The Heritage Foundation announced Thursday that Kevin Roberts will serve as the organization’s next president.
Roberts says he is eager to advance the conservative movement and address some of the most pressing issues facing our nation today.
“The top three [critical issues that we are facing right now] are education, education, and education,” Roberts says, adding that conservatives will miss an “opportunity of a lifetime” if we cannot come together and address what is “broken about the education system.”
The immigration crisis at America’s southern border and the “administrative state, the power of the executive branch to do the legislating rather than the legislative branch [doing it]” are also critical issues Roberts says he looks forward to working to fix.
Roberts is coming to the Washington, D.C.-based think tank after serving as president and CEO of the Texas Public Policy Foundation in Austin, Texas. (The Daily Signal is the news outlet of The Heritage Foundation.)
He joins “The Daily Signal Podcast” to discuss his vision for the future of The Heritage Foundation and the conservative movement.
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Listen to the podcast below or read the lightly edited transcript.
Virginia Allen: It is my distinct honor to welcome to “The Daily Signal Podcast” for the first time, hopefully first of many, Dr. Kevin Roberts, the newly announced president of The Heritage Foundation. Dr. Roberts, thank you for being here.
Kevin Roberts: Thank you so much. And this is an opportunity for me to ask you to call me Kevin.
Allen: Thank you so much. We are at such a critical moment right now within the conservative movement for America. What do you think the direction of the conservative movement is right now? Where do we need to have our focus? Where should we be headed?
Roberts: Look, I understand why people are worried about the movement and worried about the country. As a historian, I guess, having that long perspective, I’m less worried about the future of the movement. And what I mean by that is not to sound dismissive of people’s concerns, is that the movement every couple of generations goes through sort of a rebirth and this is healthy.
And in fact, this is not something that happens on the left. And I don’t mean to speak disparagingly of friends who are left-of-center, but just in terms of as a movement of intellectual history, of ideology, the left just eats itself, that’s happening right now, the right doesn’t do that. And the reason is because we’re always tethered, we’re always moored to the eternal principles. That’s often where the pain points are. What is freedom? What’s the government’s role in how some people are defining freedom?
I think the future conservative movement, to get to the heart of your question, is that it is a movement that’s going to be a big tent, in the best sense of that word. And the role that Heritage can play uniquely, as it always has, is to be a fusionist force in that. So not just sort of putting our hands up in the air and saying, “We can define a conservative to be whatever it is,” but we’re actually going to chart a path in terms of intellectual heft as well as policy solutions. And I am really excited about helping to lead that effort.
Allen: Well, we are honored to have you here. Now, when it comes to issues, what do you think are some of the most critical issues that we are facing right now, and especially as we look toward the next year in America?
Roberts: The top three are education, education, and education. And what I mean by that is if the experiences we’ve all had as Americans over overwrought COVID shutdowns, over the indoctrination of our kids—whether it be through critical race theory or teaching transgenderism to kindergartners—has not shown that there is something terribly broken about the education system, then we’re missing the opportunity of a lifetime.
And I mean that literally, this is the opportunity of a lifetime for people on the center right to show other Americans who are only paying attention to the problem and haven’t really thought about the solutions that the way to fix this is to empower parents. And then parents can decide how they’re going to use that new power, where they’re going to educate their kids.
But to move off of my joke about the top three issues all being education, I would say, and this will not be a surprise given my time in Texas, the border crisis is not just a crisis in our immigration system, which Heritage has always led in thinking about how to fix, but it is a crisis of American rule of law because literally every state and almost literally every American county has been affected by this, by the number of illegal aliens who’ve been transported around the country.
Even beyond that, because I care about those human persons, even though they’re here illegally, as a society, we’re talking about undermining rule of law in every policy area, which leads me to the third issue, which, this is a huge problem, long-running, that President [Donald] Trump was just beginning to get his hands on, praise God, and that is the deep state. The administrative state, the power of the executive branch to do the legislating rather than the legislative branch doing the legislating is a huge issue and I look forward to helping get it fixed.
Allen: All right. Well, let’s talk a little bit more about education because, as you say, that’s so, so critical, and I know it’s an issue that is personal to you. You started your career in the field of education. You were a college professor, you headed a private school, you were president of Wyoming Catholic College. One of the biggest issues within education right now, one of the biggest debates is critical race theory. Explain a little bit of your thoughts on critical race theory.
Roberts: Sure. I’ve taught every level of education from pre-K to graduate students. And I say that because it’s important to know that I understand when parents hear the phrase “critical race theory” and what they think it is something innocuous, maybe even something good. And so someone listening to this conversation, if they believe that critical race theory ought to be taught, I can almost guarantee you it’s because they believe that critical race theory is the well-intentioned desire to teach the ugly chapters of American history.
When I was a historian, a professor, my expertise was known in African American history and slavery and the slave trade. And so I’ve done a lot of research in this, and I know that a lot of people are well-intentioned when they want to teach those ugly chapters, we ought to. The problem is, that’s not what critical race theory is.
Critical race theory, any critical theory, defines us by just immutable characteristics, our skin color, etc. And the fact that this is being taught in curricula in almost every school district in this country is one of the five most egregious things that’s ever happened in education, period.
And I just want people who are motivated by this, that if they’re going in and talking to their school board members and the school board members are saying, “We don’t teach that in this school district,” I’m not going to suggest the school board member is being dishonest. They may not know. But I would bet you a dollar it’s happening. And if we don’t get that fixed, then we are going to lose one of the most beautiful achievements in all of human history, which is actually implementing in American law the beautiful words of Martin Luther King in 1963, that all of us should be judged by the content of our character, not the color of our skin.
Allen: Thank you so much. Now, one of the other issues that is facing conservatives, that conservatives are really navigating through, is the issue of Big Tech. The Heritage Foundation does not receive donations from any large tech companies. Will that continue under your leadership?
Roberts: Absolutely. It is a closed door. And just to put a little color on that, if you don’t mind, I will be very blunt. A couple of Big Tech companies have tried to buy off the organization that I’ve been leading, the Texas Public Policy Foundation. They’ve been trying to buy me off and they’ve never had access to us and they never will of me or of The Heritage Foundation under my leadership.
Allen: Excellent. Thank you. Now, as you mentioned, you’re coming to us from the Texas Public Policy Foundation, where you have served as president for five years. And at a moment when many conservatives are fleeing to Texas, you decided, “No, I’m going to come to D.C.” Why?
Roberts: Well, we were not looking to leave Texas. Texas is our adopted home state. When we moved to Texas from Wyoming several years ago, we thought that would be the last move. Clearly, the Holy Spirit had other plans. And I think what providence is trying to show all of us is that the feelings we have about this country being at a crossroads are real. And they’re long-running, they’re not just about the current presidential administration.
But I think for us as a family, even though we would, frankly, love to stay in Texas, we knew that we were called to do something big for this country. And obviously, it’s a big deal to be associated with Heritage, to be leading Heritage. My wife and kids are willing to move from this great state up to the area of the swamp in order to make sure that we play the tiny role we’re going to play in saving this country. It’s worth it. And I’ll also say, we look forward to participating in turning Virginia red again.
Allen: And I know you homeschool your kids. You’re moving your family up here with you, as you say, why did you and your wife make that decision that you wanted to homeschool your four children?
Roberts: We never thought we would. As you mentioned, I started the school John Paul the Great Academy in Louisiana and our oldest three kids attended a few years there before we moved to Wyoming. And we started homeschooling in Wyoming because there was a dearth of options. And so we did it the first year and it went fine. And then we did it the second year and it went even more fine. And then by the third year, it was part of our family life cycle.
So for me, living now in Texas, obviously, that will soon change when I come up to D.C., which I do a few times a month. Often our high school-aged son will come with me for a couple of days because he can do his classes while I’m conducting business meetings. And so we’re going to continue homeschooling, most importantly, because for us as a family, we believe that the curriculum that we use instills in our kids a love for what is good and beautiful and true.
And the second thing is, we are called to do that. If my wife were visiting with us, that’s what she would say, but not everyone is. And having known many former homeschooling families who’ve decided to enroll their kids in schools, that’s OK. People shouldn’t feel guilty about that. What’s beautiful about the growth in homeschooling is that it teaches Americans right now that Americans in 2021 are just as focused on self-governance as they were in 1776, and we’re very privileged as a family to be able to be part of that effort.
Allen: Absolutely. Who are some of your personal heroes within the conservative movement, people that have really impacted you personally?
Roberts: Gosh, it’s a long list, but I’ll mention just a few. It starts with Ronald Reagan. I mean, I came of age as a young conservative during his presidency. My grandparents in Louisiana who were registered Democrats, although very conservative, loved Governor Reagan. And then Reagan, who was doing his talk radio broadcast in the 1970s, I listened to some of those as a 4- or 5-year-old boy. So Reagan for sure. Jack Kemp, because of the innovation that he brought to conservatism. I’m a historian so I gravitate to Russell Kirk.
And I will say, I don’t mean this to be patronizing, but I just mentioned to all of our colleagues here at Heritage that I cut my teeth as a 13-year-old conservative reading some Heritage tracts. [Heritage Foundation founder] Dr. Ed Feulner is one of the people who really helped me—and it’s many, many years before we met personally—understand what it meant to be conservative.
And the reason I think that I’m attracted to what all of those guys said and did was their inherent optimism. That to be an American conservative is to be optimistic about our future, because we do have the privilege of waking up in the greatest country in the history of the world.
Allen: Yeah, absolutely. As you’re stepping into this new role, if you would just maybe share one or two top priorities for your vision for Heritage as we move forward.
Roberts: Thank you for that question. The first is to make sure that everything we’re doing in our policy work on the Heritage Action side, in development, in communications is focused on winning.
And what I mean by that is that it’s very tempting when you’re running large organizations like Heritage is, like I’ve been leading, to think that we can do everything well. And we need to be really, really good internally about deciding what our metrics of success are. So that when we engage, we can almost guarantee that we’re going to pass good legislation or kill bad legislation.
The second priority will be to make sure that the entire country and then the entire world knows that the great foundation that The Heritage Foundation has because of excellent leadership over many years is merely going to be that. That in fact, we’re going to come in with a huge burst of energy that rejuvenates not only the institution, but also the movement writ large. And I think in very short order, because every single person in this institution is so virtuous and so committed, people will pay attention and we’re going to be winning.
Allen: Excellent. Well, Kevin, Dr. Kevin Roberts, thank you so much for your time. Congratulations to you and welcome aboard to The Heritage Foundation.
Roberts: Thanks. It’s the greatest privilege of my life and I’m thrilled to be here.
Allen: It’s an honor to have you.
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