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The Newsweek of think tanks
The impressive intellectual devolution of the Heritage Foundation.
I opened the think tank chapter of The Ideas Industry with a discussion of the intellectual transmogrificaton of the Heritage Foundation. It was a pretty juicy story as intellectual arcs go: beginning with Jim DeMint succeeding Ed Feulner as the president of Heritage, the leadership of that conservative think tank has frequently said one thing and done another.
For example, when DeMint came on board, he pledged to the Wall Street Journal that he would “protect the integrity of Heritage’s research and not politicize the policy component. Heritage is not just another grassroots political group.” He told the Washington Post, “The key for me is to make sure that the Heritage Foundation is not politicized in any way. There is never going to be any policy issued by the Heritage Foundation directed for the benefit of some political goal.” Needless to say, DeMint’s actions contradicted his words (read the book to see how).
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Nine years and two Heritage Foundation presidents later, the patina of intellectual freedom at Heritage appears to have been completely scrubbed away. Earlir this month the Dispatch’s Audrey Fahlberg and Charlotte Lawson painted a disturbing picture of Heritage’s current situation. Under Heritage president Kevin Roberts, numerous Heritage staffers were essentially muzzled in an effort to stay in the good graces of Donald Trump:
Several former experts and researchers detailed limitations on their intellectual freedom beginning in the Trump era, such as being told to delete tweets and ignore areas of agreement with perceived political opponents. In almost every case, the restrictive measures served a partisan end.
“There were several instances where I was asked to scrub the phrase ‘President Trump’ from my pieces. I think it was to tamp down any suspected criticism,” said one former Heritage employee, speaking on the condition of anonymity to speak candidly about internal dynamics. “We were definitely discouraged from mentioning the Biden administration by name as well, unless we were attacking them.”
Another former employee said staffers were also told to avoid referring to incoming President Joe Biden as the “president-elect” until electoral votes were certified on January 6, 2021, to avoid lending implicit legitimacy to the 2020 election.
One former employee recalled being instructed by management not to quote or cite Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley because of his strained relationship with former President Donald Trump. Another former employee said Heritage leaders declined a request to conduct a public panel with Republican Sen. Mitt Romney for similar reasons.
Unsurprisingly, this kind of speech policing has led to considerable turnover and a situation in which Heritage Action — the think tank’s lobbying arm — is now the tail that wags the dog. As Fahlberg and Lawson note, “scholars who have left say that Heritage Action’s ascendance within the organization has continued to muddy the distinctions between its research side and its lobbying arm.”
In other words, the Heritage Foundation has devolved into exactly the kind of faux grassroots group that DeMint said he would avoid.
As for the set of ideas that Heritage is now pushing, they seem like an effort to adhere to the national conservatism ethos that bears very little resemblance to Reagan-era Republicans. At the most recent National Conservatism conference, Roberts spoke and said, “I come not to invite National Conservatives to join our conservative movement, but to acknowledge the plain truth that Heritage is already part of yours.” He further elaborated, “Milton Friedman was right: people should be free to choose… but truly free people choose to put their culture, their families, and their national survival ahead of the GDP.”
The violence done to Friedman’s words in that last quote is legitimately impressive. Roberts seems to have a talent for this kind of word jumble. After the victory of the far-right coalition in Italy’s election on Sunday, led my a leader with some… let’s say “interesting” views, Roberts tweeted quite the reaction:
Now there are a few problems with this. Jane Coaston identified an obvious one:
The deeper issue is that there is a contradiction in terms between a think tank that is supposed to generate new ideas and not attempt to carve out particularistic identities. This has been the conundrum that has plagued all the Trumpian efforts to develop a deeper intellectual edifice. The more these organizations try to ape populist nationalism, the dumber they sound. As Stephanie Slade recently noted in a Twitter thread, even the paltry cupboard of policy ideas that national conservatives had a few years ago has dissipated.
Many liberals don’t want to hear this but back in the day Heritage had a solid reputation for producing quality policy analysis. Now… it seems to be the think-tank equivalent of Newsweek. As the weekly news magazine has faded away, some idea entrepreneurs have bought up legacy media outlets in an effort to free-ride off of old brands while pushing conspiracy theories. This certainly happened to Newsweek — a onetime rival to Time that is now a husk of its former self. One senses that Heritage is following the same path: a once-proud organization reduced to selling Trump Steaks to stay in business.