Speaking Only Single Thoughts

Terry H. Schwadron

In search for a daily story with a moral, today we go where we normally don’t tread — inside the leadership of the conservative-leaning Heritage Foundation.

A coup inside Heritage deposed former South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint, an extremely outspoken proponent for almost every public policy I oppose — because he was declared insufficiently lined up in support of President Trump.

Specifically, it seems, the split among conservatives and more-right-than-conservatives over repeal of Obamacare was a root cause. Generally, according to Politico, Heritage board members were said to believe that DeMint had brought in too many Senate allies and made the think tank too bombastic and political to the detriment of research and scholarly work.

While I couldn’t care less about who is at the helm of the Heritage — the group to which President Trump has turned for advice about policy and nominees — I am saddened to hear yet another vote for uniformity in thought, even among political opponents.

Essentially, the Democrats are going through similar convulsions in very slow motion. So too is the White House staff itself, with fissures among staff members taking important time away from doing the people’s work. So too, in some manner, is the current discussion about controversial public speakers on university campuses (Just why would anyone want to waste a perfectly good afternoon listening to Ann Coulter anyway?). It is the story behind why Team Trump has not filled various positions — people might not be blindly loyal to Trump, they might have their own ideas.

Something important does seem to have happened — again. We have been through this plenty before. Among the biggest wins over years raised by issues from Vietnam and the Middle East to civil rights and marriage equality have come exactly from the idea that people Disagree, and they argue about their differences. Out of difference comes compromise, out of reason and debate comes majority.

We have taken it to be a mark of American values that plurality in opinions trumps, as it were, unanimity. By contrast, a factoid posted by PBS News Hour this week noted that North Korea mandates what kind of haircut is allowed for its citizens.

It is quite believable to me that DeMint at Heritage made his position too much about himself rather than about his agency. After all, that has marked the last decade in particular, and it is an on-the-ground change in attitude. Employers and employees alike have lost their loyalty for one another, and there is much more of an I-must-be-for-myself attitude in the land.

Heritage is exactly the kind of think tank that should be reaching out to “the other side,” whatever that represents in their world to be more inclusive. It is a think tank. In like fashion, universities should not be in the business of deciding who should not be speaking, and media outlets should not have to go through contortions to vet their experts for political leanings. What happened to letting everyone speak, in fact inviting people to speak.

If support for repeal of Obamacare is indeed a root cause for the Heritage turmoil (DeMint opposed the repeal, but seems neutral about the newly emerging changes that allow states to opt out of its central tenets), the real question is why Heritage is not sponsoring the kind of debate that the government itself seems to be avoiding. Why is everything about winning rather than learning?

DeMint, who has allowed Heritage staff to work directly with Trump staff, explained to Politico in February that Heritage was not political. “We see ourselves as a resource. We’re not really decision-makers. We’re not lobbying or driving a process here. But our hope is to influence lawmakers in a way that moves the country in a positive direction.” His critics on the board say, “Jim brought everyone in from the Senate to Heritage and made it hyper-political,” said one board member. “Heritage is also about civil society and culture. He’s taken that off of the table.”

DeMint cut short his second term in the Senate, resigning in 2012 to take the job at Heritage. He had clashed frequently with party leaders.

The New York Times reported that board member Rebekah Mercer, a reclusive donor and backer of Stephen K. Bannon in his effort to dismantle aspects of the political establishment, was a main driver of the campaign against DeMint. The Times said that DeMint was not seen as sufficiently pro-Trump by some members of the board. The likely success is Edwin J. Feulner, a former president of Heritage who has worked closely with the Trump administration.

Heritage, which rose to prominence during the Reagan administration and remains a home for many Reagan-era aides like Edwin Meese III, the former attorney general, has come to represent the hard-line, uncompromising vision for conservatism associated with the Tea Party movement and its leaders in Congress.

In the Obama years, Heritage shifted to more direct political combat, holding both parties accountable to Tea Party standards.

The real question here is this: Have we reached the point where we can only listen to those with whom we fully agree?



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