The Heritage Foundation’s Thirty-Five Year Smackdown of Liberalism

In November, President Bush told a Heritage Foundation audience that while he only had 14 months left in his presidency he was going to be “sprinting to the finish line.” Bush complained about the Senate being slow to confirm Michael Mukasey for attorney general, urged Congress to make the Protect America Act permanent, and blasted “ bloggers” and “Code Pink protesters.”

He wrapped up his speech by saying that he believed a president of the United States will come to the Heritage Foundation 50 years from now and say “Thank God that generation that wrote the first chapter in the 21st century understood the power of freedom to bring the peace we want.”

Heritage Opens its Doors

Thirty-five years ago, when the Heritage Foundation first opened its doors, the War in Vietnam was finally winding its way toward a conclusion, Vice President Spiro Agnew had resigned in disgrace and President Richard Nixon, enmeshed in the Watergate scandal, would soon follow. The Rev. Jerry Falwell was still not convinced that evangelicals should be deeply involved in the political process, the civil rights and the women’s movements had won a number of transformative battles, having a social safety net was still a shared social value, privatization was a relatively little-used term, and the “culture wars” had not yet punctured the national consciousness.

Historian Lee Edwards, in his book The Power of Ideas, pointed out that “Conservative leaders and conservative ideas were out of public favor . . . In foreign [affairs], dètente was riding high . . . [as Nixon] traveled to Communist China to kowtow to Mao Zedong.”

Out of this conservative morass came, among other things, the Heritage Foundation, which helped lead the transformation from decades of liberalism to the past several decades of conservative hegemony. While Heritage wasn’t the first conservative think tank — the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, and the Washington, DC-based American Enterprise Institute had been slogging along for years — it was the first to be consciously embraced by a host of wealthy right-wing benefactors including beer magnate Joseph Coors and heir to the Mellon fortune Richard Mellon Scaife, who had more on their minds than just churning out policy papers that few would read or heed. One of the ideological guides to the foundation’s creation and early work was Paul Weyrich, now considered the “Godfather” of the New Right.

‘Break[ing] the back of the dominant Liberal Establishment’

The Heritage Foundation was envisioned as one of the institutions that would “break the back of the dominant Liberal Establishment, which [the late William Simon, Nixon’s former energy czar and Treasury Secretary, and the then-president of the conservative Olin Foundation] accused of enforcing misguided concepts of ‘equality’ and of being ‘possessed of delusions of moral grandeur,'” Robert Parry wrote in “Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq.”

Simon determined that conservatives needed to establish what he called a “counter-intelligentsia.” “Funds generated by business . . . must rush by the multi-million to the aid of liberty . . . to funnel desperately needed funds to scholars, social scientists, writers and journalists who understand the relationship between political and economic liberty.” Simon wrote.

This “counter-intelligentsia” would put a full-court press on what was accepted as conventional liberal wisdom. In his 1986 book, The Rise of the Counter-Establishment, Sidney Blumenthal wrote: “The Bastille to which they [conservative foundations] laid siege was the fortress of liberalism, the hollow doctrine of the old regime. These intellectuals impressed their thoughts on public activity, staffing the new institutes, writing policy papers and newspaper editorials, and serving as political advisors, lending the power of the word to the defense of ideology.”

The Heritage Foundation became one of the leading recipients of funds from conservative foundations. From 1985 — when began tracking grants to the think-tank — through 2006, Heritage received more than $66 million from a host of conservative foundations, including the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, Castle Rock Foundation (Coors Family), Richard and Helen DeVos Foundation (Amway), and the John M. Olin Foundation. It also received many millions from giant corporations.

It is probably fair to say that Heritage’s breakthrough moment came during the 1980 presidential campaign when it produced a 3,000 page, 20-volume set of policy recommendations called Mandate for Leadership that proved to be the intellectual blueprint for the so-called “Reagan Revolution,” including trickle-down economics, massive cutbacks in social programs and the Star Wars Defense Strategy.

According to SourceWatch, a project of the Center for Media and Democracy, the Heritage Foundation played a huge role in designing and supporting President Reagan’s contra wars in Latin America and Africa:

The Foundation worked closely with leading anti-communist movements, including the Nicaraguan contras and Jonas Savimbi’s Unita movement in Angola to bring military, economic and political pressure on Soviet-aligned regimes. Throughout the late 1980s and early 1990s, the Foundation’s support for the Nicaraguan contras and Angola’s Savimbi proved extremely influential with the United States government, including the Central Intelligence Agency, the Defense Intelligence Agency, the National Security Council and other governmental agencies. The Heritage Foundation presented its case for armed support for these movements, and United States support soon followed.

The Foundation’s foreign policy analysts “were deeply intertwined players in these conflicts, visiting the front lines to provide political and military guidance to Savimbi and the contra leadership,” SourceWatch points out. “They also provided bold and inflammatory predictions that these conflicts were tugging on the very soul of global communism and that these Soviet-supported regimes and the Soviet Union itself were on the brink of collapse. This prediction, of course, looks surprisingly accurate in retrospect, but ignores the many other contributing factors to the collapse of communism.”

Policy landscape … forever changed’ Says Heritage Vice President

These days, few could argue with Rebecca Hagelin, a vice president of the Heritage Foundation, who in a February 21 column pointed out that when the foundation “opened its doors for the first time … the policy landscape was forever changed.”

By “parlay[ing] its extraordinary talent and strong commitment to timeless principles,” the Heritage Foundation was able to become “The nation’s most influential conservative think tank and a huge force in advancing the cause of limited government, free enterprise, a strong national defense, individual liberty and traditional American values,” Hagelin crowed.

Edwin Feulner, the president of the Heritage Foundation, took the creation of the think tank one step further, maintaining that the day of its launch, February 13, 1973, should be considered as much of a “landmark” date in conservative history as January 20, 1981, President Ronald Reagan’s inauguration; November 9, 1989, the day the Berlin Wall fell; and December 25, 1991, when the Soviet Union formally dissolved.

In his celebratory column dated February 15, Fuelner proudly noted that the New York Times once called the foundation “the most aggressive and disciplined of the conservative idea factories,” and that in the early 1980s, the former Soviet newspaper Pravda admitted that “in a matter of just 10 years, the Heritage Foundation has covered a mind-boggling distance.” Feulner also pointed to a host of Heritage Foundation accomplishments including its contribution to the downfall of the Soviet Union; its firm advocacy of “missile defense” (Star Wars); its promotion of welfare reform and marriage.

A People for the American Way (PFAW) “Fighting the Right” profile notes that the mission of the Heritage Foundation — the largest conservative think tank in Washington, DC. — is “to formulate and promote conservative public policies based on the principles of free enterprise, limited government, individual freedom, traditional American values, and a strong national defense.”

According to PFAW, “Heritage’s publications are distributed to many thousands of people, including Members of Congress, congressional aides and staff, journalists, and major donors.” While it grew up during the Reagan years, “It takes credit for much of President Bush’s policy, both domestic and foreign, referring to Bush’s policies as ‘straight out of the Heritage play book.'”

Shortly after Hurricane Katrina destroyed much of the Gulf Coast and New Orleans, Heritage Foundation staffers seized the time. A Special Report written by Ed Meese, Stuart Butler, and Kim Holmes titled “From Tragedy to Triumph: Principled Solutions for Rebuilding Lives and Communities,” provided guidelines and recommendations for the rebuilding effort. The key to the rebuilding effort, the report’s authors insisted, was to essentially adopt the foundation’s playbook by “encourage[ing] creative and rapid private investment through incentives and reduced regulation, and to channel long-term education, health, and other assistance directly to the people and areas affected so that they can control their future.”

The foundation, which played a key role in the march to war on Iraq, has recently been one of the Washington-based think tanks urging the Bush Administration to act militarily against Iran. According to Feulner, there are 21 members on the Board of Trustees, 240 employees and 320,000 members of the Heritage Foundation around the country. While not the newest kid on the block, the Heritage Foundation, now housed in headquarters that includes intern and fellow apartments, a 200-seat auditorium, a private fitness center, and two floors dedicated to expanding the research department, is still a major force to be reckoned with.

If Sen. Barack Obama or Sen. Hillary Clinton should be elected President in November, the foundation’s influence will no doubt wane, but only slightly. In any case, the sight of dozens of Bush Administration officials, policy wonks, ideologues and administrators moving out of their powerful policy-making positions and scurrying back to the right wing think tanks from whence they came — including Heritage — will be worth the price of admission.

Bill Berkowitz is a longtime observer of the conservative movement. Read other articles by Bill.

7 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. D.R. Munro said on March 11th, 2008 at 5:43am #

    To be quite honest, it is really quite hard to predict just where any candidate truly falls on the political spectrum until after the election – right now their all playing moderates to soak up the most votes.

    And, I wouldn’t go so far as to distinguish all that much from democrat and republican. Let’s see, the choices this year: two pro-war, pro-imperialist democracts; a pro-war, pro-imperialist republican.

    Hmmm. . . .

  2. D.R. Munro said on March 11th, 2008 at 5:44am #

    To be quite honest, it is really quite hard to predict just where any candidate truly falls on the political spectrum until after the election – right now they’re all playing moderates to soak up the most votes.

    And, I wouldn’t go so far as to distinguish all that much from democrat and republican. Let’s see, the choices this year: two pro-war, pro-imperialist democracts; a pro-war, pro-imperialist republican.

    Hmmm. . . .

  3. ron said on March 11th, 2008 at 6:39am #

    You can bet that no matter who wins in November, the Heritage foundation and their ilk will still be providing their “expert” opinions on PBS, NPR and every other mainstream broadcast station whether we want to hear them or not.

  4. Don Hawkins said on March 11th, 2008 at 9:23am #

    The next President of the United States and congress are going to have to make some very hard choices. No choice in the matter. Can you hear the laughter of the gods off in the distance yet, I can.

  5. Don Hawkins said on March 11th, 2008 at 9:35am #

    By Juliet Eilperin
    The Washington Post
    Monday 10 March 2008

    The task of cutting greenhouse gas emissions enough to avert a dangerous rise in global temperatures may be far more difficult than previous research suggested, say scientists who have just published studies indicating that it would require the world to cease carbon emissions altogether within a matter of decades.

    Their findings, published in separate journals over the past few weeks, suggest that both industrialized and developing nations must wean themselves off fossil fuels by as early as mid-century in order to prevent warming that could change precipitation patterns and dry up sources of water worldwide.

    Using advanced computer models to factor in deep-sea warming and other aspects of the carbon cycle that naturally creates and removes carbon dioxide (CO2), the scientists, from countries including the United States, Canada and Germany, are delivering a simple message: The world must bring carbon emissions down to near zero to keep temperatures from rising further.

    “The question is, what if we don’t want the Earth to warm anymore?” asked Carnegie Institution senior scientist Ken Caldeira, co-author of a paper published last week in the journal Geophysical Research Letters. “The answer implies a much more radical change to our energy system than people are thinking about.”

    Now this fact has been known by many for years now and of course that little problem with oil. To much demand not enough supply. The question is will we do what is needed? That’s where the no choice in the matter comes in and yet with no choice in the matter will it happen in time that is the question.

  6. synicab12 said on March 11th, 2008 at 3:10pm #

    The Heritage Foundation will be quite happy if any of the three, Obama,
    Clinton or McCain win the election.
    All three of them are war mongers and are owned and controlled by
    big Money/Business. All of them are against the average Joe/Jane and thre working people

  7. hp said on March 13th, 2008 at 6:25pm #

    What’s a liberal?