a political sociology of the right

My impression of political sociology has been that it’s much better at analyzing the interconnections and ideologies of the left than it is in its treatment of the right.  This is not surprising given that most sociologists lean strongly to the left and have more familiarity with these actors and their ideologies.  The problem with this though is that sometime our depictions of conservative/right-leaning political actors is not very realistic. They become monolithic figures driven by maniacal greed. This depiction, of course, ignores the subtle but important divides that exist among political conservatives and, in my mind, does not accurately convey their connections to the corporate world, which is often conceived as being wholly captured by the right.

This view of the right among political sociologists is beginning to change.  Sociologists are just as left-leaning as they’ve always been but a new strand of research has emerged that engages with the political right in a much more nuanced way.  This reexamination may come now, in part, because political sociologists are seeking new research niches and, lo and behold, they’ve discovered that political sociologists haven’t had very interesting things to say about conservatives.  But the discovery of the right may also be related to the gradual deterioration of the popularity of neo-Marxist theories and their replacement with cultural or political process theories.  Granted, some of the neo-Marxist/Millsian emphasis on power elites is still there, but it has been recombined with other perspectives to produce a more interesting body of research that uses a more normal science approach.

Three books that we’ve talked about on orgtheory recently exemplify this new political 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 with a different aspect of the right, although they share in common an interest in how social movement processes have changed political conservatism in the U.S.  This interest in movement processes is important because I think it says something about how we’re reconceptualizing the right in political sociology. Rather than seeing the right as a hegemonic worldview perpetuated conspiratorially through elite networks and government institutions, the right here is seen as often lacking power and as dependent on resource mobilization as the left.  Further, you can’t understand the surge of the conservative ideology without examining their embeddedness in religious and other local, grass roots organizations.  This is not to say that the right doesn’t have its powerful, wealthy elites, but those powerful interests are probably not the source of the sudden shift witnessed in the Republican party over the last 30 years.

Lindsay’s book is perhaps the most traditional in the sense that his subject matter is closest to the power elite perspective.  However, rather than assuming that the power elite is a fixed set of actors capable of reproducing themselves and maintaining institutional hegemony, Lindsay argues that religious evangelicals have, through a very organized and conscious effort, injected themselves into the elite.  While Lindsay is careful in noting that evangelicals span the political spectrum – for example, Jimmy Carter is one of the first prominent evangelicals outspoken in his religious convictions to take an important position in U.S. government – a significant number of evangelicals have a conservative orientation. It’s also true that evangelicals were not absent from government prior to the 1970s.  What has changed is that now their religion has become a very visible and important motivation for political action.  Rather than hiding their religion, evangelicals now wear their religion openly.  The reintroduction of religion into American political (and corporate) life did not occur by accident. Lindsay points out that evangelicals created an organized social movement to counter their growing fears of secularism and to spread “the good word”.  Through their network connections and by drawing on a similar worldview, evangelical leaders have been able to mobilize electoral support to vote outwardly religious people to political offices (most famously embodied in the form of the Moral Majority).  These networks have helped leaders in the corporate world as well.  What unites the various leaders is a commitment to a religious ideology that helps frame policies in particular ways and a mission to make the world more Christian.

Teles’s book is the only one not written by a sociologist but its conceptual framework is clearly sociological.  Teles is interested in how conservatives were able to mount a movement within the legal profession in reaction to the right’s inability to affect judicial decisions and legal theory.  Much of their impotence was due to the absence of institutions that connected the right and, perhaps as consequence, the lack of a shared ideology that united conservatives in the legal profession.  The right’s strength was in their connections to the corporate world, but as they tried to organize these corporate ties to provide support for a right-leaning legal movement, they learned that U.S. corporations were not necessarily united by a particular political ideology.  Teles documents this brilliantly by showing how conflicted the ideologies of the right were with corporate interests when they tried to get businesses to contribute to the creation of public interest law firms that supported a free market ideology.

The Denver case made it clear that free markets and business’s interests were necessarily in tension.  Conservative [public interest law firms] could not expect their business base to stand up for libertarian causes when they damaged the interests of specific firms (66).

Generating conservative legal thought and uniting a group of like-minded legal thinkers would require something more akin to social movement organizing, drawing on an academic base more grounded in pure theory rather than on a corporate base committed to specific interests.  This is one of the most important insights fromt the Teles book – the political right’s ideology was often in tension with business, elite interests rather than supporting those interests. The events of the past couple of weeks (with the failed bailout plan) clearly demonstrate this as well.

Fetner’s book focuses on the influence of the political right on a segment of the political left – the lesbian and gay movement.  Her book shows how these two movements are closely interdependent.  Lesbians and gays have become the “other” against which the religious right increasingly pit their own identities.  Meanwhile, efforts by the lesbian and gay movement to gain political and citizenship rights for their constituents are hampered by the mobilized resistance of the religious right. The result of this standoff has been an ongoing process of tactical and strategic adaptation. She shows how over time the anti-gay agenda of the religious right infiltrated party politics and became a central mission of those with a strong evangelical orientation within the Republican party.  While the anti-gay agenda has in some ways been successful in mobilizing electoral support, the campaign also demonstrates the weakness of ideological campaigns, in general. As the American public has become more liberal or certainly more tolerant in their views on lesbians and gays, the ramped up rhetoric of the anti-gay movement creates tension within the party and, inadvertently, helped remobilize the left to take more interest in party politics. Fetner concludes that “data on public opinion suggest that the activism of the religious right not only failed to convince Americans to denounce homosexuality, but it may have had the opposite effect” (118; for more on this see Tina’s Scatterplot post about the shift in attitudes).  Fetner demonstrates that the Republicans are fairly internally heterogeneous in their ideological views; however, ideology is still an important motivation in driving people to the voting booths and mobilizing their interest in politics.

So what would a political sociology of the right look like? I don’t want to stand up and be the representative for a new theoretical view (to which I’ve made no contribution at all) but based on my reading of these three books, a couple of things come to mind.  First, while past research has focused on hegemonic interests and their maintenance through elite networks, this research suggests that we should look to ideology as motivation.  Ideology both mobilizes people (i.e., gets them emotionally excited and connects them to politics) and it frames policy issues in new ways.  While interests are still important, the interests of the political right are varied and overlap often with those who identify with the left.  The political success of the right has perhaps been the result of their ability to galvanize people around ideology, ignoring their differences in economic interests.  Second, we shouldn’t equate the right with the elite.  People on the right, just as often as the left, have seen themselves as politically disenfranchised and lacking political power.  Social movement processes, not hegemonic interests or corporate dominance, explain their ability to capture agendas.


Written by brayden king

October 1, 2008 at 2:57 pm

10 Responses

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  1. Thanks for the great post, Brayden!

    One much older book that I think makes very similar arguments synthesizing the neo-Marxian/Millsian view with an understanding of political processes was Logan & Molotch’s Urban Fortunes. Although not specifically thinking about the political “right”, it does show how business and labor elites develop the “growth machines” that drive urban policy and how these elite positions often run counter to the constituents’ own desires for desirable housing. They do not explore the multiple identities people may have (being a union carpenter that is pro-growth because of job creation and a home-owner interested in keeping the use-value of their home high). But, they do point out that grassroots efforts can often have very conservative tendencies that are often overlooked by more left-thinking theorists (such as Neil Smith) who tend to idealize movements of the people.



    October 1, 2008 at 3:33 pm

  2. I agree Mike. Urban Fortunes is a great book. Does anyone else have books/articles you would add?



    October 1, 2008 at 3:36 pm

  3. Great post. Although I don’t have anything substantive to add, I do have something subjective to add. It seems as if most of the political sociology of the right often falls into the vein of “what went wrong” or “how the right’s rise is completely counterintuitive and how to explain it” or “how the right hijacked politics.”

    This is just a gut feeling and is obviously an empirical question. My sympathies lie with the left for the most part but I can’t help but feel as if these kinds of attitudes prevent serious scholarship of the right from being taken more seriously.



    October 1, 2008 at 3:43 pm

  4. Very interesting, Brayden. Two things immediately come to mind:

    1) I’m also struggling with the dynamic of interest/ideology, and sometimes I wonder if it’s posed the right way. Didn’t Weber argue (or at least hasn’t he been taken to argue) that ideas shape interests? Even the fact that we tend to think of interests as immediately having to do with economic resources or power shows just how vaguely and unconsciously Marxist (or at least “generalized materialist”) sociology tends to be.

    2) I do get the sense from social psychological research that conservatism is treated like a pathology that requires explanation. Check out this paper, for example:

    Political Conservatism as Motivated Social Cognition


    Steve Vaisey

    October 1, 2008 at 4:03 pm

  5. Steve: On the above point, here’s Swedberg (in Principles of Economic Sociology, PUP) quoting Weber:

    “Not ideas, but material and ideal interests, directly govern men’s conduct. Yet very frequently the “world images” that have been created by “ideas” have, like switchmen, determined the tracks along which action has been pushed by the dynamic of interest” ([1915] 1946b:280).



    October 1, 2008 at 4:18 pm

  6. Thanks, Teppo. I was too lazy to break it out myself… :-)


    Steve Vaisey

    October 1, 2008 at 4:22 pm

  7. Ideologies, I argue, are very malleable. There is neither strict right nor strict left. It is relative. In a democratic system, elites endorsing different ideologies compete by garnering support of the society through various ideas. However, if there are two parties with the same idea, it becomes a tough call for the voters to choose between the two. While each might end up splitting the pie of voters who support the focal ideology, they might also lose their votes from the other fence sitters. Hence, parties tend to set ideas that are unique and that distinguishes them from the others. Hence, it is not possible that you have only right leaning or only left leaning parties in a society. Consider a three party system. If parties are to endorse one of two ideologies, right or left, we might have one party endorsing one ideology and two endorsing the competing ideology. In such a scenario, if the votes cast to each ideology is stochastic, then, the two parties with the same ideology tend to lose the election as they tend to split their pie (i.e., the total votes would be split as 50%, 25% and 25%). Hence, no parties would endorse the same ideology; they tend to differentiate themselves. Therefore, in this scenario, we might have a left, a right and a potential center. If by any means, either of these parties drops out of the contest, the ones that remain would take the role of left wing and right wing. For example, if the current right wing party drops out of the race, the centrists become the right. If the leftist drop out, then the centrist become the left… In a two party system, the ideology of the parties tend to lean towards the dominant ideology of the society, as an extreme rightwing party cannot survive in a extreme left endorsing society and vice versa. However, even in such scenario, the parties tend to differentiate, forcing one to become a right-winger and another to become a left-winger…


    Rajiv Krishnan Kozhikode

    October 1, 2008 at 8:45 pm

  8. Not to nitpick, but I don’t read the “switchmen” comment as claiming that ideas shape interests. Weber is arguing there, in direct conflict with Marx, that while (material) interests really are the driving force of history, the qualitative direction of history is set by (exogenous) ideas. That’s distinct from the idea that the interests themselves are created by ideas, a claim that seems rather more comfortable in Foucault or Bourdieu than Weber.



    October 1, 2008 at 8:46 pm

  9. […] a comment » For previous orgtheory discussion of right politics: Brayden on the emerging sociology scholarship of the right; Steve Teles and I discuss his book on conservative lawyers here, here, here, and here; my post on […]


  10. keep it up


    thanks for such a intellectual interaction. Nongshe tikhir:nagaland

    November 21, 2010 at 8:36 pm

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