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May 11, 2009

Steve Teles' The Rise of the Conservative Legal Movement

Steve Teles' book The Rise of the Conservative Legal Movement was the subject of a recent symposium on Crooked Timber. It's a fine book, specifically about the movement that pushed the federal judiciary rightward after the 1970s, and generally about why political movements succeed and fail. I think it's especially valuable reading for liberals, who could learn many detailed lessons and at least three major points.

First, it's a mistake to think that the conservative legal movement was successful because it was very well funded or especially canny and disciplined. Actually, funding for liberal legal scholarship, advocacy, and teaching far exceeds what conservative intellectuals ever had (especially if one counts the salaries available to liberal law professors); and the conservative movement made many tactical and strategic mistakes. They had diverse strategies and goals that were never very coherent. Some of their success came from what Teles calls "spread-betting." They put money and effort into law-and-economics, into religious conservatism, into original-intent jurisprudence--mutually inconsistent ideologies--and every now and then they hit the jackpot.

Second, we on the outside of conservatism tend to associate it with powerful figures like Bush, Cheney, and Scalia; we argue that their views are favorable to the interests of the richest and most powerful tycoons and corporations; we observe them win on specific issues; and so we presume that we are dealing with a dominant, even hegemonic force. Whether conservatism actually has a privileged position is open to debate; it certainly loses many of its central causes. In any case, conservative thinkers do not feel dominant. On the contrary, they see the world much as other marginal movements do; they believe that the rules of evidence, the framing of questions, and such practical issues as who gets tenure and grants, are all stacked against them. Influenced by Steve Teles, I have previously made an analogy between conservative legal thought and feminism in the 1970s. Even if you are only trying to understand conservatism as an enemy, you should grasp its proponents' psychology. Overall, I think they feel much more beleaguered and defensive than hegemonic.

Third, Teles makes some shrewd observations about how conservatives spend money. In the Crooked Timber symposium, he writes:

My salary has been largely paid by "liberal-ish" foundations for nigh on twenty years, and I would certainly be glad if there could be simpler proposals, less evaluation, and more funds for core operating expenses as well as projects. In short, I would be glad if the liberal-ish foundations just bet on people--assuming I were one of the people they bet on. But that probably wouldn't happen. My narrow self-interest may be better served by the current system of elaborate proposals, self-evaluation plans, and lots of little projects--because that's the game I know how to play. Of course, liberal causes might do better using the conservatives' investment strategy: my self-interest doesn't necessarily coincide with the greater good. But it does strike me that grantmakers and successful grant-seekers have a mutual interest in the status quo, which partly explains why it doesn't change.

May 11, 2009 9:29 AM | category: none


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