Sort by

The Atlantic's Weird Nostalgia for Heritage's Early Years

David Callahan

Molly Ball has a long piece in The Atlantic on "The Fall of the Heritage Foundation and the Death of Republican Ideas." 

The piece is ostensibly well-researched, but Ball seems not to have spoken to any of the many Beltway policy experts who have literally spent decades debunking Heritage's flawed and biased research. If she had, Ball may never have advanced the absurd thesis of her piece: Which is that Heritage used to be an organization of enormous intellectual integrity before it veered into Tea Party extremism and ideological thuggery. 

Ball waxes nostalgically about the earlier days of Heritage when it was all about "serious ideas." As someone who has followed the conservative think tank world for two decades, I kept thinking: Wait, a minute, is Ball getting Heritage confused with the American Enterprise Institute? 

It's AEI which has always been the more serious ideas outfit in the conservative think tank world, with teams of PhDs writing books solid enough to get picked up major trade publishers and university presses. It's AEI which has truly believed in independent scholarship and debate - - a tradition that continues under its brainy president Arthur Brooks.

In contrast, Heritage has always been the robot-like factory of thinly researched—and highly ideological—policy briefs and talking points. The fact, as Ball notes, that Heritage was founded by former Republican Hill staffers and has always worked hand-in-glove with GOP legislators should have been a tip off to her that it has never been a truly independent source of intellectual ideas. It has been a partisan policy shop.

If Ball had looked closer at Heritage's history, funding, and board, she might have toned down some of the nostalgia for its early years. Key early figures in the Heritage story include the deeply reactionary brewing heir Joseph Coors and Richard Mellon Scaife, who provided key financial support to Heritage in the 1970s and became one of the most influential figures in shaping Heritage during over two decades as a board member. (He now serves as the board's vice chairman).

This is the same Scaife, of course, who financed a multi-million dollar effort to dig up dirt on President Bill Clinton during the 1990s. 

Among Scaife's contributions to Heritage was to recruit other virulently conservative and partisan donors to the Heritage board and orbit. 

Many of these same donors also helped move the GOP to the right during the 1990s, turning it from a normal party into an implacably ideological outfit that embraced winning by any means. 

Ball never makes an obvious connection: If Heritage has, since day one, been so closely entwined with the most extremist elements of the Republican infrastructure and shaped by some of the most partisan donors in recent history, why should we imagine that it has ever viewed ideas as anything more than partisan weapons? 

Ball talks about the recent flawed immigration study as if this is some kind of new event in Heritage's history. Of course, though, if she had done more homework she'd know there is a veritable library of Heritage studies that have been dinged over the years as flawed, misleading, and spurious. In particular, the research of Robert Rector—the co-author of the immigration study—has been attracting fire for over two decades. 

What we're seeing is not the "fall" of the Heritage Foundation. Rather, we're seeing business as usual, only with a shriller edge that adjusts to realities of a Tea Party-dominated right that Heritage itself helped to create.