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DeMint Tome Tracks Two Years of Tea Party

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Sen. Jim DeMint’s book follows the rise of the tea party movement and the fear that the South Carolina Republican says motivated thousands of people to become active in politics.

In the First Great Awakening in the 18th century and the Second Great Awakening in the 19th century, Americans turned their eyes toward God. Sen. Jim DeMint alludes to those eras of religious fervor in “The Great American Awakening,” his chronicle of the rise of the tea party movement.

Unlike the participants in those earlier epochal events, though, the people who took part in the events of the past two years focused their attention on Washington, not heaven.

They were motivated, the South Carolina Republican said in an interview with Roll Call, by a “gut-level instinct that things are threatening.” They fear, as does DeMint, that “this is our last chance” to prevent America from becoming a very different country than the one they grew up in.

That fear motivated thousands who had never taken an active role in politics to get involved. In “The Great American Awakening,” subtitled “Two Years That Changed America, Washington and Me,” DeMint recounts how the nation moved from an overwhelming Democratic victory in 2008 to a Republican sweep in 2010.

DeMint’s previous book, “Saving Freedom,” was prescriptive, a campaign-style tome full of policy suggestions. “The Great American Awakening” includes some policy ideas, but it is essentially reportorial.

After an introduction that reflects on Election Day 2010, he offers a chronological tour that begins with Barack Obama’s election and crisscrosses the country as voters grow uneasy about the direction the new president is taking and as the tea party forms and quickly becomes a force.

The story is told in the first person, but DeMint works hard to shine the spotlight on others. His role, he said, was to “engage and inspire those on the sidelines,” then let them go to work at the grass-roots level.

So the scenes shift, from the back rooms and floor of the Senate where

DeMint tried and failed to shift the debate rightward, to the town hall meetings  where motivated citizens had more success. That, DeMint said, is the key. When the people rise up, it becomes much easier for those in power to act.

“Freedom is what happens when millions of people make their own decisions about what they value and what they do,” he writes.

Two short years after DeMint’s failure to get the GOP Conference to move on a conservative reform agenda that included proposals such as banning earmarks, earmarks were banned and the conversation shifted.

“Those who want something from government are more organized,” DeMint said. That has created a culture in which the primary goal of lawmakers was to “bring home the bacon.” Now, he argued, that culture is changing.

“The culture of spending exemplified by self-serving, parochial earmarks has been replaced with debates about how to cut spending and balance the budget. In fact, for the first time in anyone’s memory, Congress is now passing bills that actually reduce spending,” DeMint writes.

But, as Democrats found in 2010, electoral gains can be ephemeral. DeMint’s job has been made easier by the GOP capture of the House and by the addition of Senate allies such as Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who wrote the foreword of “The Great American Awakening.”

But 2012 will be a challenge of a different magnitude. To win, DeMint and his allies will need the political equivalent of the zeal exhibited by the religious adherents of the first two Great Awakenings. Because, he argued, the stakes could not be higher.

The 2012 election, DeMint said, will finally decide whether “we want to be free or be more like Europe.”

How does a politician convince the people that the next election really is the one that will settle the future course of the country, when politicians always say that? That’s the challenge that DeMint and his conservative cohorts face in 2012. His story of the previous two years provides readers with a blueprint for how they are likely to go about it.

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