Book Chat

A Conversation With Jim DeMint

On his new book, shrinking government, and America's future.

By 5.9.14

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As president and CEO of the Heritage Foundation, Jim DeMint has travelled across the country and met with thousands of people “anxious to join in building a stronger and more prosperous America.”

Falling in Love With America Again (Center Street, 320 pages, $22.50) is DeMint's methodical manifesto on how to do just what the title indicates. The former senator from South Carolina chronicles the ways in which America has become too big and too intrusive to love. In particular, the federal government, designated “the mother of big” by the author, threatens to repel its country’s own citizens.

By recounting personal stories and startling statistics, DeMint seeks to revitalize Edmund Burke’s concept of “the little platoon we belong to in society” and encourage Americans to embrace the conservative principles of limited government, free enterprise, individual freedom, and traditional values.

DeMint spoke to The American Spectator about why he’s optimistic for America, and why we should be too.  

TAS: Did you yourself begin to feel your love for America alter or fade, or did you notice a change in people you spoke to? What inspired the theme of this book?

Jim DeMint: We all love America, yet with the government taking more control of our everyday lives it can be difficult to remember what makes our nation unique and where our wellspring of love of country comes from: freedom. The people in Washington who run our government sometimes make loving our country an exercise in patience. When they blanket the nation in one-size-fits-all policies and federal mandates, regardless of constitutional restraint or bottom-up solutions which empower regular folks, they smother what we love most in the United States.

I wanted to write a book that fought back against this trend, not by simply listing grievances, but re-emphasizing those things which made us fall in love in the first place. Nobody loves America because an executive order told them to. We are patriots because of our personal, local involvement with this country, and the freedoms we exercise in our day-to-day lives.           

TAS: You talk a lot in this book about "America's little platoons." In the foreword, Dr. Ben Carson says they're comprised of "the modest man or woman who lives next door." What is it about the American people, the same people who elected Obama twice and who continue to vote for bigger government, that gives you faith and hope? 

JD: The president promised a lot of good things: jobs, prosperity, transparent government, smart foreign policy—and who could forget “if you like your plan you can keep it”? Unfortunately, we’ve received none of these things, and the approval ratings for Congress and the president show it. Even the exit polls of the last election showed a majority believed our country was on the wrong track and the government was doing too much, but they apparently didn’t trust the other candidate to turn things around or weren’t motivated enough by those concerns.

Conservatives must do a better job of connecting our policy with the personal benefits they bring individuals. Free markets, rule of law, and personal responsibility have raised more people out of poverty than any government program, because they give every person the freedom to climb as high as they can dream. It’s not enough to be able to prove our policies are right with charts and figures; we’ve got to connect emotionally with the American people so that they understand these policies are best for them and their family.

TAS: What would you say are the top reasons people have, or are in danger of, falling out of love with America, and what are the solutions?

JD: Conflating the government we have now with the government the Constitution actually outlined is a one-way ticket to the doldrums. The Founding Fathers never intended the federal government to manage what’s taught in a schoolroom in Peoria, what health care decisions you can make with your doctor, or how you run a family business.

Bitterness and division arise between Americans when we’re all forced into the same policy straitjacket. In a nation of hundreds of millions of individuals with different faiths, talents, and dreams, requiring a single, uniform system in so many areas of life—from health to education—just doesn’t work. When every policy issue becomes a race to Washington, and federal authority is used as a club to force different communities into uniformity, resentment for the law replaces respect, and resentment for one’s fellow citizens replaces affection. The more personal freedom, and the more local subsidiarity there is, and the more naturally patriotism will come.

TAS: Obviously the shrinkage of government is not going to come from Washington. How do you foresee Americans, so many of whom rely on federal programs in some way or another, limiting the government's role in their lives? 

JD: The inevitable scenario that conservatives rightly warn of, and liberal progressives won’t publicly admit, is that big government has an expiration date: the point in time when the entire mess grows too expensive to sustain itself. To echo the sentiments of Margaret Thatcher, we’ll eventually run out of other people’s money. If we reach that point, federal programs that millions depend upon—Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, and a host of others—will go bankrupt, which is why reform is so urgent.

And we can start with some changes that should enjoy large public support: Ending crony capitalist enterprises like the Ex-Im Bank, bailouts to failing corporations, and subsidies to big business should be a no-brainer. Yet it will take courage and a real fight to make it happen. Washington special interests won’t let go of their special handouts easily. Americans understand the unfairness of government picking winners and losers. And as Senator Mike Lee recently reminded us in a speech at Heritage, our nation began with a revolt against corporate cronyism.  

TAS: What has changed about your perspective now that you are working for a private company rather than a publicly elected official? What lessons did you learn from being a senator that you can use to advise private citizens about their government? 

JD: There is vast institutional inertia—especially in the Senate—against rocking the boat. Even amongst members of my own caucus at the time, there was an attitude of “that’s just the way things are” toward earmarks, appropriations, federal programs, the whole nine yards. So I wasn’t particularly popular for the standing to change the status quo.

At Heritage, I get to spend my time working with the best policy minds in the nation talking directly to politicians' employers: the American people. Real, permanent reform in Washington will only come from a productive conversation with the whole nation about the merits of conservative policies. Once the right principles are in place, we can trust our friends and neighbors to send the right people to Washington on their own. And as Milton Friedman once said, the goal should be to make conservative policies so winsome and prevalent in our culture that the even the wrong people are pressured to do the right thing. We’re seeing some of that now as almost everyone campaigns against earmarks, bailouts, and debt, and even liberals are running away from Obamacare.

TAS: Love is in your book's title, and love of family, country, and neighbor are other themes you focus on. Has what you've seen of the current generation's attitude toward family and faith, with a decline in stable marriages and an increase in religious indifference, worry you for America's future?

JD: I pray about it as often as I can. There are certainly some social ills we can combat through good public policy. For example, we shouldn’t have “marriage penalties” in the tax code. Marriage is critical to every indicator of individual well-being, from employment and earnings to avoidance of delinquency, to school dropout rates, to abuse. Marriage promotion should be a routine public policy. We’ve seen improvements in public understanding of the issue of life, as more and more Americans come to understand that government has a duty to protect the basic rights to liberty and life for everyone, including the unborn. 

Increasingly, the issue of religious liberty has come to the forefront and it’s important that we understand this is not merely the “freedom to worship.” Individuals should be free to work, speak, and serve according to their deeply held beliefs throughout their lives. 

TAS: What's the next step for regaining and falling back in love with America? Where do we begin?

JD: Go and help somebody when it’s not “your job” to do so. Get involved in local decision-making and public planning. Volunteer at a local charity or your house of worship. Start a business or something as simple as getting involved with your local school board. 

Every personal interaction, charitable deed, or great idea that you bring to fruition stands as a rebuke to those who think we rely on a bunch of politicians for our existence, rather than the other way around.

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About the Author

Teresa Mull, a former editorial intern at The American Spectator , is managing editor of Human Events.