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The Dark Truth About the Heritage Foundation

David Callahan

There is a big slice of the conservative world that longs for a romanticized American past -- an era in which traditional values prevailed in a mostly white Christian country and Washington, DC, was a sleepy southern city. The Heritage Foundation speaks for those conservatives, and it's name is no coincidence: For forty years now, it has been fighting against the forces of modernization -- including individualism, social freedom, secularism, multiculturalism, ecological consciousness, and evidence-based active government. 

Heritage has been on the winning side of some of these fights, such as the push to cut taxes and limit government, but it has been losing the battle to preserve traditional values and the unquestioned dominance of white Christian culture in America. Still, it has never given up. Even as the conservative movement has taken a sharp libertarian turn, with many younger people on the right uninterested in keeping gays in the closet or immigrants out, Heritage has kept the faith.

It's recent choice of South Carolina Senator Jim DeMint as its new president -- the second in the organization's history -- says everything about Heritage's worldview. DeMint was perhaps the most conservative member of the Senate, with a host of retrograde positions that put him well to the right in the GOP -- such as a persistent advocacy of school prayer, a belief that English should be the official U.S. language, and an insistence on balancing the federal budget even as he opposed all tax increases, including during a time of war.

Politicians like DeMint stand as a reminder of the dark history of conservatism. This is a movement, after all, which at different times has embraced social Darwinism, eugenics, segregation, and McCarthyism -- while opposing Social Security, Medicare, the civil rights movement, women's rights, and so on. Smart and polished people from William F. Buckley to William Kristol have spent decades trying to help America forget about the right's John Birch past, but the primordial reactionary elements of American life have never disappeared. And, in Heritage, they have always had a friend. 

Heritage is able to stick to its 1920s worldview thanks in large part to very deep pocketed individual donors who long for earlier times. The geriatric billionaire Richard Mellon Scaife -- an heir to an industrial fortune -- is vice chairman of Heritage and one of its biggest and longest time supporters. 

All of which is to say that it's no surprise that Heritage is now facing one of the biggest crises in its history thanks to the publication of a flawed attack on immigration reform co-authored by a scholar, Jason Richwine, whose dissertation argued that Hispanic immigrants have lower IQs than whites -- and probably always will. 

That somebody like Jason Richwine could get hired by the Heritage Foundation seems to be a shock to the Twittersphere. In truth, though, this whole episode is merely a reminder of what Heritage has always stood for.