A Rock in the Storm: The Heritage Foundation's Principles of Conservatism
President Donald Trump has championed many conservative principles, but his presidency has unleashed a battle for the soul of American conservatism. Early this year, Fox News host Tucker Carlson set forth a populist vision. In June, Sohrab Ahmari attacked David French, calling for an aggressive and reactionary vision. Some conservatives have adopted a #NeverTrump stance that often leads them to embrace liberal policy goals and far-left politicians.
Amidst all this turmoil, the Heritage Foundation is standing firm for the fusionist view of conservatism best articulated by former President Ronald Reagan. The foundation neither embraces Trump sycophantically nor rejects him. Instead, it charts a path forward independent of the president.
In a powerful speech to Heritage supporters in Washington, D.C. on Monday, Heritage President Kay Coles James set forth a 14-point document called "True North: The Principles of Conservatism." Those principles set forth a guiding star for conservatism that should help American patriots and believers in limited government to hold true to the founding principles amid fresh battles about the meaning of conservatism.
In her speech, James championed the principles of America's founding and warned against the far left's assault against them. "Americans, and young people especially, have been so propagandized … that they’ve warmed up to socialism and turned a cold shoulder to principles like individual liberty," she warned. "We are seeing our founding principles not just abandoned but trashed."
She quoted Samuel Adams, warning that "a general dissolution of principles and manners will more surely overthrow the liberties of America than the whole force of the common enemy. While the people are virtuous they cannot be subdued; but when once they lose their virtue then will be ready to surrender their liberties to the first external or internal invader."
Noting the scourge of abortion and the Democrat demands for higher taxes and ever more intrusive government, and adopting libertarian language, the Heritage president argued that "the policies of the statists have wrought destruction."
Fighting this assault on America's founding principles will require conservatives to "go back to the future," she argued. "The very same things that were required at the founding of this nation are the very same things that are required today to save her."
While conservatives often see themselves as a hated minority, James cited Heritage Foundation research showing that "there are large groups of Americans — not just conservatives — who believe in the True North principles. "They are young people, they are women, they are minorities — many of them are with us in their hearts, they just haven't realized it in their heads."
James insisted that conservatives have better solutions to a wide range of issues, from fighting poverty to ensuring clean air and clean water, to creating higher-paying jobs and making health care affordable, to preserving "the lives and freedoms we have without turning over our paychecks to the federal government."
She insisted that conservatives should draw from research and data to disprove the statists, and that they should champion the Constitution. "The Constitution is a contract between the people and their government. And just like any contract, words matter."
James handed out pamphlets with the True North principles. The first two set the framework for the rest:
1. The federal government exists to preserve life, liberty and property, and it is instituted to protect the rights of individuals according to natural law. Among these rights are the sanctity of life; the freedom of speech, religion, the press, and assembly; the right to bear arms; the right of individuals to be treated equally and justly under the law; and to enjoy the fruits of ones labor.
2. The federal government’s powers are limited to those named in the Constitution and should be exercised solely to protect the rights of its citizens. As Thomas Jefferson said, “The government closest to the people serves the people best.” Powers not delegated to the federal government, nor prohibited by the Constitution, are reserved to the states or to the people.
The other principles build on this bedrock. The True North document calls for judges to adhere to the original meaning of the Constitution (3), insists that "individuals and families" make the best decisions for their children — not government (4), and upholds traditional marriage and the family as the foundation for society (5). The document stands against unreasonable government spending and mounting debt (6), and calls for tax policies that "raise only the minimum revenue necessary" (7).
The eighth True North principle defends the "system of free enterprise" built on economic freedom, private property rights, and the rule of law as crucial for "America's economy and the prosperity of individual citizens." This principle also supports free trade and deregulation. The next principle puts a key restraint on regulations — that they must not violate the "constitutional principles of limited government and the separation of powers."
The Heritage Foundation's guide to conservatism supports "patriotic assimilation" and immigration reform that welcomes immigrants while protecting citizens (10). The document also calls for a fair criminal justice system (11); limits on international agreements to protect American sovereignty (12); a foreign policy built on promoting America's interests, alliances with free peoples, and advancing prosperity abroad (13); and a strong national defense (14).
While James warned against the threats of the left, she advocated principles that Trump does not always support.
The Heritage Foundation has not shied away from criticizing the president on tariffs, his terrible budget deal with Democrats, and his very flawed bill to repeal Obamacare. The foundation's scholars criticized Trump for refusing to tackle the debt. In fact, they wrote that Trump's budget deal was "worse than previous budget deals agreed on during President Barack Obama's tenure" because Trump's deal ignores "the excessive and worsening spending problem the nation faces and neglect[s] to take deficits and debt seriously by failing to offset new spending with spending cuts elsewhere."
Make no mistake: The Heritage Foundation supports a great deal of Trump's policies, and it has hosted the president, the vice president, and other administration officials at its many conferences. On Tuesday, Vice President Mike Pence will address the first ever Heritage Foundation black tie gala. James agrees with Trump that the left is the greatest threat to America's founding principles, but her organization is not afraid to criticize him when he runs afoul of conservatism.
For that reason, the True North principles are extremely important. They set forth a guiding star for conservatism, a rock in the storm of ideological battles raging on the right today.
Contrary to the media narrative, conservatism is not falling apart. While some seem to have abandoned the three-legged stool of social conservatism, fiscal conservatism, and a strong national defense, the Heritage Foundation and others have refused to budge. For two years in a row, the Heritage Foundation has been ranked the number 1 most effective think tank for policy impact. The True North principles will only bolster that impact.
Follow Tyler O'Neil, the author of this article, on Twitter at @Tyler2ONeil.