teles on the sociology of conservatives

Here is Steve’s response to Monday’s questions about social movements and conservatives. More later this week from Steve.

Ok, I’m going to jump right into it. Fabio asks a number of really interesting and important questions, and I’m going to get to each of them in separate posts.

Fabio’s first question concerns ideology and organizational Form. There is some evidence in my book for the contention that conservatives do not feel the need to legitimate their organizations through the use of egalitarian organizational forms. That said, the alternative to egalitarianism isn’t just hierarchy. The best example of this is the Federalist Society. Despite being a large, participatory,
chapter-based organization, the Federalist Society does not have any democratic structures for the choice of its national leadership. The core group that runs the Society—determines its programs, makes decisions about expansion, etc.—is basically the same people who created it while they were in law school. I found some evidence that the Society’s founders considered having elections for leadership when they were just starting out, but that quickly dropped out and they settled on a self-reproducing board (that is, when new members of the Society board were chosen—when, for example, one of them went into government—the existing leaders chose who would fill their slot).

People interested in organizational theory are likely to ask two questions about the Society’s structure: a) why did they choose a form like this and; b) where isn’t there resistance to it? The answer to (a), I think, has something to do with intra-movement learning.  The brother of the Society’s first and only president, Eugene Meyer, was deeply involved in the internal conflict that rocked the most important conservative student organization, Young Americans for Freedom, in
the 1960s and 1970s. Elections for YAF’s leadership were an opportunity—and invitation, even—for libertarians and social conservatives to fight out their differences rather than paper them over or look for creative ways to co-exist. In the book, I argue that elections naturally produce this sort of factional conflict, since ambitious office-seeking individuals will typically seek to foment conflict
that they can use to attain power. This memory was in the DNA of the Federalist Society, and my sense is this—rather than a deep-seated preference for hierarchy—is the main reason they chose to avoid having elected leadership. The answer to (b), why there hasn’t been a challenge to the Society’s self-reproducing leadership structure, is two-fold. First, the leadership includes libertarians and social conservatives, and they all have a commitment to preserving the organization as an umbrella for all the flavors of conservatism. Consequently, there is very little sense among the members that any faction of conservatism is using the organization for its own purposes. Second, most of the guts of the organization is at the chapter level, where there is enormous
opportunity for participation and leadership. So I’d say that part of the reason that the non-participatory national leadership structure has survived is that it is accompanied by a highly decentralized, chapter-based organizational structure —and the national leadership sees its role primarily as supporting those chapters, rather than dictating to them. If more decisions were made at the top, there would probably be more of a legitimacy problem than there is.

I do think there is something to the idea that conservatives generally judge their organizational leaders by outputs rather than (democratic or egalitarian) process—that is, the main reason the Federalist Society leadership hasn’t had a problem legitimating itself is that they seem to have been successful. But I think part of it is also that they have seen their role as being “of service” to their
chapters. Put another way, while the form of the Society is somewhat hierarchical, the actual practice of its leaders has been highly deferential to what its members actually want and need from the national leadership. We might usefully compare that to organizations who external form seems democratic, but whose substance is hierarchical—we might think of businesses that encourage a lot of engagement with employees, but that engagement is highly structured in order to produce “buy-in” to what the employers want. That is not my sense of how the Society operates.

Written by fabiorojas

August 13, 2008 at 5:04 am

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  1. […] scholarship of the right; Steve Teles and I discuss his book on conservative lawyers here, here, here, and here; my post on Nixon’s […]


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