Berkeley Discovers the Right


Mark Lilla at Chronicle of Higher Education with a long essay on U-Cal Berkeley's new "Center for the Comparative Study of Right-Wing Movements." Some prime points:

It is a convenient left-wing dodge to reduce 20th-century American conservatism to cold-war politics, since it implies that conservative ideas are embedded in a world that no longer exists and never should have. In fact, in the 1930s American conservatives were far more obsessed with Franklin D. Roosevelt and his domestic legacy than with Joseph Stalin, and looked askance at all foreign entanglements, including the Second World War. The anti-Communist cause was first conceived by cold-war liberals, not by conservatives.

And what of the Berkeley center's mission to encourage and nurture "comparative scholarship on right-wing movements both in the U.S. and abroad during the 20th and 21st centuries"? That could be a good thing. For instance, it would be useful to know something about the affinities between European right-wingers like Jean-Marie Le Pen, founder of the National Front in France, and David Duke, the American white supremacist and anti-Semite now living, as it happens, in Austria. But mainstream American conservatism, which pretty much is all there is to the American right, shares nothing meaningful with those protofascist figures. Our conservatives accept the legitimacy of constitutional self-government, even when they hate the legislation and court decisions resulting from it; they play by the rules. The same cannot be said of the European right, which has always been suspicious of parliamentary politics….

But beggars can't be choosers. The unfortunate fact is that American academics have until recently shown little curiosity about conservative ideas, even though those ideas have utterly transformed American (and British) politics over the past 30 years. A look at the online catalogs of our major universities confirms this: plenty of courses on identity politics and postcolonialism, nary a one on conservative political thought. Professors are expected to understand the subtle differences among gay, lesbian, and transgender studies, but I would wager that few can distinguish between the American Enterprise Institute, the Heritage Foundation, and the Cato Institute, three think tanks that have a greater impact on Washington politics than the entire Ivy League.

Amen, Professor Lilla, and may colleges across the land begin assigning my own massive history of American libertarianism, Radicals for Capitalism: A Freewheeling History of the Modern American Libertarian Movement.

Apply for a grant with Berkeley's new program of right-wing studies.