All the Right's Moves
With the fall elections, Republicans now control the White House, the Senate and the House of Representatives. Conservative thinkers are influencing policy and law across the nation. But how is the next generation of conservative leaders affecting--and being affected by--an HLS campus known as a bastion of American liberalism?
The Harvard Law School Republicans' election-night party is under way. A crowd gathers by the televisions in Harkness Commons, chatting over chips and beer, snack mix and sodas. Some students talk politics while others chat about the goings-on in their lives; the televisions are tuned to Fox News, of course. Adorning the walls are Mitt Romney campaign posters, signs tracking the leads in close races and a map of the states drawn carefully with black marker. The map is still mostly blank, but soon enough, most of it will be colored red. By the end of the night, the Republican Party will control the House, the Senate and the presidency.
By a slim but growing margin, the GOP is now the party of majority in the United States. But at Harvard Law School, the political landscape looks much different. A recent article in The Economist called HLS "the command centre of American liberalism," and the assertion may not be too far off the mark. The school's faculty is, by some accounts, overwhelmingly liberal--too liberal even for the mainstream of the Democratic Party, some conservatives say. Rarely will a student hear a professor praise the decisions of Supreme Court Justices Scalia '60, Rehnquist or even O'Connor; right-leaning law and economics scholars like the 7th Circuit's Richard Posner '62 are routinely criticized. It is not unusual in some classes to hear a left-wing student's comments applauded, a conservative's booed. One student compared being a conservative in an HLS class to being a socialist at a military academy.
Yet conservative students are not as much in the minority as the classroom experience indicates. In the past two years, new groups have formed, and more established ones have seen a surge in membership. Those who remember earlier periods of radical student activism at the law school might be surprised to learn that one of the largest and most active groups on campus today is the Federalist Society, a nationally affiliated conservative organization founded in 1982 by law students at Harvard, Yale, Stanford and the University of Chicago. Today, the Federalist Society has about 5,000 student members with chapters at almost 150 law schools.
In today's Republican-dominated Washington, affiliation with the once-obscure Federalists is now a ticket to power. A list of Federalist luminaries reads like a who's who in the Bush administration, including Attorney General John Ashcroft, Solicitor General Ted Olson and Energy Secretary E. Spencer Abraham ' 79 (one of the organization's founders). And as the number of Bush appointments to the federal bench increases, so too do the Federalists within its ranks.
At HLS, the Federalist Society has altered the political landscape, transforming conservatives from an unheard and disparate minority into a tightly organized force. Although primarily composed of conservatives and libertarians, the society stresses a commitment to open discourse and refuses to take stands on political issues or receive money from any political party or party affiliate. Partly because of that stance, the society has become an umbrella organization for a range of conservative students and groups whose beliefs vary among their members almost as widely as they differ from their liberal counterparts. The group includes students who are pro-life and pro-choice; Christian, Jewish and atheist; pro-death penalty and against.
"You have a wide spectrum of viewpoints represented in the Federalist Society," said current HLS Federalist Society president Brian Hooper '03. "The libertarians and conservatives on this campus have made a sort of common cause against this liberal orthodoxy." Hooper, who considers himself "a constitutional conservative . . . somewhat of a libertarian," is proud to note that in addition to including a variety of perspectives in its own ranks, the society's public events strive to present both liberal and conservative viewpoints. To that end, the Federalists primarily sponsor public debates rather than single speakers. Recent debates have included one between Professor Alan Dershowitz and Catholic University of America School of Law Dean Douglas Kmiec on the 9th Circuit's Pledge of Allegiance decision, and another between University of Chicago Law School Professor Richard Epstein and Professor Christine Jolls '93 on employment law.
In fact, the conservative makeup of HLS looks more like that of the nation at large than one might expect. There are students who represent the anti-abortion, family-values-centered Christian Right as well as more bottom-line-focused libertarians. Some can only be fairly categorized as right-wing extremists; others say they consider themselves "conservative" at HLS only because the environment is so far left. Students' views of judicial activism differ as well, with some advocating the traditionally liberal approach of having judges "interpret" the law, but along conservative lines.
"I find it to be pretty much a microcosm of what I've experienced in Washington," said HLS Republicans president Katie Biber '04, who served as a press assistant for Attorney General John Ashcroft and worked with the Republican National Committee before that.
Among the HLS GOP's activities this year, the group has worked on the political campaigns of Mitt Romney ' 75 and John Sununu Jr. and handled poll-watching duties for Romney. Although Biber acknowledges that excitement in political groups is always higher in election years, she added that she has found more conservatives at HLS than she expected.
At more than 250 students, membership in the HLS Federalist Society is at an all-time high, and the GOP is flush with nearly 200 in its own ranks. Along with that growth, two new organizations--the Alliance of Independent Feminists and the Target Shooting Club--have sprouted as well, enlarging the scope of the conservative movement on campus. Conservatives also have their own journal, the Journal of Law and Public Policy, one of the most widely circulated HLS publications.
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