Still in the fight: A conversation with Sen. Mitt Romney

The Utah Senator explains why he thinks he can get more done outside Congress than inside it.  

Sen. Romney answers questions after announcing that he will not seek reelection on September 13, 2023 in Washington, D.C.

Last September, Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, announced that he would not seek reelection in 2024. In his announcement, Romneythe 2012 Republican presidential nominee and former Governor of Massachusettssaid, “I’m not retiring from the fight,adding that he wanted to make way for a younger leader to take his place. He recently spoke with Jonathan Tepperman, The Catalyst’s Editor-inChief, about his time in the Senate, his concerns for the country, and his plans for the future. Their conversation has been edited for length and clarity. 

Why did you decide not to run for a second Senate term? 

Part one is that I think it’s time for the next generation to take responsibility for the decisions that will affect their lives. My generation is racking up huge debts that we will not pay for, so let’s get the next generation more involved.  

Part two is that I think it’s going to be very hard going forward to be highly productive in Congress. The last few years have been very successful in terms of getting things done, but I think that’s going to get harder given the challenging makeup of the House and a less bipartisan Senate. 

Say more about that. As you prepare to leave government, what’s your diagnosis of the health of our country and our democracy? 

Our economy is strong, and that’s the foundation of most good things for most Americans. We have a low level of inflation compared to our trading partners around the world. We lead in new technologies, particularly in artificial intelligence, and our demographics are also very positive. So we’re on a pretty solid footing economically. 

On the other hand, the divisiveness in our country, the anger and resentment that you see in our politics today – those represent real problems. Divisiveness has infected our politics to such a degree that it’s become hard for elected officials to address our real challenges, and those challenges are many. Instead of dealing with problems, our politicians tend to demonize the other side and demagogue on key issues. 

What you’ve just said could be interpreted in one of two ways: that politicians are responding to the polarization that exists in society, or that they’re responsible for it. Which is it? 

In the ideal world, our political leaders would have such stature and character that they could shape public opinion, as they have in the past. That has not been the case recently. President Donald Trump, for instance, took his cues from popular media, not the other way around – he used to sit and watch Fox & Friends in the morning, and that would shape his agenda for the day. I long for a time when we had people like President Abraham Lincoln, President Ronald Reagan, and even President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (though I disagree with some of his policies). They were able to step forward and lead the country, and that’s lacking today. 

Do you feel like our government institutions – Congress, the courts, and the Constitution – are strong enough to resist the rise of demagoguery and populism that you’ve spoken about? 

I think it was John Adams who said that our Constitution will only work with a virtuous people. We can’t expect our institutions, even the Constitution, to stop us if we stray from honesty, integrity, character, and the other human virtues. Are our institutions excellent? Yes. Is the Constitution an inspired document? Absolutely. But the divisiveness in our country today, and the fact that our politicians tend to follow the crowd rather than to lead, create a concerning dynamic. 

What about our political parties? Do they need fixing, or do we need to start thinking about a third party? 

Jonah Goldberg, who’s a brilliant columnist, has remarked that both parties seem to be trying to figure out the best way to become a minority party. In the last few political cycles, they’ve found that it can be more effective to activate your narrow base than to draw votes from the broad center. As a result, candidates are appealing to the extremes within their parties. That makes for great theater but lousy problem-solving. 

Is part of the problem structural? Does the fault lie with our institutions?

The fact that we have a candidate-selection process in each party that draws on a narrow slice of the population is a real problem. If you’re going to have only a small percentage of the voters participate in primaries, you’re going to get the most angry, activated voters, not the broad representation we would hope for. Now, how can we change that? That’s a good question. Some people have suggested ranked-choice voting and open primaries. Those are being tried in a number of states. We’ll see if they help or they don’t. 

In the meantime, the extreme wings in each party are trying to figure out how to make the process even less representative by, for instance, choosing candidates in conventions instead of primaries, so that instead of counting on 10% of the voters, you’d count on less than 1% to make the choice.  

What can American leaders and citizens do to reduce the influence and appeal of populism in U.S. politics? 

I have found, through my business career, my political life, and my reading of biographies and history, that the influence of one person, of one leader, can hardly be overstated. In Abraham Lincoln, you had a president who, near the end of the Civil War, said, “With malice toward none and charity toward all.” That sentiment helped diffuse the anger and the spirit of retribution that could have overcome us. 

So leaders have an enormous impact, and by leaders, I don’t just mean the president. I also mean pastors, professors, parents, CEOs, labor leaders, people of all stripes. If we want to change the dynamic, it’s going to require leaders of all sorts to stand up and divert our course toward a more virtuous purpose.  

We haven’t seen that in Washington lately. I think President Joe Biden is a delightful person – I like him – but he hasn’t been able to lead the whole country onto a new, more virtuous path. President Donald Trump hasn’t made the effort. So we’re lacking the kind of presidential leadership that could help heal our divisiveness. But I’m hopeful that some of our leaders in other spheres, whether in states or businesses or charities or hospitals or universities, will make a greater effort to urge people to accept one another, to respect one another, and to be unified.  

But to really cure divisiveness, you have to understand it, and that means taking a step back and asking, why do we have it in the first place? In my view, the No. 1 reason is that some of our political leaders have been preying on our darker angels, as Lincoln would say. Another reality is that our parties have realigned. The Republican Party has become more rural and more white and less attractive to college-educated voters. So we don’t have the same kind of diversity in our party that we used to. Another element is that Americans spend less time in church, less time in community settings, than in the past. Another problem is that we don’t get our facts from the same sources anymore.  

All these dynamics have come together and built a crescendo of anger and resentment and disillusionment with “the other” – people in the other party, or of another ethnicity, or from another geographic region, or from another educational level. And the only way I know to change that is by having a strong leader at the top, and leaders throughout society, who call on our better angels. 

Do you see any individuals, leaders, or organizations moving in the right direction? 

In some cases. I’ve been disappointed by our universities, which are struggling to figure out how to act and have become more a source of divisiveness than they should be. I think our religious organizations have, in some cases, become too political and have succumbed to the very divisiveness that, in the past, they have helped prevent. I think corporations are struggling to figure out what role they should play in shaping public policy, and I think the wisest ones realize that simply being a model of honesty, integrity, and character is what’s called for, not speaking out on political issues.  

As for senators and congresspeople and governors, a number are highly ethical with superb character, and I hope they gain greater visibility so that they can help heal our wounds. 

You serve on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. How do you think other countries around the world view the United States these days?  

I don’t have enough communication with the populations of countries around the world to assess that very accurately. I do have the occasion to speak with foreign leaders, however, and I review opinion polls. On that basis, I can say that during the Trump years, the world at large lost a lot of respect for the United States. Some of that was due to him, and some of it was due to the circumstances in which he found himself. But our approval ratings in other countries hit an all-time low.  

Since then, they have come back a great deal. But my discussions with the leaders of other countries make it clear that they’re amazed that we are seriously considering reelecting Trump, and they wonder whether America can continue to lead the free world and be the arsenal of democracy if we once again have a President Trump in the White House. 

What’s your parting advice for your successor, and for future American leaders? 

I would encourage leaders to act out of personal integrity and to recognize that what they do doesn’t just affect them, it affects the people that they lead – not just economically, but also in terms of their character and their hopes for the future. You don’t have to be elected to a high office or be a CEO to be a leader. Everyone is a leader in some respect, whether it’s a parent or a teacher or a nurse. We all find ourselves in positions of leadership and should use that position to exhibit the greatest qualities of humanity. 

What do you plan to do next?  

I’m not going back into business. I will stay involved in the public sphere and will try to influence coming generations to tackle our biggest challenges, which, in my view, are the emergence of AI, the rise of China, our mounting national debt, and the changing climate.

The Catalyst believes that ideas matter. We aim to stimulate debate on the most important issues of the day, featuring a range of arguments that are constructive, high-minded, and share our core values of freedom, opportunity, accountability, and compassion. To that end, we seek out ideas that may challenge us, and the authors’ views presented here are their own; The Catalyst does not endorse any particular policy, politician, or party.

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