Scholars vs. Ideologues: Why DeMint Got the Boot at Heritage

(Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call) (CQ Roll Call via AP Images)

The Heritage Foundation board has unanimously voted to fire the organization’s president, former Senator Jim DeMint.

The move had been in the works for several days, as a faction of traditionalists at the foundation believed that DeMint’s close association with President Donald Trump and his desire to give a more political edge to the public face of the organization were at odds with what scholars believed was the critical mission of the foundation: research and policy development.



“After a comprehensive and independent review of the entire Heritage organization, the Board determined there were significant and worsening management issues that led to a breakdown of internal communications and cooperation,” the board president Thomas Saunders III said in a statement. “While the organization has seen many successes, Jim DeMint and a handful of his closest advisers failed to resolve these problems.”

Ironically, it was Feulner’s decision in 2010 to create an advocacy organization, Heritage Action, and to install Needham atop it, that sowed the seeds of DeMint’s fall. Though the think tank and the advocacy arm are legally separate entities, several sources familiar with the institution’s internal dynamics say that both organizations became increasingly focused on mediating fights among congressional Republicans rather than on generating policy ideas. The problem existed before DeMint took the helm of Heritage in 2013, but has mushroomed since, Heritage insiders said.

But if DeMint wasn’t the source of the problem, sources say, board members concluded he wasn’t the solution, either.

“When DeMint went in, Heritage became very political. It changed from a highly respected think tank to just a partisan tool and more ideological — more of a tea party organization than a think tank,” said Mickey Edwards, one of the organization’s founding trustees and a former Republican congressman from Oklahoma. “Hopefully, Feulner, if he takes over, can help reestablish Heritage as what it used to be during the Reagan years.”


The bow tie and Vitalis crowd at Heritage had their day in the sun and have been eclipsed by the gimlet-eyed, deadly serious ideologues who want to use ideas the same way that the left has used them for years: as weapons of political combat.

The Needham camp insists that, despite his bombastic public profile, both he and Feulner grew increasingly concerned with the decline of The Heritage Foundation’s role as the brain trust of the Republican Party. DeMint’s and Needham’s motives “are the opposite of what you would expect based on their institutions and positions,” said one Republican policy maven — with Needham, the advocacy head, concerned about the think tank’s position as an idea generator, and DeMint, the think tank head, inclined to transform it into an activist organization.

Needham did not respond to a request for comment.

In its statement about the firing of DeMint, the board stressed that Heritage was bigger than any single leader. “This was a difficult and necessary decision for the Board to take. As trustees, we have governance and oversight responsibilities for this organization and our 500,000 members. We were compelled to take action. Heritage has never been about one individual, but rather the power of conservative ideas. Heritage is bigger than any one person,” the statement read.

Intellectual conservatism is dead. Its adherents have been marginalized, or worse. The notion that Trump bots care about the intellectual underpinnings of a policy is silly. It’s this dumbing down of the party that Feulner and his allies despise — partly for elitist reasons in that they think they’re smarter than everyone else, but also because they see conservatism less as an ideology and more as a personal philosophy.


There is no “brain trust” of the Republican Party. There may not even be a brain. The heart and soul of the party is raw emotion, including a burning hatred for the opposition and an inexplicable abandonment of tolerance and acceptance for those who aren’t white and Christian. On the other hand, the intellectual underpinnings of liberalism died when hit by the dual shocks of Bill Clinton’s centrism and the “stolen” election of George Bush.

The election of Barack Obama and a hoped-for Renaissance of liberalism proved to be just an interregnum between the optimism of Obama’s inauguration and the explosive destruction of the Democratic Party. Democrats still don’t know what hit them and have no answers. As it turns out, Obama’s victories were triumphs of technical wizardry and not indicative of any re-emergence of liberalism as a vital force in America’s intellectual life.

As we’ve seen the rise of populist politicians on the left, we discover that the Democratic base doesn’t trust their intellectuals any more than the Republican base trusts theirs.

America’s great policy shops — Brookings, AEI, Heritage, Hoover, Cato —  are in crisis as, by definition, populists reject their approach to public policy. If you don’t feel it in your gut, it’s worthless. Thinking about Big Things has gone out of style, replaced by angry, screaming people on both sides who despise each other and believe the absolute worst about them.


Trump on the right and Sanders on the left represent the death of logic, reason, and centrism in American politics. We’re careening out of control toward a dangerous and unknowable future where our liberties — and perhaps human civilization itself — are at risk.



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