will have the virtue of being conducted in the crucible of the electorate rather than the echo chamber of Washington, DC.
And if anything goes awry, at least we’ll know whose fault it is.