The Heritage Foundation is having a midlife transformation.
At the age of 50, the conservative think tank is rethinking itself and testing whether it’s possible for the conservative Washington institution to get edgy.
Heritage has long been at the center of what some on the anti-establishment right have disparagingly dubbed “Conservatism Inc.” — the network of wonks, consultants, and commentators who make up establishment conservative thought that drives Republican policy and politics.
But now, it is turning back the dial on its once-hawkish foreign policy and entertaining ideas that challenge strict adherence to free-market economics, putting itself at the forefront of crafting a standard of right-wing thought and style that echoes “New Right” post-Trump populism.
At the crux of that transition has been Heritage Foundation President Kevin Roberts, who joined the organization in 2021 by way of the conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation.
In an interview with The Hill, Roberts said one of his goals is to “disabuse people of that notion” that Heritage is part of “Conservatism Inc.”
But the think tank is not abandoning its Reagan-era roots.
“We’re actually honoring our past, we’re honoring all my predecessors,” Roberts said in an interview with The Hill. “We’re going to build on your foundation by recognizing the present-day policy and political challenges are different — in some respects, very different — than what Heritage had to confront as recently as 10 years ago.”
One of the first major recent shifts in the Heritage ecosystem came with its advocacy arm, Heritage Action, opposing a $40 billion Ukraine funding package last year — a notable shift from the organization’s hawkish tendencies like supporting the U.S. invasion of Iraq two decades ago.
While Roberts said that there is “still an expansive interventionist foreign policy mindset that has to change” in Washington, and the Heritage Foundation is advocating a “third way” that is “neither interventionist or isolationist.”
“We love America. We believe in Reagan’s peace through strength. We believe that in the right situation, America’s power should be explicit and dominant and overwhelming, but that we simply can’t afford the level of adventurousness that the neoconservatives, in particular, have been supporting,” Roberts said.
Another move that raised eyebrows was a report released last month that examined how those on the right are “rethinking the relationship between freight free enterprise and the common good,” raising eyebrows and alarm among free-market fundamentalists in the Washington libertarian and conservative space.
“The free market is the outgrowth of even higher goods, like the institution of the nuclear family, like a healthy civil society,” Roberts said. “You’re never going to have a free market — which we don’t have today, I mean, we have a managed economy — if you don’t first have those other things.”
“Heritage is trying to remind conservatives that the free market is not an altar. The free market is a good,” Roberts said.
Former Fox News host Tucker Carlson, a prominent conservative voice, has also shifted his tone on the think tank.
Carlson had criticized the Heritage Foundation on his show after its most recent former president, Kay Coles James — the first Black person or woman to lead the organization — wrote a 2020 op-ed on racism as mass demonstrations broke out over the killing of George Floyd.
James wrote that “racism in America is a fatal wound” and wondered “How many times will protests have to occur?” Carlson accused James and other conservative leaders of “joining the left’s chorus.”
But last month, Carlson, who started his career at the Heritage Foundation’s now-defunct “Policy Review,” was the keynote speaker at the Heritage Foundation’s 50th-anniversary gala. He gushed over Roberts for breaking with a society where the government and key institutions are “all run by weak people.”
“To see someone who’s not a weak leader at the helm of Heritage just thrilled me, so I wanted to come for that reason,” Carlson said.
Some anonymously sourced reports suggested Carlson’s religious themes in his Heritage Foundation speech upset Fox Corp owner Rupert Murdoch, contributing to his abrupt firing just days later. Roberts said at the dinner — and reiterated after news of Carlson’s ouster — that there was “always a job” for Carlson at Heritage.
Roberts is also embracing a more confrontational style at Heritage. In introducing Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) at the 50th-anniversary summit, Roberts praised his “radical candor — something we love at Heritage.”
But the conservative think tank is not shifting its stances on every traditional conservative position of the past few decades. It remains steadfast in opposition to abortion, an issue that has challenged Republicans politically since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade last year.
“We’re not going to stop working on this issue until there’s zero abortions in America,” Roberts said.
And Roberts said that he thinks the organization’s “biggest shift” has been in increasing the amount of time and resources it puts in on state-level action on issues, like school choice policies, and pushing back on environmental, social, and governance (ESG) investment scoring policies.
Roberts summed up the Heritage Foundation’s changes in his opening remarks at its anniversary summit last month.
“Decades of frustration and failure have shown us that the old Washington red team of free marketers, neoconservatives, and evangelicals alone is simply not enough,” Roberts said.
“It’s not enough for conservatives to hold power. We have to wield it.”