book forum: the rise of the conservative legal movement by steven teles

Over the next week or so, we’ll have a back and forth with Steve Teles, whose 2008 book chronicles the emergence of the conservative legal establishment. The book has been hailed by many as an important account of late 20th century American politics. In a nutshell: Sometime around the 1970s, conservatives realized that their electoral victories could be undermined by the courts. The reason is that courts are highly dependent on legal theory and precedent. Without a serious alternative to liberal jurisprudence, it was often impossible for conservative policies to survive judicial review. The solution? Create an intellectual alternative to liberalism so that judges could rely on rigorous thinking when overturning liberal policies or approving conservative ones. This intellectual alternative was hatched in a network of scholars and organizations in the 70s, 80s and 90s and allowed a generation of judges to support new laws.

We’re lucky to have Steve with us for this forum. I’ve decided to post my thoughts and Steve will later post his own responses. I think this is a neat opportunity to hash out a sociological approach to the conservative legal movement (CLM). So let me start with some questions and comments about the facts of the case:

1. RoCLM focuses a lot on the academic specialty of law and economics, especially in elite law schools. This makes sense because elite law schools are often the incubators for innovations in the legal world. How popular, exactly, is L&E? Do elite law schools all have a few L&E practitioners? Or is it limited to Chicago and its satellites? In other words, is L&E a few gurus, or is it a movement that has deeply affected the way legal scholarship is done by the average law prof?

2. On a related point, how do we know that L&E helped CLM law firms actually win cases? For example, how many cases actually cite L&E scholarship? Are the citations limited to a few hot-button cases, or is L&E used in a wide variety of cases? In your answer, exclude opinions writen by Posner.

3. Where are the religious conservatives? The book has three main characters – L&E profs, public interest firms like Institute for Justice, and the big tent Federalist Society. But the historians and social scientists tell us that conservatives rode to power on the votes of social conservatives. These folks seem to be absent in the book – or is elite law really run by economists and libertarians wannabes?

Written by fabiorojas

August 4, 2008 at 12:05 pm

12 Responses

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  1. Excellent! I look forward to this book forum.



    August 4, 2008 at 2:23 pm

  2. oh well. i skimmed this in a local bookstore, now i’ll have to buy it.
    Teles did an excellent diavlog with James Pinkerton recently.

    i think Teles emphases are very proper. however, the subject is big enough and rich enough that more could be written. my guess is he had to make many decisions in restricting the scope of his book to something manageable, and one of those was to start with the FedSoc founding. that’s unfortunate, in a way, because what’s notable about FedSoc isn’t just its innovation per se but also that it diffused so rapidly. as a sociologist, one might ask, what did the innovation diffuse into, i.e., which networks were pre-existing and open to mingling and blending, and how did a lowering of walls to permit substantial merging occur?

    At the time of the late 1970s, relative to elite universities, I was aware of three distinct nonintersecting networks: a Chicago/Cornell network, related to great books and Telluride Association (where Wolfowitz and Fukuyama come from); a Yale/National Review/Washington network related to William F. Buckley and his Catholic attempts to create a one big tent conservatism; and a Jewish former Trotskyite neo conservatism led by Irving Kristol. The children of leaders of these networks are important to the story, specifically Eugene Meyer, son of Frank Meyer, who was the atheist libertarian editor of National Review, and Bill Kristol, who became connected to the Chicago side but who is also the son of Irving Kristol.

    The FedSoc innovation was prepared in part by the decisions of Lee Liberman (now Lee Otis) and Dave MacIntosh to go to Chicago Law School. Lee was well connected to the Yale/National Review network as a former chair of the Yale Party of the Right. She could open doors on that side to Chicago people. And Dave was a good straight man average Joe who could show the Yale side wasn’t only an elite thing.

    But, apart from finding these connected individuals, there was little way to get “in”. FedSoc changed that utterly.



    August 4, 2008 at 4:07 pm

  3. I think Frank Meyer converted to Christianity around the same time he switched from communism to fusionist libertarianism.



    August 5, 2008 at 5:57 am

  4. […] Posted in books, fabio, political science by fabiorojas on August 5th, 2008 On Monday, I asked a few questions about The Rise of the Conservative Legal Movement. Teles responds here. Next week, I’ll add […]


  5. […] Posted in books, fabio, political science by fabiorojas on August 11th, 2008 This is round two of the forum on The Rise of the Conservative Legal Movement. Click here for Steve’s remarks from last […]


  6. […] Steve Teles: Rise of the Conservative Legal Movement […]


  7. […] sociology of the right: Michael Lindsay’s Faith in the Halls of Power, Steven Teles’s The Rise of the Conservative Legal Movement, and Tina Fetner’s How the Religious Right Shaped Lesbian and Gay Activism.  Each book deals […]


  8. Goodday I’m new here
    And it looks like a great forum, so just wanted to say hello! :):):)
    And looking forward to participating.



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    March 20, 2009 at 6:38 am

  10. […] coalition to institutionalize a particular set of policy solutions. As we talked about in a series of posts last year, Steven Teles’s fascinating book about the rise of the conservative legal […]


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    January 2, 2010 at 9:31 am

  12. […] on Amazon here. An online book forum was conducted through a series of blog posts on here, here, and here. See also […]


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