Looking back now, the winter of 1973, when The Heritage Foundation was formed, seems to be a low-water mark for conservatism: The Roe v. Wade decision appeared to cement the ascendancy of the radical Left. Soon thereafter, the political demise of President Richard Nixon left the conservative movement in shambles—even though he had governed as anything but a conservative.
Nearly 50 years later, conservatism again seems in disarray. Between the agonizing result of the 2020 presidential election, and the internecine battles among conservatives that have ensued, many see little reason for optimism. But if history is our guide, then we have every reason to believe that the golden era of American conservatism will soon emerge.
As I take office as Heritage’s seventh president—and as a historian by training—I am struck by the similar tenuousness and potential of this moment for the American Right, just like those dark days in the mid 1970s.
Then as now, despite very recent successes, conservatism finds itself as something of a question mark in a political culture of exclamation points. The movement today is alive with passionate internal debates. But those debates are more likely to descend into personal invective than to be noticed by most elected officials.
Since Heritage’s founding, conservatives have created and financed a sprawling network of political, policy, and media organizations. Yet in that same period, the woke Left has seized control of just about every major institution in American life and turned America’s classrooms, boardrooms, and newsrooms into ideological reeducation camps.
Today, the most recent Republican president did more to advance conservative policy goals than the two previous Republican presidents combined — but ultimately less than he might have with a more cohesive movement and clearer agenda, both impeded by the sclerotic D.C. establishment.
Now, as then, the elite Left, high on its own Kool-Aid, has chucked its working-class base and instead exudes sneering contempt toward middle-American values, workers, and communities. And so, now as then, the Right faces a familiar political landscape. Our electoral prospects look pretty good, but on the policy front, it’s hard to see how conservatives could pass our top legislative priorities through Congress anytime soon. Indeed, it’s not obvious what those priorities would be.
And so, 48 years on, the bad news is that conservatives are once again weaker than the Left—culturally, institutionally, and politically. But the good news is that we have been in this position before and turned it into triumph—massive, long-lasting policy triumph that has defined the last half century of American greatness. So conservatives today face not a moment for resignation or revolution, but a time for choosing.
The first choice we must make is how to absorb, accommodate, and channel the forces of nationalism and populism that are both propelling and buffeting conservative movements around the Western world. The U.S.-led project of globalization undertaken in earnest after the Cold War has yielded many of the benefits its proponents promised: tremendous economic growth and innovation, rising incomes, and dramatic reductions in global poverty. And yet we are also grappling with major challenges, from the loss of jobs and family stability in the working class to the loss of patriotic solidarity in the upper class. Meanwhile, post–Cold War elites, raised to power by supposedly meritocratic elevators, have embarrassed themselves in failure for a generation.
China. 9/11. Afghanistan and Iraq. The financial collapse and subsequent bailouts. Russiagate. COVID-19. Corporate consolidation. Our laughably ignorant and biased media and academic leaders. Now woke-ism. Washington politicians concerned about the collapse of Americans’ trust in public institutions have only themselves to blame.
And make no mistake, conservatives deserve some of the criticism. Set aside for a moment the controversies of Donald Trump’s term in office, or the Pro-Trump vs. Never Trump fights, and ponder instead how it was possible in 2015 and 2016 that approximately zero of Washington’s best, brightest, most informed politicians and pundits thought Trump could seriously contend for the Republican presidential nomination—even as he cakewalked to victory.
What Trump proved—to the incredulity of those elites—was that a winning coalition of Americans already existed. Trump, the outsider, gave it a leader. He was no seasoned political deal-maker, to be sure. And he could inflict as many wounds on himself as he did on the Left.
It’s not a coincidence that conservatives who worked closest with Trump’s White House—the pro-life movement and organizations advocating judicial constitutionalism—saw unprecedented success between 2017 and 2021. Had other conservatives worked together in that time against the unified Left, instead of scoring points off of each other on Twitter, how much more might have been accomplished?
That aside, though, the future is more important than the past. Donald Trump showed that a burgeoning, working-class, pan-ethnic conservative majority exists in this country. For those of us proudly dubbed “D.C. outsiders,” that was no surprise: We see this every day, in communities all across this country.
But Trump also showed how difficult it will be for that majority to reform our government without a unified plan to govern our country.
Crafting such a plan, together, with all the key conservative voices participating, is the most important work that conservatives can do in the near term. It is the work I promised the Board of Trustees that, if hired, I would make our mission at The Heritage Foundation.
As a lifelong son of the movement, and as a kid of a working-class family from south Louisiana, I benefited from the fruit of that same kind of effort in the 1980s—a positive vision for the future of America in which government was not the solution, but the obstacle, to our flourishing. Now more than ever, The Heritage Foundation must do its part to articulate that vision.
First, obviously, we are home to the best conservative policy minds on the right. When Lindsey Burke is talking about education reform, when Hans von Spakovsky is writing about election integrity, when Kara Frederick is testifying about Big Tech’s abuses (to name only a few members of our all-star team), all Americans benefit.
Second, in addition to being part of the conversation about where conservatives go from here, The Heritage Foundation is also uniquely positioned within the movement to host that conversation. The way to resolve tensions among conservatives is to have that conversation—and that’s exactly what we’re going to do at Heritage.
Conservatives need to stop shooting at one another and to remember that our common enemy is the radical Left in charge of the regime in Washington, D.C., today. Debate and even spirited disagreement are fine—in fact, those who don’t yet know me will discover that I love both—but they need to be productive, making all of us better, our points more persuasive, and our policies more likely to be enacted.
Between Donald Trump’s disruption of the Right and the “Great Awokening” on the left, in a few short years, almost all of American politics has been scrambled from the old dispensation. We need to rethink China, Big Tech, and education from pre-K to college. Today the breakdown of the nuclear family is a much bigger problem than the lack of economic dynamism—what does that mean for taxes, trade, regulation, and welfare programs? What does the collapse of organized religion and the traditional married, two-parent family unit mean for conservatism’s commitment to civil society? How should the geographic polarization between rich, blue, coastal hubs and the great red middle of the country shape the way conservatives think about infrastructure, health care, finance, and transportation? How, at long last, should conservatives finally act on immigration: incrementally, or all at once?
These are questions that conservatives haven’t asked enough, in or out of power. And many D.C. conservatives will probably be content not to ask them now, either—happy to stay mum and let Joe Biden’s bungling hand Republicans some victories without having to rearrange the movement’s intellectual furniture.
But that’s why I am most excited about Heritage’s third role in the debate about the future of conservatism—taking that conversation out of Washington. The thing about the Swamp is not just that it’s corrupt; it’s also a Bubble. That’s why our entire political class whiffed on Donald Trump’s ascent—the Beltway encloses an echo chamber of elite opinions. By contrast, grassroots conservatives were not surprised by Trump’s victory in 2016, how close he came in 2020, or how admired he remains among “real Americans.”
Going forward, it is the job of conservatives inside the Beltway to better connect with conservatives outside the Beltway, and not the other way around. We need to open up the movement to fresh American air and to the people we seek to serve.
I spent the Trump years in Austin, leading the Texas Public Policy Foundation. Before that, I was president of a small liberal-arts college, Wyoming Catholic. There, I implemented a lesson I learned as a teenager, when I first began reading Heritage publications: Government money always comes with strings attached. And so, I led my college to reject federal student loans and grants, liberating us from Leviathan’s tentacles.
It’s that skepticism of centralized power in D.C. that has always been the foundation of conservatism—and which I pray, many years from now, will be seen as my hallmark of leadership of The Heritage Foundation.
The future of the conservative movement is not in Washington, D.C., at all. It’s everywhere else. Here, professional conservatives learn to tiptoe around cultural issues, either for fear of being called names by media hypocrites, or to keep future job prospects viable with woke corporations. We cannot change those incentives, so we have to change the setting.
I think the American people already intuit this. What we are seeing now, with parents’ pushback at school-board meetings, with the explosive growth of home-schooling since COVID-19, the national grassroots repudiation of critical race theory and trans extremism—that is the future of the Right. If the Left’s power is in elite institutions—of government, media, academia, corporations—then conservatives’ response must be to smash those institutions’ power and return it to the nation and the economy.
To my mind, that logic applies not only to our groaning, extra-constitutionally centralized federal government, but to the various cartels and monopolies that government policies have created or insulated: on Wall Street, in Silicon Valley and public-sector unions, among our higher-education accreditors. In an economy and culture as centralized as ours, conservatives should be looking not just to federalism, but an overdue campaign of decentralization. The Left’s enclaves of government-protected money, prestige, and power are inimical to America’s founding ideals.
And so, it must be noted, is any remnant of racial, sex, or ethnic bigotry—whether from the Ku Klux Klan, diversity/equity/inclusion consultants, or journalists who hype or bury news based on the racial composition of victims and criminals. Conservatives have always agreed with one another that our ideas should appeal to underserved racial and ethnic minorities. The inherent racism of the woke ideology have opened doors for conservatives to conduct that outreach firsthand—and conservatives aspiring to national leadership have a moral responsibility to walk through every one. As long as I have any say over it, The Heritage Foundation will proudly take our message anywhere, at any time, in front of any audience, to win over hearts and minds.
That is the job ahead of us. We have enemies to fight, to be sure—though we ought never forget that the best way to defeat enemies is by turning them into friends.
The question remaining to conservatives now is whether this moment of disunity and powerlessness will, decades hence, be remembered—like 1973—as a springboard toward future victories for our movement and our nation, such that for our generation, too, today’s work will be tomorrow’s heritage.
This piece originally appeared in The National Review