Over the past few years, the decline of the Heritage Foundation, one of the great pillars of the modern conservative movement, has been both dispiriting for conservative intellectuals and emblematic of the decline of the intellectual rigor on the right. The dominating presence of Heritage Action, the attack-dog 501(c)(4) entity that acted as a watchdog for political purism in the Obama years and then became President Trump’s cheerleading section, looms over the 501(c)(3) foundation, creating considerable doubt as to its long-term future. After the ouster of former Heritage president and ex-senator Jim DeMint, who accelerated its decline into base partisanship and political hackery, an exhaustive search for a new leader was undertaken.
The Heritage board this week announced a successor to DeMint (Ed Feulner held down the post on an interim basis): Kay Coles James. Multiple people familiar with the search tell me that the board was fractious and unable to find its ideal candidate, finally agreeing on James as a compromise candidate. (She had led the search committee for the job she eventually took. ) At 68 years old and a veteran of conservative administrations going back to the Reagan presidency, she may not be the one to take Heritage far into the future. She is not an academic or intellectual, but is well-liked and has impeccable “movement conservative” credentials. But that doesn’t mean she cannot succeed in restoring Heritage where others have failed.
James, who worked on President Donald Trump’s transition team, said she was drawn to the president’s promises to revitalize blighted inner cities and was initially interested in joining the administration.
“I am told that I was blocked,” she told reporters on Tuesday. “I was extremely disappointed that I didn’t have the opportunity to serve there.”
But, she added, “I’m probably able to do far more from this post than I could from there, so it’s all good.”
Being blocked by this administration may speak well of her. In any event, the post is hers to make what she will of it. And given the deterioration in Heritage’s reputation and the defection of a flock of scholars, there might be no place to go but up.
In interviews with multiple conservatives, including former Heritage scholars and scholars at other conservative institutions, two observations came up over and over again. (To a person these conservatives spoke with great fondness and wistfulness for a once-great institution.)
First, at a time conservatism has been eclipsed by Trump’s noxious brand of authoritarianism, populism, nativism and protectionism, Heritage is needed as a strong voice to push back against anti-immigrant quackery and in favor of international trade and open markets, fiscal restraint and values-based foreign policy. That requires distance from the administration and courage to criticize it robustly when it departs from those principles.
In her introductory remarks, James declared that her mission included putting “a long-overdue end to the failure that is liberalism.” She would do well to revive, modernize and rescue conservatism and let the fate of liberalism run its course. That will be challenging, given the heavy hand of Trump backers (e.g. Rebekah Mercer, a billionaire far-right donor) on Heritage’s board, but if — as occurred at the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal with the resignation of revered conservative scholar Sol Stern, who left in protest over the noxious influence of Trump sycophants — Heritage becomes just another Mercer-backed far-right bastion, it will never recover its intellectual stature.
Second, at a time the right wing — led by Christian-evangelicals-turned-Trump-cheerleaders — largely has dispensed with considerations of the role of character, public virtue and democratic norms, it is incumbent upon Heritage to elevate these very conservative (once upon a time) themes. Conservatism’s end goal cannot be — and has never been — about lowering the top marginal tax rate or about undoing the safety net. It has not (before Trump) acceded to moral nihilism and the notion that all politicians are immoral scoundrels, so Republicans should go get the worst of the worst. The problem is traceable in large part to the crisis in evangelicalism, which plays a disproportionate role in the GOP and in Trump’s success.
Charles Mathewes, professor of religious studies at University of Virginia, writes in The Post about the phenomenon of victimology and resentment that has shifted too many evangelicals from focus on a religion of love to a tribal fear of cultural loss:
It’s not just that a vocal segment of white Christians can’t tell righteous leaders from sexual predators and overestimate the power of baked goods to communicate spiritual messages; our failures are wider and deeper and more foundational than that. We’re remarkably ignorant of the history and the current state of the world we inhabit, and no better with scientific knowledge either. We don’t believe the media, but we’ll believe the most incredible Twitter rumor or Facebook post, curated for us by Vladimir Putin. We are surprisingly ignorant about religion, not only other people’s, but even our own. …
It may well be that it is Christians’ fears about losing control of the culture that have accelerated the rise of secularism itself. … It seems to be caused by the tight alliance of Christianity, especially conservative white Christianity, with conservative politics over the past several decades — an association itself driven by prophesies of a rising tide of godlessness in America after the 1960s. Those prophesies about the 1960s were wrong; but they fueled the alliance of white Christians with right-wing politics from the 1980s forward, and that alliance has repelled many younger people from religion out of a distaste at seeing religion so eagerly bend the knee to short-term political gain. That is to say, Christians’ response to a misperceived crisis have become, in fact, a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Heritage is not a church, but it does reach into the lives of many Christian conservatives, who could use some tough love, realistic talk about the real victims of discrimination and instruction on the place of tolerance and pluralism in the United States. In rebuttal to those insisting “blood and soil” (and Christianity) make America, Heritage must advocate and teach that the United States is a creedal nation founded on principles that transcend ethnicity, religion, race, etc. Heritage would do well to follow this admonition:
Our Bill of Rights is … succinct in guaranteeing individual liberties — rights that we have come to take for granted but without vigilance can erode and slip away, such as freedom of speech (our right to protest and be heard); freedom of religion (the essential separation between how one worships and the power of the state); and freedom of the press (a democratic institution essential to informing the public and holding our leaders accountable).
Our shared values include another essential principle, and that’s the rule of law — the promise that the law applies equally to everyone, that no person is above it, and that all are entitled to its protection. This concept of equal protection recognizes that our country’s strength comes from honoring, not weaponizing, the diversity that springs from being a nation of Native Americans and immigrants of different races, religions and nationalities.
That was from Sally Yates, who offers a refreshing corrective to the Trumpized GOP. She urged:
We are not living in ordinary times, and it is not enough for us to admire our nation’s core values from afar. Our country’s history is littered with individuals and factions who have tried to exploit our imperfections, but it is more powerfully marked by those whose vigilance toward a more perfect union has prevailed.
So stand up. Speak out. Our country needs all of us to raise our collective voices in support of our democratic ideals and institutions. That is what we stand for. That is who we are. And with a shared commitment to our founding principles, that is who we will remain.
If we could hear more of that from Heritage and more honest push-back against an administration that every day is defying principles that Heritage once stood for, James would be a stunning success and, more important, a patriot. We wish her all the luck in the world.