Published December 17, 2021
EPPC Senior Fellow Henry Olsen talks with Dr. Kevin Roberts, who was named president of The Heritage Foundation in October 2021, about his new role, the importance of principled debate, and the biggest issues facing America and the conservative movement. (Read a condensed version of this interview published by The Washington Post.)
HENRY OLSEN: So let’s just start off with a simple question. You were the head of the Texas Public Policy Foundation, you were the second in command there I believe—I forget the exact title—before you took over a college in Wyoming.
KEVIN ROBERTS: Right.
OLSEN: Coming to Washington is a different thing for you.
ROBERTS: It is.
OLSEN: You never spent time in federal public policy before. What attracted you to the Heritage Foundation?
ROBERTS: A few things. The first is as a life-long movement conservative, I owe my understanding of conservatism to the Heritage Foundation. Solely and exclusively. I was an eighth grader down the road at Washington Irving Middle School and got into what was a fairly routine debate with my civics teacher, who is left of center. Nice guy, great teacher. And the short version of a story I’ve told a couple of times already is that I was not substantiating my opinion well.
OLSEN: Well, you were in eighth grade.
ROBERTS: I was in eighth grade, opinionated. And he did a very good job as a teacher of directing me to find research to support my opinion. Rather than try to change my opinion, which I imagine if he had his druthers he would have been able to do, he said, “You need to go discover the Heritage Foundation.” So this is the late 1980s. My family and I lived in Springfield; we’d come to the District every Saturday. And so my mom wrote a letter to Heritage, however she did it, she got some information, she worked in Old Town for EF Hutton. And I read whatever that was, whatever the policy was, probably some defense policy. And I realized then that, unlike anyone else in my family, all of whom were Democrats in Louisiana, I was a conservative. And therefore, as I became an academic and studied the intellectual history of the United States, focusing on early America, I knew that probably I wouldn’t stay in the classroom forever, because I love leadership. And what happened as a result of my experience in Wyoming with government overreach during the Obama years was that I wanted to do public policy for a living. And doing that in Texas has been, up to this point, the greatest professional privilege of my life. And I’ll miss it. But because I happen to think we have a finite amount of time to get this country back on track, and I happen to think Heritage does play and will play a disproportionate role in getting it back on track, I’m really happy to be here.
OLSEN: So Heritage is not the only institution that calls itself conservative or is listened to by people on the right. What makes Heritage unique from all of the other institutions on the right? Which I suppose will help inform your argument that it will play a disproportionate role in getting the country back on track.
ROBERTS: Sure. It will play a disproportionate role, and that can be true and it can also be true that I’m grateful for all those other organizations. In fact, I think it’s a great sign of the maturation of the conservative movement that these other organizations have cropped up. Even though some of them, occasionally explicitly, poke at Heritage or poke at Texas Public Policy, that’s fine. People will find I’m a teacher at heart, so I love the conversation, even when it’s spirited disagreement, and I will give as good as I take, always with good cheer. But the point is that Heritage has been around for nearly half a century. That doesn’t mean that if an organization has been around for a long time that therefore it’s next half century of existence is going to have the same success or it’s going to exert the same influence. But what I’ve seen at Heritage is that Heritage has adapted with the times. It has become almost as much a communications vehicle for understanding conservative policy, communicating conservative policy, as it is a think tank in the traditional sense of that term. So I think, for that reason primarily, it’s well positioned. The second is that Heritage is what I like to call a full-service operation. The Heritage enterprise between the Heritage Foundation and Heritage Action covers every aspect of American politics and policy. You put all those ingredients together, there is not another institution in Washington, other parts of the country, that has the influence that it does. I think as a lot of institutions have grown older, and this is true for Heritage, that there have been some missed opportunities. And I say that not as a critic, I’m a friend and will be leading Heritage tomorrow. There will be missed opportunities that I had in Texas. It’s the nature of leadership. So I’m not throwing stones; I’m just saying that I’m excited about the opportunity to tap into the potential that’s here, into the track record that’s been here, that we’ve all benefited from, and to make sure that not just in the next election cycles but the next decade or two that Heritage is informing conservatives, people in the center, maybe even a few friends left of center about their philosophical thinking, and then that becomes political behavior. There’s not another organization in that long list of conservative groups that can do that.
OLSEN: That implies perhaps a little shift, moving from policy towards philosophical principles.
OLSEN: Is that an implication that people who follow Heritage should see under your leadership? Fewer specific policies, more broad what is right, what is the American way of life, principles?
ROBERTS: That’s a great question. The answer ultimately is no. In other words, we’re going to continue to advocate for policy prescriptions. I think in addition to that, because they’re definitely not mutually exclusive—in fact they inform one another—we can get back to our roots in the early Feulner days, when I think Dr. Feulner did such a great job for those of us who are young conservatives in cultivating in us an understanding of why we called ourselves conservative. Why we’re proud of this country. Why we want to be active in the political sphere. And I think that’s something that Heritage has continued to do. But because of who I am, as a teacher and a Socratic teacher at that, someone who loves people, loves the, you know, the give and take of philosophical conversations, there will be more of that to the heart of your question.
OLSEN: You talked about not much time to get the country back on track. Tell me how you describe the current political and policy environment. And how much time do we have to get the country back on track?
ROBERTS: The current environment is toxic. It is an environment that dissuades a plurality if not a majority of Americans from wanting to get involved. Including even just voting on their own volition. And I think the solution to that is for institutions like Heritage—and hopefully there would be some on the Left, and some in the center—to decide that being snarky on Twitter is far less important than cultivating an American’s pride in national conversations about policy and understanding that we’re going to disagree, we’ve done that for two and a half centuries. A lot of the times we’ve been able to do so civilly, and that civil discourse does not require unanimity of opinion. It doesn’t require either that you fight less, you know, just figuratively speaking “fight.” And I think Heritage is uniquely positioned across the entire spectrum, especially on the right, to show the manner in which we can have those conversations is one that fights the toxicity. The amount of time that we have left, though, is in direct contravention to taking that slower approach. And so I think we have 10 years, 15 years, to right the ship of this republic. Which is only a little bit shorter than we usually have. Because as a historian of the United States, I would say we’re always just a generation away.
OLSEN: I’ll divert for a minute from what I was going to ask you because you raise with the 15 year time frame. You’ve been wildly successful. Heritage has been wildly successful. Fifteen years from now, the country’s back on track. You’ve won. What’s different?
ROBERTS: What’s different first and foremost is that any American you ask can feel the decentralization of power from this toxic city, Washington, D.C. Most Americans you ask can point to how their well-being, whether it be measured in finances or, for that matter, equally important, mental well-being about the toxicity of centralized power has changed. That’s going to get measured in some kind of academic ways through deregulation, important things like taxation, I hope, eliminating three quarters of what we spend, as an example, on the U.S. Department of Education. I’d go on and on, policy area by policy area. The point is to devolve power from the nation’s capital back to the states and the local communities. That’s probably a half century-long project, just to be realistic as a historian. But 15 years from now in 2036, if we’re sitting in this room and reminiscing on what’s happened, we ought to be able to feel that we’ve made a lot of progress toward that objective. That’s going to bear fruit that this country has actually enjoyed in three or four eras. Twice in the 19th century, twice I can think of in the 20th century. I think we’re on the cusp of it. Even if President Trump had won a second term, it was going to take multiple right of center presidential administrations with congressional majorities willing to act on that goal in order to scale it back. But ultimately, to sum up, I like to measure successes from the standpoint of individual people. And I think that however well-intentioned some aspects of the so-called War on Poverty may have been, we’ve created nearly three generations of Americans who are dependent on government. And I don’t even mean that from the standpoint of how expensive that is financially, it’s most expensive in undermining people’s human dignity. And that for me, however long, hopefully a long time, that I will be President of the Heritage Foundation, is what’s going to motivate our work every day. That the policy work we do devolves power from Washington and creates policies that allows humans if they so desire, to flourish. To have dignity. And to get, therefore when I say to get government out of the way, I don’t mean that in a knee-jerk libertarian sense, although part of me does. Mostly I want people in Connecticut and California and Washington and Florida, Democrats, Republicans, all, to know that their community, their state, are far more important to their lives than their federal government.
OLSEN: So you talked about dependency, and there are many ways to measure it. How do you define when somebody is dependent on the government in their concrete life?
ROBERTS: Yeah, there are many ways, a couple that I would cite. An economist would say you can look at the percentage of their monthly income that’s coming directly from the federal government. That almost meets the definition of dependency. For me, while that is an important measure, as more of a social scientist, as a historian, I would look at what our sociology friends would say, which is that their behavior starts to indicate that they’re looking to the government for an answer. I grew up on the Gulf Coast of Louisiana so the example that comes to mind is when a hurricane hits. There’s a tremendous difference between the response by individuals in eastern Louisiana to Hurricane Katrina, who were waiting for government to save them, and the response by individuals in western Louisiana who were waiting not for the government to save them, but waiting to go help their neighbor. And our friend Tim Carney would say that’s the difference between a community that’s low social capital and high social capital. Government is the entity that has undermined that most important fabric in society. And I think unfortunately during emergencies, as we saw in Texas in February, the same kind of split becomes apparent. High social capital communities did fine with the winter storm, low social capital communities did poorly. Those are measures of dependency that for me are just as stark as what an economist would say is the definition.
OLSEN: That implies a rather substantial reduction in the role of the federal government.
OLSEN: That if you ask a lot of people what the federal government does, they would probably name things that were enacted in the last century.
OLSEN: Social security, Medicare, Medicaid, welfare, FEMA, to get to your example. Does the Heritage vision ultimately see those functions being devolved to civil society or the states or local communities?
ROBERTS: Excellent question. As many of them as possible. And I don’t mean that at all in a flippant way. So I’ll be specific. I think when it comes to FEMA, while there have been some improvements, thank goodness, there haven’t been enough. And there is just something naturally inefficient about the delivery of emergency services the way we have often done it in responses to hurricanes. Now, I do think that that’s a proper function of government. I think that that would be appropriate. Government’s job is to protect our liberties. We agree that there is a certain economy of scale that a government can create in response to an emergency. But it takes four or five times as much money and as much time as if the three of us got together and decided that we were going to respond. Witness the Cajun Navy.
OLSEN: Witness the what?
ROBERTS: The Cajun Navy.
OLSEN: I don’t know what the Cajun Navy is.
ROBERTS: See, if you were on the Gulf Coast, Henry, you would know this. The Cajun Navy emerged after the hurricanes of 2005. And it was a group of Cajuns in my neck of the woods, Lafayette, who pulled together their boats and reached people that the government took three weeks to reach. Saved their lives. Now, the government people were well intentioned. I’m grateful for them. But the Cajun Navy guys got there the same day. And that’s for me as a movement conservative from that part of the country, it exemplifies the criticism that the most thoughtful conservatives have about the largesse of government power. Take that example and apply it to schools—you know, my profession. The U.S. Department of Education is one of the most egregious failures in modern humankind. Because when it was created, America’s schools were probably top three or four in the world, measured by reading, science, math scores, maybe they were top six, they were top ten for sure. We’re barely top 100. So our concerns about indoctrination, whether it be through CRT or transgender agenda, that’s just the tip of the iceberg. We’re not even teaching kids what they need to flourish. And that is decidedly not a Democrat or Republican issue. It’s an American issue. That’s government’s fault. That’s the fault of the bureaucracy. So yes, to sum up, if Heritage can wave it’s magic wand over the next 15 years and do a lot of hard work to get there, we would see 70, 80 percent of what happens by the federal government happening at the state level, the local level, or better yet, by institutions of civil society.
OLSEN: What should Heritage’s mission be in the current environment? You talked about it being kind of a full-service institution from policy generation to philosophical argument to communication to Heritage Action being a lobbying entity as well as a citizen mobilization. What should its mission be primarily in the current environment? Is it primarily one of lobbying Capitol Hill? Is it one primarily of communicating to people? Is it primarily one of generating philosophical discussion that elites then pick up and magnify out? What should its mission be?
ROBERTS: Yeah, that’s an excellent question. Primarily the generation of ideas, which of course has multiple facets. And Heritage has been doing them, but I’ll enumerate a few. The first is, and this is a long-standing value proposition of Heritage. The idea propagation among elites, among people in power: members of Congress, presidential administrations. That has to continue. We’re going to continue to have people of power who will continue to make decisions or not. They exist in this ecosystem of ideas, most of them bad, and so Heritage has to be there with the good ideas. But the second thing, and this is the part that really excites me because Heritage has already been doing this, Heritage Action already does this, but this is who I am, this is the background that I have, so I’m going to gravitate to this, is the propagation of ideas among non-elites. I want to, just to tease that out for two sentences. The grassroots in the conservative movement are so well intentioned and also so frustrated about the present situation in the United States. And they’re perfectly smart people. But because they’re going about their lives outside this city, running their businesses, raising their kids, they don’t have time to come up with the policy prescriptions that can solve things. If Heritage achieves something new, it will be disseminating ideas among those folks as much as it disseminates ideas among the elites. And when both those in power and those grassroots who are clamoring for those in power to do something are talking the same language, then we’ve won.
OLSEN: So you’ve used the phrase “movement conservative” a lot. That’s not a foreign phrase. Anyone who knows Heritage knows it has always been self-consciously an institution that acts to promote the conservative movement. Two questions now: What does it mean to you to be a movement conservative? And what do you think the movement writ large stands for today?
ROBERTS: Excellent. First question, a movement conservative to me, or movement conservatism means ideas tethered to the permanent things, eternal principles that are 100 times more important than any political party or its fortunes in any election cycle. Now hopefully, Heritage has certainly done this disproportionately in the movement, we can marry those as much as possible. I happen to believe as a historian you’ve got to have political parties. They’re always going to be imperfect human enterprises. For movement liberals, if there is such a thing any longer, they’re going to be frustrated with the Democrat Party. Movement conservatives will often be frustrated with the Republican Party. Those are our dance partners in the political world. It doesn’t mean that we always have to go to the next dance, but it does mean that when we’re doing our jobs as movement conservatives, we are impressing, I would sometimes even use the verb imposing upon the party apparatus what they must do from the standpoint of policy prescriptions. What often happens, and this is the frustration people outside D.C. feel about this whole situation, is that that gets inverted. And I would argue as a historian, any time that has gotten inverted, where the Republican Party as an entity, one I respect and I’m a member of, is more important and is imposing upon movement conservatism what it must do, things don’t go well, especially on our side. What was your second question?
OLSEN: Well, I want to dive in on the first question first. I first asked what is movement conservatism to you and then what does the movement believe today. And you said that conservatism, movement conservatism to you means the adherence to the timeless principles. But you didn’t elucidate what those timeless principles are. One suspects that you and Sohrab Ahmari might disagree what those principles are, much less disagreeing, as much less other people farther to the center, to the Left. So for you, what are those timeless principles to which movement conservatism has tethered itself?
ROBERTS: Yeah, great question. Thanks for the follow-up. The eternal things, the permanent things for me, I mean for Burke, for Russell Kirk, who are very informative to my thinking, are first, what the definition of freedom is. Not the freedom to do whatever the heck we want, but the freedom to do what we ought. Which, of course suggests, requires the existence of an enduring moral order that all of us have imprinted on our souls, or you know, for our atheist friends, on our nature. That we will, we ought to do good in the community, and part of doing good in community is recognizing that we’re going to form what turns into a government, but in my Aristotelian background starts as a village. A sort of a town council. And we’re going to give up the full extent of our rights, like my right to go sit on part of your body right now. No, we’re not going to do that, because we want to get along, even though I might want to do that. And from there we build this federal government which our founders understood to be constituted, as you know, of several dozen little republics in which this kind of understanding and those eternal principles are being lived out every day. De Tocqueville understood it perhaps most clearly of any other non-American. We’ve lost sight of that today. But what we’ve lost sight of is just the understanding. It’s not that that reality has changed. Some combination of our politics, of our party apparatus, of our poor education system, has caused even conservative friends to misunderstand what we believe in our heart as conservative. What we believe in our heart as conservatives is not that the end-all, be-all is the lowest taxation regime in the history of the world. The end-all, be-all, for that matter, isn’t even freedom as we understand it commonly. It’s human dignity. It’s having the aspirational dream that 330 million Americans can wake up and believe that they’re in a civil society that recognizes their dignity as a human person. And our politics right now are so far away from that, it’s tragic.
OLSEN: So the follow-up question, the second question is what do you think the movement itself believes. That’s how you define the movement. That’s movement conservatism for you, Kevin Roberts. If you were to go out and say, “are you a movement conservative?” and people say “yes,” what do you think the consensus views of the people who say, “yes, I’m a movement conservative,” were?
ROBERTS: I’m fairly certain it would go like this, because I’ve spent a lot of time with movement conservatives, real Americans, in Texas and other places.
OLSEN: Did you just say real Americans?
ROBERTS: I was hoping you’d catch that. They would say, because they’re religious people, that movement conservatism starts with their faith in God, starts with Christianity, for many of them, most of them. It is a philosophy that also starts with an understanding that what happened in Philadelphia in 1776 was what I would call special. Some of them especially my evangelical protestant friends will call that preordained. As a Roman Catholic, I have a hard time seeing it that way, but I get it. You know, it’s special. God expressed his favor on the United States; I do believe that. I think it happens to come through our individual virtues, as de Tocqueville understood, but the point is they would also express, movement conservatives would also express, tremendous frustration with where we are. Frustration that too much power is centralized in state capitals and in Washington. And something’s got to change. And that’s really where the rubs come in among conservatives. Which is, what do you do about that? And we saw this even in the Trump administration. We want to fix many problems from the past, and I’m a huge proponent of most of the policies that President Trump initiated. We participated in many of them at Texas Public Policy. But there was this impulse, and I understood it, that the easiest way to correct what Obama and Biden did was an executive order. Especially because you can’t get congressional action. That kind of thing in the long term many movement conservatives understand undermines some of our beliefs. And that’s one of the things we’re reckoning with as a movement right now.
OLSEN: Are movement conservatives a majority of Americans?
OLSEN: Does that mean they are a supermajority of Republicans?
ROBERTS: Yes. But they’re also very busy with their lives.
OLSEN: They’re very busy with their lives.
ROBERTS: And therefore, I mean, there’s a little bit of criticism intended in what I’m about to say, and perhaps not as much as it sounds, just to be clear. The Republican Party apparatus at the state level or the county level is very good at doing what it does, which is getting people elected. Thank goodness, in most cases. A lot of movement conservatives who sort of intuit something a little bit different than what they’re hearing don’t have time to trust but verify. And I think that kind of comes full circle that the role that Heritage can play and that Heritage can play even more profoundly. Even better than it has in the past. And that is to close that gap.
OLSEN: Are there conservatives who are not movement conservatives?
ROBERTS: Sure. Always have been.
OLSEN: Give me some examples.
ROBERTS: Oh, gosh. Not being evasive, no individuals come to mind. So I’ll just talk in terms of groups.
ROBERTS: Just thinking out loud with you here, Henry. I was in higher ed for a long time, I had a few colleagues, not many, who called themselves conservatives. They were not movement conservatives. They lacked what I would call a fire in the belly for fighting. There’s another group of conservatives who are not movement conservatives because they are weak and wrong on the social issues. Marriage, transgender stuff. I’ve got some donor friends in Texas I will not name because they’re good men and women, I respect them although I tell them they’re wrong about this, they tell me I’m wrong, that back in 2019 when the Texas legislature was arguing over the Privacy Act, derisively dubbed the bathroom bill, that it was all made up. We now know that issue was not made up. We now know from Loudon County, Virginia, that’s not a made up issue. It’s real.
OLSEN: But just to pick up on an implication, if you support same-sex marriage, that means you’re wrong.
ROBERTS: That’s correct. Well, it means you’re not a movement conservative. Because same-sex marriage contravenes our understanding of an enduring moral order. Which is at the root of being a movement conservative. It doesn’t mean you’re a bad person, it just means it’s an opportunity for people like us at Heritage to persuade you otherwise.
OLSEN: So how should movement conservatism act in relation to non-movement conservatives?
ROBERTS: With Christian charity.
OLSEN: As you beat them about the head in political combat? I say only half-facetiously. I mean, with Christian charity in what manner?
ROBERTS: Yeah. Okay. Were you reacting to something that I said as political combat?
OLSEN: Well, you’ve talked about—
ROBERTS: I spoke plainly, but I didn’t beat anybody in the head.
OLSEN: When you just spoke a minute ago about your colleagues who were not movement conservatives who were conservative, what you said was they didn’t have the fire in the belly, the fight.
ROBERTS: Yeah, right.
OLSEN: Which implies that movement conservatives have the fire in the belly to fight. So when you say let’s deal with them with Christian charity, but you’ve defined movement conservatism as a fighting faith, that’s what I’m reacting to.
ROBERTS: Yeah, sure. I got it. I just want to make sure. What I wanted to make sure, just to clarify is that you didn’t take the candor with which, in comfort, that I have in telling someone that they’re wrong as beating them over the head.
OLSEN: Got it. But that’s important, see, that’s important to understand. Because there’s certainly elements in political combat for whom saying you’re wrong and making that argument is not accompanied by charity or a calmness of manner.
ROBERTS: Got it. Fair enough. Great clarification. So back to your question, which was how Christian charity while also doing combat?
OLSEN: Well, my question was how should, one, the movement conservative act in relation to the non-movement conservative, and you said with Christian charity. And then I got us diverted into this crazy little—
ROBERTS: No, this is… I’m having fun.
OLSEN: Wiggle room.
OLSEN: Let’s go back to the original. How do movement—
ROBERTS: I’m not trying to be difficult.
OLSEN: How should—And neither am I.
OLSEN: How should the movement conservative act in relation to the non-movement conservative?
ROBERTS: By saying, and not being defensive at all, which I’m not. I’m enjoying the conversation. When I went with Christian charity what I meant by that was not to say that those people can never be part of our movement because of their heterodoxy on that issue, but by Christian charity to persuade them that their understanding, however well-intentioned they believe it is, does not comport consistently with the rest of what we believe. And it gets back to the toxicity of our political discourse, so much of which is on our own side. And I’m guilty of this sometimes, too. I’m human. I try not to be. I pray that I’m not. But I don’t always succeed in that. And therefore I think we, to answer your question as directly as I can, I think we need to spend a lot more time in conversation with one another, understanding the underlying claims that are the basis for why we’re saying what we’re saying. But that takes time. And it’s hard to do in a political campaign, as you know better than anybody. I think that’s a lane that the Heritage Foundation resides in, has sort of defined in a lot of respects, and I’m very excited about rejuvenating it at Heritage. That those are conversations not only to be part of but to facilitate. And a goal for that, sort of come full circle with this response, is that say we’ve got 12, 14 people in a year, and half of the folks believe that same-sex marriage is okay and they think I’m wrong for saying that they’re not movement conservatives, that we can have a conversation over coffee or a beer, and we might still when we leave disagree, but we don’t hate one another. That’s really important. But I’m still going to go out and do combat, politically.
ROBERTS: I mean, Heritage is, on that issue because we’re still right on it.
OLSEN: So can you imagine under your leadership—Heritage famously has the single point of view position which for the purpose of my readers mean that Heritage scholars debate and discuss what a particular issue position should take, and once they’ve reached that agreement that binds the entire institution and the people within it. Is that a fair summary of the single point of view policy?
ROBERTS: Yep. Yep.
OLSEN: So should Heritage seek to foster a dialogue with people who argue that they are on the Right but do not share the position of the single point of view within its walls?
ROBERTS: Oh, excellent question. Absolutely.
OLSEN: So I can envision, just to follow up, a debate between a Heritage scholar and Oren Cass on industrial policy taking place in the Lehrman Auditorium?
ROBERTS: Yeah, he and I had that three weeks ago. Oren’s a great friend.
OLSEN: In public.
ROBERTS: It was off the record, you know.
OLSEN: Well, that’s my point. It’s one thing to be in a private room and have those discussions, it’s another thing to present in a public forum with the Heritage name to say this is a legitimate discussion to have, even if there is a Heritage point of view. That has not been something Heritage has done much of in the last ten to twenty years.
ROBERTS: You will see more of that under my leadership. Which is not an endorsement of an issue or a position that Heritage disagrees with. It is an endorsement of fostering another good in society, fostering conversations, especially among friends, for that matter, among opponents. I would actually love to have debates that were even more significant, that is, with people from the other side. Fewer and fewer of them unfortunately are willing to debate us any longer. We tried this in Texas, but I don’t mean to evade the point, because I know what you’re getting at. Absolutely. That’s the sign of a healthy conservative movement to me. Heritage is never going to agree with Oren that we have an industrial policy. Kevin Roberts is never going to agree with Oren about that. But I’ll talk to Oren about that. I will facilitate that conversation all the time. You know why? Because it’s an important conversation and it’s always been an important conversation in the history of conservatism. It has always been a tension point. This is not new in the 21st century. It’s the historian in me—we have got to remember the perspective and context in which our ideas exist.
OLSEN: Were protective tariffs a form of industrial policy? As a historian going back to the 19th century?
ROBERTS: Most historians would argue that they were.
OLSEN: What do you think?
ROBERTS: I think that, and I’m not going to be able to give you a number because I haven’t thought about it in a long time. When I was teaching that, in certain eras, the 1920s and ’30s, those protective tariffs reach a certain point where they’re so significant and having such an important impact on the economy that they are part of an industrial policy either by default or by intention.
OLSEN: But the intention of that tariff going back to the Whig progenitors was always to foster American manufacturing as a strategic objective set by the federal government.
ROBERTS: Correct. But as you know, and I love your work, they didn’t always succeed in implementing the level of protective tariffs that they thought constituted appropriate industrial policy. That’s my point.
OLSEN: Okay. Now I understand. So Heritage has famously promulgated its True North Principles. Do you subscribe to them?
OLSEN: All 14 of them?
ROBERTS: It has been a couple of months since I read all 14, but in all honesty, and I read them prior to interviewing—
OLSEN: And that’s in part an unfair question, but I wanted to—
ROBERTS: No, that’s fine. That’s fine. I’ll play. There was nothing in there that I disagreed with.
OLSEN: That’s what I was trying to get at.
ROBERTS: Do I, just as Kevin Roberts, put those 14 very good points in my own language? Sure, you’ve heard that already.
OLSEN: Right. Exactly.
OLSEN: Yeah. So how do those principles relate to—and this kind of gets back to where we started—how do they relate to the size and structure of the current federal government? You know, when I read those principles, they’re pretty clear about a direction without mentioning specific policies, and they’re very consistent in some ways with the massive transfer of power and spending and authority out of the federal government. Would they apply? Do the True North Principles and Roberts Doctrine, to name your philosophy in a historic way, you know, would that imply a revolution in the way that the federal government relates to its citizens, as opposed to a reform?
ROBERTS: An ideological or philosophical revolution, I hope. Very careful, given what happened on January 6th, to use that word.
OLSEN: Yes, just to be clear I’m not trying to imply that you advocate or support any form of violence.
ROBERTS: I know that you wouldn’t.
ROBERTS: I know your work well enough to know you would be way too careful, but sensitive to how people might see the new president of Heritage saying there’s going to be a revolution.
OLSEN: Let’s use the word or the phrase more accurately. Dramatic change.
ROBERTS: You might even call it draining the swamp.
OLSEN: You might even call it that, yes. Let me return then to a couple of other questions that I had and that would be with respect to some specifics with respect to these distinctions between non-movement and movement conservatives. Section 230 reform, which is something that many conservatives talk about, bringing some sort of government regulation into the internet or social media sphere. How does that comport with the True North Principles or the Heritage point of view? Is that something that can be entertained or is that an example of conservatives who have got it wrong?
ROBERTS: No. I mean, that’s, we’ve got a paper, I don’t know if that paper from Kara is out.
SPEAKER: I don’t think it’s published yet, I have not seen it come through.
ROBERTS: Yeah. There is a what I will argue is going to be the definitive paper on what to do in tech policy. It goes beyond, as I understand it, the initial Heritage position on a couple of clauses in Section 230, and those are on our website. I know that because at Texas Public Policy Foundation under my leadership, we were a little slow to figure out what to do as conservatives on Big Tech. And the reason that we were is I’m a Kirk guy. And you read Kirk and he says, to paraphrase him, you get into these difficult situations in Washington, D.C., where conservatives are in power, and you’ve got this problem, and you want to fix it with the very thing we hate, which is centralized power. And so we just had this huge but very collegial debate inside Texas Public Policy about what to do, and I just didn’t feel comfortable leading us one way or the other. The point is this, Henry. It has been difficult for organizations like Heritage and TPPF to figure out exactly where to land on that. Not because we’re trying to evade it but because we’re trying to get it right.
ROBERTS: Precisely right. And I think Kara’s paper is precisely right. It’s robust.
OLSEN: Without previewing it too much if it’s not published yet, does it envision some form of federal regulatory or legislative action?
ROBERTS: Yes. Because that’s the only way to fix it.
OLSEN: How does that comport with the idea to you of devolving power from Washington back to civil society and local or state communities?
ROBERTS: Totally fair question. It’s a pain point. We want most of the reform to start in the states. But not all of it can probably because of the nature of how we regulate communications companies.
OLSEN: What about outsourcing jobs overseas? That’s something that people have talked about a lot increasingly on the Right, people are picking up on that. Is that something that the federal government should be concerned about and take action on, or is that simply the action of the economy where private actors should be able to make those choices for themselves?
ROBERTS: I don’t think that it’s something the federal government should take action on. I think it’s something that more importantly as Americans we should be worried about. There are benefits to globalization. We’ve reduced poverty by, I don’t know, a billion and a half people in the last 35 or 40 years. But the attendant costs to American civil society worry me greatly. At the same time, we’ve seen the complete devolution of once great communities in this country. I’m a big fan of Tim Carney’s work, as you probably have figured out. And I don’t think Tim overstates the problem. I think as conservatives operating in the 2020s, we need to do some updating on the right policy prescriptions at the state level and the federal level to grapple with that. I can’t envision a day when the Heritage Foundation will say the federal government needs to fix that. I would like to envision a day when Heritage and our other conservative organization friends figure out how we address this as a society. That’s a multi-decade effort.
OLSEN: What about some of the other issues that often come up with respect to divisions among movement or non-movement conservatives, or divisions within the conservative family? Like free trade. Is that something that we should continue to be devoted to? It’s not unrelated to the question about outsourcing.
ROBERTS: No, it isn’t. Yeah. Well, I think free trade is still a very important goal, but as our economists here at Heritage say very well, sometimes the other actors are not very free. And at the top of the list for me and for all of us at Heritage is China. And what you will hear me say a lot is, being a son of the ’80s, is that we, American conservatives, Heritage, need to be talking about the threat from the Chinese Communist Party in exactly the same way that we saw the Soviet Union when I was a teenager in the 1980s. And failure to do that is a failure to seize an opportunity. And it’s related to the free trade issue because often very thoughtful, well-intentioned friends on our side say you have to be a little careful with what you do with China, because of our free trade dogma. Well, free trade’s probably a dogma within conservatism but even Reagan, the greatest free trade president of our lifetimes probably, also knew there were exceptions to that because of the misbehavior of others, especially when it comes to national security. It’s a very comfortable position for Heritage to articulate. One thing that we can do a good job of moving forward, and we will, is articulating that for people, so that there are fewer misunderstandings. That you can believe in free trade as a goal, as an aspirational aim, but there are also some actors on the world stage who really need to be hit right between the eyeballs, and China is one of them.
OLSEN: What do you think of Marco Rubio’s common-good capitalism?
ROBERTS: I find it fascinating because I’m an academic, and I find a lot of ideas fascinating. I think that it’s probably, and I mean this, and I really do mean this, respectfully of Senator Rubio, whom I love and the people who subscribe to common-good capitalism. I’m a Catholic, so you might imagine spiritually I gravitate to that direction. I think it’s more well intentioned than it is something that could ever be put in practice at the federal level. And I think that that’s one of the pain points that conservative, our conservative family is having right now. And what I want Heritage to do, what I personally want to do, is to facilitate those conversations in a way that doesn’t cause us to be pointing fingers at one another but to say, man, that’s a really good element from that speech or that policy paper. Let’s put something together so that—going back to the comment about the party apparatus—our guys and gals running as conservatives in ’22 and whoever our nominee will be in ’24, they’re talking about these things. There are probably one or two elements of common-good conservatism or capitalism that we need to think about. Those are conversations we used to have. You know, sometimes they could be a little unfriendly, but they’re extremely unfriendly right now. And that’s more painful to me than anything.
OLSEN: You know, for example, I think it was shortly after the common-good capitalism speech, when Heritage picked Senator Toomey to basically deliver a response. But of course Senator Rubio’s never been invited, to my knowledge, he certainly has never appeared under a Heritage aegis to discuss those ideas. Could one imagine, you know, a Rubio/Haley debate? Since he has also taken aim at that.
ROBERTS: Absolutely. And I don’t know if he was never invited, I’m not—
OLSEN: Oh, that’s why I backtracked because I don’t know at the end, I just know he hasn’t appeared.
ROBERTS: Yeah. But absolutely.
SPEAKER: He’s appeared—I should note he’s appeared on other issues at Heritage, not that. But I believe he came to talk about tech policy. I can get the exact date, but he has been here.
OLSEN: Oh, yeah, no, no.
SPEAKER: Not on that particular—
OLSEN: Yes. I mean, I know Heritage doesn’t blackball people, the question was whether or not ideas—
ROBERTS: I don’t blackball ideas.
OLSEN: It strikes me that what you are looking at is an institution that often has thought of itself as the lineal descendant of Bill Buckley’s early National Review. The early National Review of course famously allowed people to disagree with one another in print from Whittaker Chambers to Frank Meyer and so forth. That has not been a hallmark of the Heritage Foundation over the last 20 years. It sounds to me like you might envision Heritage picking up that aspect of the National Review mantle.
ROBERTS: Bank on it.
OLSEN: Bank on it.
ROBERTS: Without anything changing, because sometimes—
OLSEN: I’m not—
ROBERTS: Well, to finish this, I think you get this but just so you know, my good friend Oren had this follow-up question in a private conversation, he said, well, does that mean you’re going to get rid of the one voice policy? No. You can have the one voice policy at Heritage. In fact, it doesn’t make any sense to me at all that we wouldn’t have that, it’s what we have at Texas Public Policy, but you can make the process of achieving that single voice so much healthier by having those conversations. That’s the point.
OLSEN: In light of what we’ve been discussing, there’s so much that needs to happen, so much that needs attention in the next 10 or 15 years. Maybe it’s too early in your tenure, which will start after this is published, to know, but can you foresee right now maybe two or three priorities for Heritage over the next couple of years, whether they’re either issues or debates you want to foster. Two years from now, what can we say, “Heritage has been a leader in that debate or has been focused a lot of its energy on that debate or that policy.”?
ROBERTS: Yeah, I do, and that’s an excellent question, Henry. I’ll limit myself to two or three, although that’s hard. The first is—probably not a surprise given my background—literally on my list of in 2023 if I’m looking back and saying, “Did I achieve what I wanted to achieve in the first two years?” Heritage would have, will have, played an outsized role in determining how we fix American education.
OLSEN: Fix American education.
ROBERTS: Education. K-12. Heritage isn’t just continuing the truly fantastic work of Lindsey Burke and others, and I mean that, but that Heritage is playing even more at the state level. For example in Texas, where we can’t get school choice passed, Heritage will play a complementary role to Texas Public Policy and other groups doing that. Major investment of time and resources to get that done. But also that includes American higher education. And you will hear in time ideas that I have for reforming the accreditation cartel which is the way ultimately I think you fix American higher education. Heritage is going to define what that looks like. But the second thing is, which is more general, is that people can say, whether they’re in Montana or Arkansas, that we have seen Heritage more present in our communities and our state legislatures. They’re not trying to displace the really important organizations that are there, in a big firm way into those towns, but Heritage is seen as a service organization, not just for members of Congress and staff, but for real people on the ground trying to take back this country. Because I happen to think we’re going to see a golden era of federalism. Parents are saying that right now that when it comes to the largesse of some of these local school districts. Heritage is in a great position to give them the ammunition to have that figurative revolution. And that would be a great metric of success.
OLSEN: What are some of the institutional challenges that Heritage faces? And how do you plan to address them?
ROBERTS: Any large organization, you know, there are of course 300 people or so who work at Heritage, all of them great, all of them doing good work. But there are challenges any time an organization gets to be more than 100 employees. I’ve seen that under my tenure at Texas Public Policy Foundation, where we grew from 45 to 120 employees. You get less nimble. And so in order to make sure that you’re nimble—and that’s important in our work because of all the challenges—you’ve got to make sure that your leadership structure, your internal communication are set up for responding to where the gunfire is. But you also have to be careful as you make those modifications that you don’t become just a reactive organization, which is very easy to be as a conservative group. That’s for all of us. But instead, that you’re being proactive and looking at the battles ahead, two, four, eight, 18 years down the road. I think Heritage will get to the point where it is even more nimble than it is. And also be able to look ahead to what the issues might be in the ’24 presidential race, ’28, but far more importantly, what does it mean for Americans to live the good life? Our policy work’s important. Our political work is important. But if the greatest conservative institution in the history of America isn’t every day asking and answering the question what does it mean to live the good life, we’ve missed an opportunity.
OLSEN: Two questions, and then I’ll let you go.
OLSEN: Question one, if movement conservatives are a majority of Americans, why haven’t we had a movement conservative America? You said they were a majority.
ROBERTS: I think because a couple of things. Movement conservatives by our nature are invested in our local communities. And by that, not our city councils and our school boards typically, but in the institutions of civil society, Tocquevillian institutions. And we don’t pay as much attention to political things as we should. And the second thing that’s happened is that as power has become more centralized in D.C., and I just mean that as a historical fact since the 1910s, politics have become more important. Like just the raw blocking and tackling of politics have become more important to a daily American’s life. And movement conservatives have just in the last half-decade come to that realization. They’ve come to the realization now and so I do think that more of them will be involved and we will, within 15 years, have a movement conservative America.
OLSEN: So that plays into my last question providentially. Should conservatives be optimistic about the country’s future?
ROBERTS: Because I think if you look at what happened, as an example, in Virginia, I don’t really mean just Glenn Youngkin’s victory, more importantly I mean the context that made that possible, that he very smartly tapped into. Parents who are apolitical, some of them may not even be registered to vote, got so frustrated initially with all of the overwrought Covid lockdowns and then with indoctrination generally, CRT in particular, that they took action. And it was about a year of parents running for school board races and winning before many of us movement conservatives, you know, kind of institutional guys, realized what was going on. And when we started looking at it, and analyzing it, which Rob has done, too, you realize this is happening nationwide. And all we have to do, to be kind of silly about it, is get out of the way. And not foul them up. And let them be great Americans. But we are going to be a great partner to them. And so I think that’s going to manifest itself in the midterms, in the presidential election, but more importantly it’s going to manifest itself in great people now being school board members and city council members. Hopefully rejuvenating rotary clubs and Kiwanis clubs. That’s my big hope for movement conservatism to be successful. It isn’t even a movement conservative president, although that would be awesome. It would be that in tens of thousands of communities in this country, we have people who know what’s right, tethered to an enduring moral order and ready to fight.
OLSEN: Thank you very much for your time.
ROBERTS: Thank you. Thanks for tolerating me.