What Now, Conservatives? Ed Feulner Remains Optimistic

What Now, Conservatives? Ed Feulner Remains Optimistic


How discouraged should conservatives be about the results of the midterm elections, which returned Republicans to only a slim majority in the House and actually gave Democrats one more seat in the Senate?

It’s OK to be dismayed briefly, but conservatives should shake it off and keep moving forward to reach the public policy goals that they believe are best, Edwin J. Feulner, founder and longtime president of The Heritage Foundation, says on the latest episode of “The Kevin Roberts Show.”

“What are we going to transmit to the next generation?” Feulner asks rhetorically. “We can’t sit back on our laurels and say, ‘Well, we did the best we could. Time for bourbon on the rocks,’ or something like that. That’s not what we’re about as conservatives. That’s not what we should be about, anyway.”

“We should be out there saying, ‘Hey, what can we do today to make the world a better place for the ideas we believe in?’”

The conversation brings together Feulner, Heritage’s longest-serving president (No. 3 from 1977 to 2013, but also briefly No. 5 in 2017-18), with the leading think tank’s seventh and newest president, Kevin Roberts. (The Daily Signal is Heritage’s multimedia news organization.)

The two leaders talk about the fact that conservatives long have been outnumbered by the Left’s many projects; lessons for the movement in adversity and success; the daunting issue of woke colleges and other institutions; and the time required to achieve real change, including victories that may not last long.

“I was frankly a little bit depressed” after the midterms, Feulner says, “and somebody said to me, ‘Well, Eddie, are we better off today than we were the day before the election?’ Well, yeah, we are. We’re not as better off as I wanted to be, but we are better off. So you got to look at the bright side and be that congenital optimist.”

One key priority, Feulner and Roberts agree, is convincing Americans, especially the young, that they shouldn’t depend on government to bail them out, whether it’s by canceling student loan debt or guaranteeing a basic income.

Plus, Roberts gets Feulner, who remains associated with Heritage, to sketch out how advancing conservative ideas became the calling of his adulthood.

Click below to watch or listen to “The Kevin Roberts Show,” or read the lightly edited transcript below.

Kevin Roberts: In this mindset that conservatives have about federalism, that our states are laboratories of democracy, you see literally adjacent to one another your native state, Illinois, and Indiana. Indiana is doing well by every objective measure. Illinois is, to be polite, not doing as well by every objective measure. What are the origins of that contrast? Because that didn’t used to be the case.

Ed Feulner: Growing up in Chicago, as I did, but then in the Republican suburbs of Chicago, I saw the big city run by the Dems. But back then, you land at O’Hare Airport, used to be a big, big neon sign: “Welcome to Chicago, the city that works. Richard J. Daley, mayor.”

Richard J. Daley, card-carrying liberal Democrat. But by God, his city worked. They picked up the garbage, they shoveled the snow, the streets were paved. You go there now, and man, you’re afraid to walk down the street for fear you’re going to be attacked or shot or mugged or something. My sister, the last member of my immediate generation, just fled to Florida last year: “I’m not putting up with this anymore.”

The basic rules just don’t seem to apply anymore in so many places, whether it’s rule of law, equal treatment for everybody, which means, “Hey, you break the law, you’re going to be held accountable for it.” There’s not a $1,000 threshold as there is in Los Angeles or San Francisco, that, well, if you’re only stealing $900 worth, you get a free pass.

Man. You want to get rid of small business and middle-size business, that’s a good way to do it. Thank you, Mr. [George] Soros, for your prosecutors and the way he’s changed some of these internal institutions.

You ask what the difference is. You’ve got threshold things like that happening that we didn’t pay attention to as conservatives, and we should. Talk to some of our mutual friends who were, in terms of movement builders: “Oh, well, it’s so great that Heritage has now got 45 groups cooperating on our 2025 version of Mandate for Leadership.” That’s really great. How many groups are on the other side working on the same thing? Maybe 500, 600. We’re outnumbered 10 to 1.

Roberts: Yeah. That’s right. Across the board on every issue.

Feulner: Everything. I get excited because I’ve been a strong supporter, as you well know from your days at Texas Public Policy [Foundation], of the state think tank movement. And yeah, we got one in every state. And we’ve even got some states with two or three. So that’s why we got 55. Yes, I know there are only 50 states, but there are 55 state think tanks on our side.

But you look around and see what the other side has done in terms of building institutions. And of course, the way they build it, it’s a lot easier because they just go to the government and say, “Give us a handout.” Conservatives by and large won’t do that. So we have to go out and convince our supporters who believe in the market, and is this organization really producing? But building those institutions is so important in terms of how we change things.

Roberts: It takes a long time. We had this conversation in a different setting earlier today, and I guess as a Burkian and someone who often taught [Edmund] Burke and Aristotle and political philosophy classes, I think in terms of institutions. Yes, policy and politics matter, ideas matter. But ultimately, I think what we’re living through right now—I’m seeking your reaction to this, I don’t think we’ve talked about this directly—what I think we’re living through right now is what I call a second American Revolution.

And I’m always very clear when I say that publicly that I’m not talking about bloodshed. It’s the Left that engages in that. Think about the [Black Lives Matter] riots of 2020. That’s bloodshed. What I’m talking about is what Americans set out to do in the days, months, and years following the defeat of the British, which was realizing that the institutions they had, churches, economic patterns, commercial relationships, needed to be at least modified and in some cases upended.

So for example, in the state where we both live, Virginia, at that point, the old light churches saw membership really change to new light churches. Alexander Hamilton, as you know no doubt, became an attorney for a lot of British loyalists who wanted to stay in the United States because of friendships and commercial relationships, and so he helped them navigate back into the world of these new institutions. All of that to say, I think that’s what conservatives are up to more than anything in the 21st century, is recognizing that many of, if not most of, our longstanding institutions no longer serve the values that Americans used to transmit from one generation to the next.

You yourself, I think, were way ahead of most of us in realizing that’s where a lot of conservatives needed to spend their time and their treasure and their talent, in addition to what they were doing in policy and politics. What’s your sense of that diagnosis, which seems to be one of an emerging consensus in the conservative movement?

Feulner: As you know, I did my bachelor’s degree in the Rocky Mountain West with the Jesuits.

Roberts: Who sometimes are Catholic. You knew I had to say that.

Feulner: Yes. I knew you would. Yeah, yeah. The difference between Martin Luther and the Jesuits, as Martin Luther knows, he is no longer a Catholic.

Roberts: Well done.

Feulner: But it was a Jesuit institution and frankly, it kind of lost its way. So Wyoming Catholic is up there, not as big as Regis, not as big a budget, not as many students, but by gosh, you’re carrying on in terms of the institutional base that we need.

[Virginia Gov.] Glenn Youngkin invited me to come in and serve as chairman of his commission on appointing board members to the state universities in Virginia. Wow. I took a good hard look. I accepted the job.

But these are some of the world’s great universities: Virginia Tech; the University of Virginia, founded by President Thomas Jefferson; William and Mary, the second-oldest university in the United States. Woke is everywhere. The whole [diversity, equity, and inclusion] business. Right now, the University of Virginia has something like 110 DEI employees.

I asked our counselor from the Attorney General’s Office in the Commonwealth of Virginia, I said, “How many are they required by statute to have?” He said, “They’re not required to have any by statute. They’re required to have one person to make sure they’re in compliance with Title IX. But in terms of DEI, there’s no requirement at all. It’s just this thing that everybody says.”

And Gov. Youngkin, I think, says it very well. He says, “It’s not DEI, it’s DOI. Diversity, opportunity, and inclusion, not diversity, equity, and inclusion.” And that’s a good distinction because opportunity, we’re all in favor of more opportunity; but equity implies everybody’s going to turn out equal. And it’s not just equality of opportunity, it’s this kind of leveling down that is so objectionable to me as a conservative.

But your point about going back to the Founders—de Tocqueville had it 190 years ago when he was visiting the United States, about the local institutions, about what we call subsidiarity. You get down and boy, you don’t go to the government to solve every problem.

Hey, my family, if we’ve got a challenge, we’re going to try to figure it out at the family. If we can’t figure it out at the family, maybe it’s a cousin or somebody else will help us, or maybe we have to go to our church or to the [Veterans of Foreign Wars] or some organization we belong to. But you don’t automatically say, “I’m entitled to a government handout. Well, you got to relieve me of my student loan debt because I can’t afford it.” Hey, that’s not my fault, Buster.

Roberts: No, that’s right. And yet, it seems as if, as we’re diagnosing the somewhat disappointing midterm elections, for those of us who are conservatives, that President [Joe] Biden’s decision to forgive a lot of the student debt had at least a modest political impact. So let’s posit that that’s correct. It probably is, we don’t know for sure. Let’s just posit that it is, for the sake of the question. How can conservatively minded Americans then communicate the message to people who are becoming accustomed to government handouts?

Feulner: Going back to your assumption and presumption, I’d say it’s more than that. I think it’s a fact that the exit polls that I’ve seen indicate that a lot more 18- to 30-year-olds who are going to get these rebates on their student loans turned out than usually turn out in midterm elections. So he got his base out and they voted the way he wanted them to, and instead of the red wave, we had a pink ripple. And that was kind of discouraging.

How do we convince those citizens that they can’t always depend on government? I think the first thing that’ll happen is that the courts are going to say, “Hey, you’re not going to get it. And Joe Biden acted unconstitutionally when he said he was going to give it to you.” Because looking at the statutes, I’m not a lawyer, thank God, but there are no legal justifications for what he was proposing. And it was strictly a political thing.

Roberts: If I may, and sorry for the interruption, it occurs to me that that group of Americans, you and I both know well, they don’t like being lied to. I mean, no one likes being lied to, but there is a great skepticism among Americans, actually, say 35 and younger toward what government does. Not necessarily because they see it as an ideological thing, as you and I might, that is, a certain hostility toward overcentralization, but because they’ve been lied to.

And it seems as if messaging might include from conservatives before or in addition to what you’ve said, before we go on to other solutions: “Guys, what has been sold to you is a fraud in two ways. The first is the tuition your university charged, but secondly, the president saying that he actually has the power to do anything about it.

Feulner: I tend to divide the politically active American constituency into kind of three broad categories: the saints, the sinners, and in the middle, the saveables. The saints are on our side. Yes, you want to reinforce them. The sinners, maybe with conversion business, but by and large—so you work on the saveables.

And these guys should … be saveable if they’re saying, “Hey, this ain’t the way it’s supposed to be. It’s not working.” So how do we go to them and say, “Hey, individual freedom means individual responsibility too”?

If you’re going to take out a loan to go to a Slippery Rock [University] or some place to get your bachelor’s degree, you better be prepared to pay for it. And in order to do that, you’re going to have to suffer a little bit in the future, because you’re going to have to make those interest and principal payments on it. And don’t count on the guy who never had the opportunity to go to college to bail you out because you made some stupid decisions earlier.

That’s a hard sell. It’s more than a one-line tweet to a specific person. And that’s a big challenge we face.

But back to the original point I was making before, commending you for what you had the audacity to do, in terms of building up new institutions, that’s very long term. I mean, you look and you count a number of really good, solid institutions; maybe you get up to 30 or 40 if you’re really a pretty liberal grader. Were you a liberal grader when you were a faculty member?

Roberts: I’ll give you one guess on that, Dr. Feulner. But I was forgiving.

Feulner: But I mean, you know what I’m talking about.

Roberts: Absolutely.

Feulner: As I said, I’ve got 15 state universities and colleges in Virginia, and I can’t think of one of them that’s really very even-handed, let alone slightly leaning to the right. Now, these are state institutions, I’ll admit, but that means they’re taxpayer-funded institutions, which means, “Hey, maybe those taxpayers who are paying ought to have something to say too about what’s going on in those institutions.” Going through the institutions, that’s a generational thing.

Roberts: It is. I mean, that’s the longest of long-term games. It’s only partially a joke when I tell people I had a full head of hair when I got into building institutions, first a K-12 school and then Wyoming Catholic College. Very worthwhile projects. But it takes the better part of a generation for those even to cash flow.

Our friends who are starting the University of Austin, literally in the shadow of my alma mater, the University of Texas at Austin, they’re going to do well because they’re properly resourced as they’re starting. But even still, it’s going to take a while for them to perfect their business model.

That’s just on the kind of backend financial side. That’s just to say nothing yet about what they’re going to do in terms of new problems cropping up, as every institution encounters. So we have to be involved in that, but that can’t be the only thing that we’re involved in.

And I think that’s appropriate too because as I like to say, we’ve got some short-term tactical battles here in D.C. and state capitals, in school board meetings, that, thankfully, conservatives are not only engaged in, but we’re winning. I mean, I think conservatives flipped something like 1,200 or 1,300 school board seats this cycle. So we just have to have a certain comfort level with the reality. And you know this from your experience, better than most, that you’re going to win some, you’re going to lose some, but keep your eyes on the trajectory moving forward.

So with that said, here we are in the early 2020s, and this is really the question I’ve really been wanting to ask you all year: What, of all the lessons you’ve learned, especially when you’re a president of Heritage, but at any stop in your career, do you think are particularly applicable to conservatives in America today as we confront leading the next generation of conservatism?

Feulner: Let me answer that with in two parts. No. 1, if you’re a conservative listening to Kevin Roberts’ podcast, you got two of the important three I’s. You got the ideas, because otherwise you wouldn’t be here. You got the individuals, because you know who you should be listening to, either Roberts or his guests. But you don’t have the institutions.

You got to help build the institutions. You got to recover the institutions, if it’s higher education or if it’s your daily newspaper, by getting in there and writing letters to the editor or giving them op-eds that they can’t keep turning down like Bill Middendorf still does at age 98 in Rhode Island, our former trustee.

So it’s the three I’s. And the other one is to remember that in politics, there are no permanent victories, as we know who were so victorious at the time of Ronald Reagan and the fall of the Berlin Wall and all the great things that were happening.

And I was writing speeches about [how] everybody has given up on socialism, socialism’s over. Milton Friedman and Friedrich von Hayek were right, it’s all—man. Here we are 25 years later, and look at what we’re up against. Not only socialism, but state control of so many institutions. That means that you got people spying on other people and everything we’ve already talked about. So there are no permanent victories, but at the same time, there are no permanent defeats.

The recent midterm elections, gosh, I was frankly a little bit depressed afterward, and somebody said to me, “Well, Eddie, are we better off today than we were the day before the election?” Well, yeah we are. We’re not as better off as I wanted to be, but we are better off. So you got to look at the bright side and be that congenital optimist.

But what there always are: no permanent victories, no permanent defeats, but there are permanent battles. And the battles for the institutions 25 years ago. “Hey, Feulner, you shouldn’t have given up and said, ‘Hey, we won this already. It’s over.’” It isn’t over. You got to keep in there, day after day, and year after year, fighting those encroachments on freedom of choice, on rule of law, universally applied on all the things we believe in, so that we can have more prosperity and civil society and everything that Heritage stands for.

Roberts: So I often ask this question at the beginning of the podcast. Because you and I know each other, I guess it didn’t occur to me then, but it strikes me that some of our audience will not know how it is you got into the work that you’ve done basically for your entire adult life.

Feulner: Back in my undergraduate days with the Jesuits in Denver, Colorado, I had the great good fortune of learning from two professors of history. Actually, I never majored in history, but you know—

Roberts: Not everyone’s perfect.

Feulner: Thank you. But that ideas have consequences. One of the first books I ever read on the conservative side was by probably a forgotten Austrian, Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn, “Liberty or Equality.” I thought to myself, when I saw the title, I said, “Well, I’m in favor of both.” Well, but you read Erik’s book. And he became a family friend in later years. “Man, here’s one path you can take. There’s another path you can take. Which way are you going to go?”

And from that, the professor who put me on that book said, “Well, you ought to read Russell Kirk, “The Conservative Mind.” Wow, that opened something up. This was before Milton Friedman and the rest of it. I found through that a group called the Intercollegiate Studies Institute. I became involved with them. I attended some of their forums. Met Phil Crane, who ended up having a big impact on my life when he became a congressman.

And I went to work with him and got a Weaver Fellowship for the first year; ISI had them. Went to the London School of Economics, met some really neat professors and heard Friedrich Hayek lecture in person and things like that.

So it was kind of an immersion in the conservative movement very early on. And from there, came back to Washington Center for Strategic International Studies, where I had a fellowship, and that led me to work on Capitol Hill and from Capitol Hill, where we started the Republican Study Committee.

By that time, Crane was a member of the [Republican] Study Committee, was a member of the Congress, and the founder, really, of the Republican Study Committee. And from that became Heritage. And so it set me on my life track. And somewhere along the line, I had to tell my father, “No, Dad, I’m not going home and joining the family real estate business in downtown Chicago.” And here I am.

Roberts: That had to be a big decision.

Feulner: It was. It was.

Roberts: So, last question. I think you’ve answered this in a lot of ways, but looking forward to this response. A lot of people who listen to this show or watch it are, I would say, supernaturally hopeful because of their faith, obviously. But I always try to get them to also be hopeful about this life in spite of how elections go, in spite of how some policy debates go.

Heritage, of course, has never been bashful about weighing in and expending resources to win fights, legislative fights we think are worthwhile. But you know where I’m going with this, is that a lot of people feel beleaguered. They think that perhaps America’s best days are behind us, that perhaps conservatives are just managing the decline of the republic. But I know you well enough to know that you woke up this morning optimistic about the future. Why?

Feulner: Gosh, why? First, because the Lord gave me another day in my 81st year. Secondly, because my grandson had played a good basketball game yesterday afternoon up in Connecticut. But because there were so many opportunities out there, not just for me, but for the kids, for the grandkids.

And gosh, everything we can do, in terms of talking to my granddaughter in suburban Philadelphia last night: “Hey, Poppy, I got a 100 on my English test. Isn’t that great?” “Wow, Sarah, that’s terrific.” She probably only got a 92 in history, but that’s all right.

But anyway, what are we going to transmit to the next generation? We can’t sit back on our laurels and say, “Well, we did the best we could. Time for bourbon on the rocks,” or something like that. That’s not what we’re about as conservatives. That’s not what we should be about, anyway.

We should be out there saying, “Hey, what can we do today to make the world a better place for the ideas we believe in?” Yes, and first for our immediate family, for ourselves and our immediate family, but then beyond that, for the world out there.

Which is why during the time I was at Heritage, I was always happy to—even when George Mitchell, the late Democrat leader of the Senate, but also Newt Gingrich said, “Feulner, we want you to serve on the bipartisan commission on U.N. reform.” Oh my gosh, let’s not reform it. Let’s just convert the New York headquarters into co-ops and send them all home, as Chuck Lichtenstein once said with Jeane Kirkpatrick.

I mean, you see an institution out there and if there is something out there that you might be able to have an influence on changing, get out there and try to make it better. Try to use that human capital inside you to do positive things as you look forward.

And that’s why I get so encouraged, whether I’m watching a TV commercial with Franklin Graham saying what he’s doing, or what Spirit of America is doing in terms of helping out Ukrainian refugees, and so many other positive things that are going on in the world today.

At the same time, I get up in the morning and I say a prayer for the likes of the Jimmy Lais of the world, now back before a Chinese judge on his fourth or fifth trial in the last two years so he can serve another consecutive term [and] basically life imprisonment for standing up for freedom in Hong Kong and in China.

We have so many friends out there, free friends who—and as you know, the things I feel very strongly about. I’ve just stepped down as the chairman of the Victims of Communism Foundation, [which has] just opened this museum down here where the basic theme of the 100 million people who’ve basically been killed by communist tyranny over the last century, the basic theme is, “Remember us.”

If you remember them, you can’t sit back on your laurels and say, “Well, world’s going to hell, forget about it. And there’s nothing I can do.” No, you got to do whatever you can because every day you got new challenges and new opportunities to say what we’re about and why our way of doing things is better.

I am optimistic.

Roberts: I’m smiling here, for people who are listening rather than watching, because you are just as optimistic and just full of cheerful fighting spirit as you’ve always been. And … over the months and years I’ve asked that question in different forums, perhaps never a more poignant response.

Feulner: Thank you.

Roberts: And so, what a fitting way to conclude a great conversation. We’ll do this again, hopefully, many times. But let me say on behalf of a grateful conservative movement, Dr. Ed Feulner, thanks for everything you’ve done and thanks for joining me.

Feulner: Thank you, Kevin, great to be with you.

Roberts: Thanks for joining this episode of “The Kevin Roberts Show.” Obviously, a special conversation for me and for those of us at Heritage, but I know so many of you in the audience know that what Ed Feulner has done for this country and for the conservative movement is special to you as well. We’ll see you next week with another mover and shaker, who is also an optimistic American patriot. Take care.

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About the Author

Tony Beasley
Tony Beasley writes for the Local News, US and the World Section of ANH.