Leaders Discuss Future of Conservative Movement

The following was presented as part of a session at Philanthropy Roundtable’s Annual Meeting in October 2022.

On Oct. 20, 2022 at Philanthropy Roundtable’s Annual Meeting in Palm Beach, Florida, three prominent conservative leaders dove into the debate over the future of American conservatism, including tensions between anti-establishment populists and the intellectual elite. Ahead of the midterm elections, the conversation focused on the current state of conservatism and how cultural and economic factors might affect its trajectory.

American Enterprise Institute Senior Fellow Matthew Continetti moderated the insightful discussion between Manhattan Institute President Reihan Salam and The Heritage Foundation President Kevin Roberts.

Continetti, also the author of “The Right: The Hundred Year War for American Conservatism,” was well-equipped to guide the conversation and opened with his belief that “the American conservative movement is on the verge of some of its greatest successes,” citing the states as laboratories of democracy advancing causes like educational freedom.

Continetti kicked off the discussion digging into the “contest for the future of the center-right,” and posed a question to Salam about his view on the center-right coalition and how it’s changed in recent decades.

“When I think about conservatism — the conservatism that has always resonated with me — its cornerstone is the idea of the decentralization of power,” Salam said. “When we think about the virtues of American life, a lot of them spring from the fact that this is a country that has not been a top-down country, [but rather] a country where you see robust communities, [where] you see a kind of vitality both economic and cultural that stems from that decentralization.”

As these leaders reflected on the future of the conservative movement, Roberts, who was named president of The Heritage Foundation last year, said the organization is committed to being “on offense every single day for the American people.”

“I like to think about the work we do as being the intellectual ammunition for effecting policy change,” he said.

Nevertheless, Roberts acknowledged tensions that exist among conservatives, particularly between those who espouse populist beliefs and those who hold more traditional conservative values.

“Yes, these tensions exist. They are animated and even personified by one particular political personality, which divides our movement,” he said.

Despite that, Roberts said Heritage’s distinctive role and main objective is “to change laws that need to be changed, to devolve power from D.C. and to restore self-governance to the American people.”

Salam highlighted the Manhattan Institute’s approach to advancing conservative principles.

“We decided to really, really zero in and focus on the rule of law, public safety and the scourge of identity politics,” said Salam. He added, “What we try to do is show not tell. … We’re not leading with ideological language, we’re trying to lead with results and specifics.”

While discussing foreign policy, Continetti said, “one’s attitude toward the world reflects one’s attitude toward America itself” and “there are some who wish to turn inward,” which in his view results in “a very pessimistic view of the American future.”

He asked Salam how he thinks about this challenge, specifically, “what it means for the American right to take an outward view rather than look inward.”

In concluding his remarks on the threat from China, the war in Ukraine and the important role of global leadership and strategic partnerships in national security, Salam noted concern with the idea of surrendering U.S. global leadership and “that sends a very dangerous signal to other freedom loving people around the world.”

Roberts said those considering foreign policy questions should be thoughtful about where the government spends its resources overseas.

“Our own financial situation, which is dire, is going to force the American political right to be much more strategic about where to spend that money,” he said.

The panelists shared their gratitude to donors for the resources and advice provided by the philanthropic sector. Continetti also credited philanthropists and his fellow panelists with “trying to build this golden triangle between ideas, institutions and the individuals who can actually put them into practice.”

Watch the video above, and don’t miss Roundtable President and CEO Elise Westhoff’s welcome address from Annual Meeting. More conversations from the Roundtable’s Annual Meeting will be shared in the coming weeks.

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