Heritage Foundation: Where Have All the Scholars Gone?

Heritage's first president, Paul Weyrich, was a long-time associate of the John Birch Society (Extra!, 7-8/96). (photo: Chip Berlet)

Heritage’s first president, Paul Weyrich, was a long-time associate of the John Birch Society (Extra!, 7-8/96). (photo: Chip Berlet)

The New York Times (2/24/14) is reporting on some changes at the country’s most powerful right-wing think tank. The Heritage Foundation is evidently moving further to the right under the leadership of former Sen. Jim DeMint. But a deeper sense of the group’s history might reveal that the changes might not be as dramatic as advertised. 

The headline of the piece  is “In the DeMint Era at Heritage, a Shift From Policy to Politics,” which suggests that Heritage formerly had a track record of serious policy analysis.  The TimesJennifer Steinhauer and Jonathan Weisman report that while Heritage once “provided the blueprint for the Republican Party’s ideas in Washington,” it has more recently “become more of a political organization feeding off the rising populism of the Tea Party movement.” The election of Barack Obama, the Times suggests, “drove the foundation to take on a more political bent.”

The story is that under the “new era” at Heritage, the research is suffering, and “some of the group’s most prominent scholars have left.” The piece points out that the group’s rightward drift  means that “staff members often decided, with little consultation from Heritage Foundation scholars, which legislation to support or oppose.”

And the Times adds that two recent hires are “known more for their advocacy journalism than their scholarship.”

Readers will certainly get the impression that the “scholarship” of the Heritage Foundation is being compromised. But let’s remember what kind of scholarship has actually been produced by the group. As Norman Solomon (Extra!, 7/96) wrote almost two decades ago:

In his book The News Shapers, professor Lawrence Soley of Marquette University observes that “among beltway think tanks, Heritage associates have the weakest scholarly credentials.” Instead of seeking quality, “the Heritage Foundation appears to strive for quantity”–feeding a glut of material to Congress and the news media.

He adds that “the biggest names at this think tank are not thinkers, but former Republican officials.” (These days they include Heritage “fellows” Edwin Meese, Jack Kemp and William Bennett, all highly paid for their expertise.) “Given the backgrounds of individuals at the Heritage Foundation, there is little question as to why it is more accomplished at lobbying than research.” Soley describes Heritage position papers as “sophomoric.”

Indeed, a look at Heritage’s founders, donors and early leaders (Extra!, 1/96) reveals that many were not scholars but far-right activists and racists.

Robert Rector (cc photo: Gage Skidmore)

Robert Rector (cc photo: Gage Skidmore)

One of the group’s most prominent analysts is Robert Rector, who appears frequently in media to argue that the poor aren’t actually that poor (Extra!, 1/99; New Republic, 11/8/11). The group has been an important part of the climate change denial lobby (Media Matters, 11/28/12). And Tom Edsall reported in the Washington Post (4/17/05) that the foundation shifted its line on the Malaysian government based on a business deal: “Heritage’s new, pro-Malaysian outlook emerged at the same time a Hong Kong consulting firm co-founded by Edwin J. Feulner, Heritage’s president, began representing Malaysian business interests. ” 

 There are plenty of other examples, as Reed Richardson noted at The Nation (5/10/13):

  • Let’s not forget the Heritage blog post from 2008 that subtly warned a United Nations Green Economy Initiative was merely a first step on the road to Nazi/Soviet collectivism and oppression of freedom.

A very public embarrassment over dubious Heritage research on immigration led some journalists to write about how Heritage was supposedly drifting away from its more rigorous scholarly roots. But historian Jason Stahl (Salon, 10/20/13) did a good job of challenging that narrative:

Today’s Heritage Foundation is what the think tank’s founders had in mind when they incorporated it in 1973. Heritage’s founders and caretakers have always prized the speed of policy production over rigor, and seen their institution as aligned with both conservative elites and the grass roots. Heritage has always sought to push the Republican Party to the maximal right-wing position, even if that meant disagreeing with Republicans in public.

He noted, for instance, that an early Heritage memo was

dedicated to legislative battles they were currently engaged in, including killing various wage and price controls, cutting funding for urban mass transit, making sure striking workers did not have access to food stamps, passing legislation to end busing in public schools and passing a balanced budget amendment, to start. In many of these battles, Heritage fought moderate Republicans and attempted to pull them rightward. Such has been the case over the institution’s entire history.

That “entire history” has  been glossed over by Steinhauer and Weisman in an effort to give Heritage a more respectable past.

About Peter Hart

Activism Director and and Co-producer of CounterSpinPeter Hart is the activism director at FAIR. He writes for FAIR's magazine Extra! and is also a co-host and producer of FAIR's syndicated radio show CounterSpin. He is the author of The Oh Really? Factor: Unspinning Fox News Channel's Bill O'Reilly (Seven Stories Press, 2003). Hart has been interviewed by a number of media outlets, including NBC Nightly News, Fox News Channel's O'Reilly Factor, the Los Angeles Times, Newsday and the Associated Press. He has also appeared on Showtime and in the movie Outfoxed. Follow Peter on Twitter at @peterfhart.