Interview with Dr. Matthew Spalding of The Heritage Foundation
By Matthew Parks, September 25, 2011 in Uncategorized

Recently, I had the opportunity to speak with Matthew Spalding about life in the world of think tanks, the challenge to the American founding posed by Progressivism, and the way forward from our present discontents. Dr. Spalding is the Vice President for American Studies and Director of the B. Kenneth Simon Center for Principles and Politics at The Heritage Foundation.

Q:  With a Ph.D. from Claremont Graduate School, you might have chosen a career in academia. What led you to the Claremont Institute and, then, The Heritage Foundation instead?

Matthew Spalding: I went back to graduate school primarily because there were certain core ideas I wanted to learn more about and certain books I really wanted to study. I went there for intellectual reasons – teaching in the academy was never my main intention. It was always a secondary possibility, but I never seriously pursued it. Having said that, working in a think tank – at least the way I have my think tank life set up, in which I write, speak, and teach students through seminars – can mean doing many of the same things. The key difference is that the work of a think tank is more focused on the public square, which is what I wanted. 

Q: How atypical is your position for someone in a Washington think tank?

Matthew Spalding:  There are several different models for think tanks. Some, like the American Enterprise Institute follow a model that largely parallels the academic world, with a “faculty” doing scholarly-type writing. Heritage is generally structured differently, being more oriented toward directly shaping policy in specific ways. We do have analysts at Heritage producing very impressive scholarly work, but there aren’t as many positions for those working on more academic topics like American intellectual life or political thought. Heritage certainly offers a career path for academics, but it is not the same natural fit as some think tanks that are designed on a more academic model.

Q:  If I were a student exploring my options, how would I begin to move in Washington think tank circles?

Matthew Spalding:  It depends on when you are coming in. If you are coming in as a recent undergraduate, your options are wide open. Smart students coming out of college can go anywhere. By age and inclination, they are well-positioned to do a variety of things – become, say, a research assistant on just about any subject.  Coming in as a Ph.D. or a more experienced academic, you have to be much more creative in demonstrating how you and your work would fit in. It is not like getting an academic job where the exact sort of job you’ve been trained to do will be advertised. Here you have to figure out where your areas of knowledge fit – what institutions are looking for the sort skills you have.

Q:  Now suppose I am already established in academia. Are there ways for me to partner with Heritage or other think tanks as a second piece to my academic career?

Matthew Spalding:  That’s exactly the way I would encourage an academic to look at it. At Heritage, in the particular center that I run, there are all sorts of opportunities. We are looking for those sorts of people – academics who can give lectures, book talks, or write papers for us. We tend to cultivate those relationships on something of a case by case basis. Do you have a new book? Do you have expertise in an important area? There are plenty of opportunities, but it demands on both sides some creativity in figuring out how to bring about a cross-pollination that is useful. You have to remember that the very idea of a think tank is to bring ideas into the public square. So if that is what you are interested in doing, you have to cultivate the skill of translating your work into something that can be persuasive to a general audience. It doesn’t mean dumbing it down, but it does mean making it relevant and putting it in terms that the audience can understand and relate to.

 Q:  Let’s shift topics a bit and discuss your own academic work and other writings. You wrote your dissertation and your first book on Washington’s “Farewell Address.” How would you summarize his distinctive contribution to the American regime?

Matthew Spalding:  Washington is the quintessential example of a Founder who was very practical and very large-minded. He plays a central role in the events of the founding. He is the essential statesman, the key to the whole thing.  He understands the ideas. He’s read them - he’s talking to Madison, Jefferson, and Hamilton - but he is very focused on the practical: how do I take these ideas and built the country around them? He is a great model for someone like me who wants to see ideas applied to real world circumstances.

Q:  Do you think that his intellectual powers are underrated?

Matthew Spalding: Most definitely. We miss that he has a particular form of knowledge that is underappreciated today. His great virtue was prudence, the ability to relate principles to practical politics. It’s clear in his writings and letters that he understands what Madison and the others are saying; he’s with them. But, his role, his skill, his virtue is different. There he is preeminent. I think he has a wisdom that the other Founders simply do not have, which especially becomes clear when you compare his presidency to those of his successors, which did not live up to their revolutionary writings.

Q:  In We Still Hold These Truths, you argue that the Progressive movement attempted a decisive break with the American founding. What makes the political division that came out of that movement different in kind from earlier divisions between Federalists and Jeffersonians or Whigs and Democrats?

Matthew Spalding: Part of the key is found in the progressive historians themselves. The way that the American founding is typically taught is that there are all of these fundamental disagreements – beginning with a conflict between the Constitution and Declaration of Independence. The Constitution is supposed to be about protecting property while the Declaration is about these high liberal ideals. The other big focus is Hamilton versus Jefferson. What is happening here is that you have progressive historians looking backwards, trying to find a root for their arguments, for modern liberalism.  When you really look at the founding, the story is very different. Yes, Hamilton and Jefferson disagreed on extremely important policy questions like the national bank or foreign policy - I don’t want to diminish those – but those disagreements should not overshadow the fact that they agreed on the fundamental principles, which are broadly laid out in the Declaration of Independence and Constitution: natural rights, equality properly understood, constitutionalism, religious liberty, property rights.  They agreed on those things; they disagreed on how to put those ideas into practice – on policy questions.

Those disagreements are different from what we have with the Progressives. The Progressives deny the fundamental principles of the founding: there is no natural grounding for man, everything evolves and changes, everything is relative. They threw the constitutional text out the door in favor of a “living” constitution.  That is a decisive break. My point is that the differences between Hamilton and Jefferson – as important as they are – pale in comparison to the Progressives' challenge to the whole founding.

Q: What are the most important ways that progressivism has influenced how the typical citizen thinks about the role of government?

Matthew Spalding:  Although the average citizen may not put it in these terms, the key question is whether or not there are limits to government. Both Hamiltonians and Jeffersonians say there are. The progressive argument is that government is fundamentally unlimited and illimitable, that it is a living thing, and that the essence of it is what they call “administration” - a bureaucratic system that is centralized and overtakes self-government.  In this way they’ve shifted the argument.

Most people understand the problem. Americans hate bureaucracy. They don’t like the government running their healthcare.  They don’t like the government telling them what kind of lightbulbs they can buy.  They instinctively get that this is what is wrong with modern government. And this comes out of the Progressives – not the Founders, Jackson, or Lincoln.

Q: Is this then a starting point for getting people to rethink some of the programs and practices that have come with Progressive government that they make benefit from or like?

Matthew Spalding: It is not easy to turn things around, but that is the beginning of your political conversation. I think that most people still recognize the key principle of the founding – that government has limits. Government shouldn’t do everything. We should have the opportunity to pursue our happiness and the American dream; we have fundamental rights – so in a broad sense, I think that the mentality of the American people is actually quite healthy.

Q:  In the conclusion of We Still Hold These Truths, you emphasize, perhaps in a surprising way, the importance of education. You are talking explicitly about primary and secondary schools, but also the broader public square. Why do you think it is important to work from the bottom up, rather than what seems to be a common strategy on the right – looking out for the next Goldwater or Reagan who can win a decisive presidential election?

Matthew Spalding:  I would suggest that it is very important for conservatives to keep in mind the key principles of the debate.  At the end of the day – taking a longer perspective – we really need to restore the institutions which shape the American character and get those things right. If we can get those things moving in the right direction, I believe the appropriate leaders will come to the forefront.  The story of American history is not that great leaders come and direct us – although that is the liberal view. The argument of the founders and, for that matter, Ronald Reagan is that the great thing about America is our national character, formed by local institutions like the family and education – a character that produces self-governing citizens. If we could get that back, we will certainly produce the type of political leaders we need. Now that is a long-term answer. In the short-term, of course, we need to find leaders who can help us move forward. The focus in my book, however, is the long-term things that need to be done to get us back on track.

Q:  Most people who study American political thought at any level read some from Washington, Hamilton, Madison, Jefferson, and Adams. Are there any underappreciated Founders that you think need to be part of our common civic education?

Matthew Spalding: Yes and no. I grant the observation that too often academics look at the Founding and only see a handful of figures. I think that there are other founders who could be emphasized – say Gouverneur Morris or John Jay – but on the other hand, when you talk about education, you’ve got to grapple with the central figures. What is most important  to understand is the overall movement of the founding, which means knowing them not as abstract writers of documents, but knowing the history of the events of the time – you see how Madison dealt with the Constitutional Convention, how Washington led his army, how Hamilton and Jefferson grappled with economics questions. That is where things become most interesting and where we learn the most. We need to get that key narrative down, and in doing that, we confront the times and learn from the main figures.

Q: Let’s come back to the issue of renewal and reform in our present day. You brought up prudence in discussing Washington. What is the prudent way forward today? We know we have to recapture a sense of constitutional limitations, but we can’t refight every battle we lost 100 years ago. How do you choose when to fight?

Matthew Spalding:  I recognize that that is the key question – the key conservative question.    Conservatism is not about ideology; it’s about prudence and relating principles to reality and experience. The immediate answer that I would give – and I’m in the process of thinking this through myself - is that we need to start by identifying the essence of the modern problem. When we know this, we can figure out what needs to be done to correct it. 

There are many aspects of modern government that we don’t necessarily like, but that we have no expectation of getting rid of in the immediate future. On the other hand, there are aspects of the modern state that we need to battle and change and ultimately destroy for the sake of restoring that amount of limited constitutionalism that is necessary to preserve liberty. We need to think very practically about what fits into which category.

I think that the key problem with the modern state – the thing that is most destructive of our liberty – is the open-ended nature of legislation that gives bureaucrats incredible powers to make rules. President Obama’s healthcare program is a classic example – a massive delegation of lawmaking authority to bureaucrats and agencies, allowing them to rule over vast portions of our economy. That strikes me as something that has to be reversed. On the other hand, take something like Social Security. As much as I think it lacks constitutional grounds, in practical terms it is nowhere near as destructive as the healthcare plan is. It might be inefficient, it might be a waste of money, but it is something that we can reform and live with. These are the types of arguments that conservatives need to have a healthy way of thinking through.  There are a lot of programs that we have had for a long time that the American people have come to accept. We’re going to have to figure out a way either to change those opinions or to change programs in ways that make them better.

The conservative position is not that we want to restore the 18th century. What we want to restore is limited constitutional government and a proper understanding of human liberty because we believe that they open up room for the exercise of virtue and human flourishing. The practical challenge is identifying what things we must change, how, and how soon – these are prudential questions; but to get to the right answers it is important, going back to the beginning of our discussion, that we get the principles right. And so we study statesmen and serious political thinkers and reflect on prudence and these types of questions to find that path forward. These aren’t abstract questions, but serious, practical, principled questions – and my guess is that we are now entering a period when real change for our country is an open possibility. And so we need very thoughtful, serious students of American history and political thought who can bring their knowledge to bear on these tough questions - and that’s exactly what I’m looking for at Heritage and hoping to help cultivate. 

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Lee Trepanier on Sep 27, 2011 at 6:09 am

Great and insightful interview!

Anonymous on Oct 1, 2011 at 4:22 am

I agree; terrific interview. Keep up the good work, Dr. Spalding.

about the author

Matthew Parks
Matthew Parks

I am the Assistant Provost and a lecturer in politics at The King's College in New York City. I teach in the three-semester American Political Thought and Practice sequence that is a part of the common core of the college. I lived in Exeter, New Hampshire, for 13 years before my family (wife and two young children) and I moved to the city in July 2010.

I was a student of Angelo Codevilla at Boston University, writing on the "second generation" of American statesmen (Jackson, Clay, Webster, and Calhoun) and their limitations in comparison with the Founders and Lincoln.

Most recently, (ISI Summer Institute alum) David Corbin and I published Keeping Our Republic: Principles for a Political Reformation.