6 Ways the Heritage Foundation Makes America Less Free, Less Just, and Less Safe

Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) spoke at the Heritage Foundation's 50th anniversary celebration on April 20, 2023.

The Heritage Foundation, a massively funded right-wing “think tank” that currently functions as a marketing and political enforcement arm of the MAGA movement, is celebrating its 50th anniversary this week. A line-up of Republican politicians addressed the group Thursday, and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis will speak Friday. The celebration will culminate in a Friday evening keynote address by Fox News host Tucker Carlson, which may tell you everything you need to know about the intellectual seriousness and integrity of Heritage as it turns 50.

Heritage was founded by right-wing corporate and foundation funders as one of the movement-building investments that followed future Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell’s 1971 memo calling for corporate America to fund a multifaceted response to what he described as an attack on the free enterprise system in education, the media, and the courts. Heritage made a big splash with its “Mandate for Leadership,” a right-wing policy wish list that became the governing agenda for the Ronald Reagan administration.

A pillar of the conservative wing of the Republican establishment for decades, Heritage has moved aggressively toward the far right over the past decade, shedding conservative scholars in favor of ideological warriors in its rush to align itself with the party’s Tea Party wing. During the Obama administration, and especially under the leadership of former Sen. Jim DeMint, Heritage favored obstructionism over governing, pressuring Republicans to shut down the government in an attempt to crush the Affordable Care Act.

During the Trump era, Heritage was all-in for the former reality star turned president, filling his transition team and administration with appointees and helping fill the courts with judges who could be counted on to advance the political agendas of the GOP’s hard right. Much of its updated “Mandate for Leadership”—including massive tax cuts heavily favoring the wealthiest Americans—became Trump policy.

Since Trump’s defeat, Heritage’s MAGAfication has continued. In 2022, Heritage’s president, Kay Cole James, left to work for Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin and was replaced by Kevin Roberts, “a Texas firebrand more determined to fight pandemic restrictions, critical race theory in schools, and ‘teaching transgenderism to kindergartners,’” in the words of the Washington Post. Roberts, now competing for right-wing funding with newer Trump-aligned organizations like the Center for Renewing America, can be heard on Fox denouncing “woke corporations.”

In his speech opening this week’s celebrations, Roberts said the 2024 election “may be our last, best chance to rescue this nation from a woke, socialist left bent on its destruction.” He portrayed the governmental response to the COVID-19 crisis as “tyranny” and mocked “non-vaccine vaccines” and “useless masks.” He declared that there must be no bargaining with the “woke left” and asserted that “dismantling the woke and weaponized Administrative State” is a matter of national survival.

Today, Heritage and Heritage Action are part of the dishonest and harmful right-wing campaign against public schools and school boards. A Heritage ebook about critical race theory suggests that systemic racism does not exist in the United States because racial discrimination is illegal, a ridiculous claim akin to suggesting that illicit drugs cannot be a problem in the U.S. due to their being illicit.

Heritage is also leading the “2025 Presidential Transition Project,” a coalition of Christian nationalist, voter suppressing, anti-LGBTQ, anti-government, Big Lie-promoting, and Trump-cheerleading groups to “position the movement to take the reins of government” after what they hope will be Trump’s return to power—or the election of another Republican in 2024. Under Heritage’s leadership, the coalition is pushing for mass firings of federal employees to “dismantle the deep state that undermined Trump.”

As Heritage celebrates its 50th anniversary, Right Wing Watch offers this brief and admittedly non-comprehensive look at some of the ways this powerful institution works to make the U.S. less democratic, free, and equal.

Making American Less Equal

Heritage has opposed virtually every advance toward legal equality for LGBTQ Americans and portrayed those advances as dire threats. Immediately after the Supreme Court’s marriage equality ruling in 2015, Heritage promoted a plan to overturn it. Heritage’s role in the far right’s current war on the rights of trans people includes model legislation that exposes the right’s hypocrisy in claiming to act on behalf of “parents’ rights” while undermining parents who affirm their trans kids.

Making America Less Welcoming

Heritage brags that it played a leading role to “crush” bipartisan immigration reform in 2007. Heritage founder Ed Fuelner backed Trump’s controversial claim that he could use an executive order to eliminate the birthright citizenship guarantee of the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. In a 2017 email, Fuelner called birthright citizenship “just another form of amnesty” and claimed (wrongly and contrary to Supreme Court precedent) that Congress could eliminate it simply by passing a resolution. Heritage infamously published a report making bogus claims about immigrants’ cost to society, written by a fellow who had argued in a previous paper that immigration policy should take into consideration that Hispanic people have lower IQs than white people.

Making America Less Free

Heritage backed the long right-wing campaign to overturn Roe v. Wade. In the wake of the Supreme Court’s 2022 ruling in Dobbs and Republicans taking a House majority that same year, Heritage called for anti-choice lawmakers to “go on offense,” calling on Congress to “restrict or prohibit” the availability of abortion medication by mail and telemedicine.

Making America Less Democratic

Heritage has aggressively promoted bogus election-fraud claims as justification for states to pass more restrictive voting laws. Heritage Fellow Hans von Spakovsky, a longtime promoter of debunked claims about voting fraud, was a member of Trump’s short-lived sham “election integrity” commission to which he urged that no Democrats or moderate Republicans be appointed. (The commission shut down a short time later after failing to find any instances of widespread fraud.) Von Spakvosky also denounced a 2021 federal voting rights bill—the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act—as “an invasion of state sovereignty.” In 2018, a federal judge slammed von Spakovsky for making “myriad misleading statements” about purported voting by noncitizens.

Making America Less Just

Heritage played a key role in the long right-wing campaign to take dominion over the Supreme Court and federal judiciary. Heritage Action helped identify and then promote Trump’s Supreme Court nominees; it called Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination “our chance to secure the Supreme Court for decades to come.” Kevin Roberts, Heritage’s current president, has said that the hard-right court majority cemented with Trump’s justices “could open new avenues of constitutional entrepreneurism.”

Making America Less Safe

Heritage has pushed to limit the ability of the federal government to regulate corporate behavior in ways that protect workers, consumers, communities, and the environment. In his address to Heritage on Thursday, Sen. Mike Lee argued that regulation by federal agencies is contrary to the Constitution and amounts to “tyranny.” Heritage aggressively opposed the Affordable Health Care Act and the expansion of Medicaid, both of which have granted millions of Americans access to health care. Heritage officials have also pushed climate change denialism, ignoring the plight of Americans facing extreme weather and climate change in favor of energy companies’ bottom line.

Deep Pockets

Heritage has plenty of resources to bring to its aggressive plans to steer America’s future course far to the right. In 2021, its revenue topped $100 million and its net assets $367 million. And that’s not counting the resources of the mini-Heritage Foundations that make up the State Policy Network and push similar agendas at the state level.

Such funding, partnered with red-state Republicans aggressively pushing Heritage’s agenda into law all around the country, helps explain Roberts’ optimism that Heritage will triumph in this “existential” struggle. “The left started this new culture war,” he declared at Thursday’s celebration. “We will finish it.”