Raised Right: Fatherhood in Modern American Conservatism

Raised Right: Fatherhood in Modern American Conservatism

by Jeffrey R. Dudas


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Raised Right: Fatherhood in Modern American Conservatism by Jeffrey R. Dudas

How has the modern conservative movement thrived in spite of the lack of harmony among its constituent members? What, and who, holds together its large corporate interests, small-government libertarians, social and racial traditionalists, and evangelical Christians?

Raised Right pursues these questions through a cultural study of three iconic conservative figures: National Review editor William F. Buckley, Jr., President Ronald Reagan, and Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. Examining their papers, writings, and rhetoric, Jeffrey R. Dudas identifies what he terms a "paternal rights discourse"—the arguments about fatherhood and rights that permeate their personal lives and political visions. For each, paternal discipline was crucial to producing autonomous citizens worthy and capable of self-governance. This paternalist logic is the cohesive agent for an entire conservative movement, uniting its celebration of "founding fathers," past and present, constitutional and biological. Yet this discourse produces a paradox: When do authoritative fathers transfer their rights to these well-raised citizens? This duality propels conservative politics forward with unruly results. The mythology of these American fathers gives conservatives something, and someone, to believe in—and therein lies its timeless appeal.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781503601727
Publisher: Stanford University Press
Publication date: 03/21/2017
Series: The Cultural Lives of Law
Pages: 224
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Jeffrey R. Dudas is Associate Professor of Political Science and Affiliate Faculty of American Studies at the University of Connecticut. He is the author of The Cultivation of Resentment: Treaty Rights and the New Right (Stanford, 2008).

Read an Excerpt

Raised Right

Fatherhood in Modern American Conservatism

By Jeffrey R. Dudas, Austin Sarat


Copyright © 2017 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-5036-0172-7


Raised Right

William F. Buckley Jr.'s task in 1970 was no less daunting than it is now. The "patron saint" of modern American conservatism, Buckley had taken it on himself to expose "the flesh and blood of conservatism in America." On one hand, the felt need for an exploration of "the conservative position: its attitudes, its tones" was testament to the improbable success of American conservatism over the previous fifteen years — a success that was rooted in his 1955 founding of the definitive conservative periodical, the National Review. Defying the predictions of mainstream, Cold War–era commentators who insisted that a liberal "consensus" had overtaken American life, Buckley and his colleagues had stood "athwart history, yelling Stop." Indeed, by 1970, those consensus voices, so ubiquitous in the 1950s, had disappeared, lost in the domestic and international turmoil of the 1960s. Far from marginal, the American conservative movement in 1970 was soon to reach full flight. A taking of stock was thus in order.

But, on the other hand, Buckley knew that articulating a satisfying definition of American conservatism was perhaps a fool's errand. After all, conservatism was, like all other viable social movements, made up of a dizzying array of constituents and approaches to governance — most of them in tension, and sometimes in outright rivalry, with one another. Buckley's intent when founding the National Review was to make American conservatism intellectually rigorous and respectable; he meant to provide American conservatism with a distinctly modern identity. But given the fractious nature of its members, this was no small feat. How, exactly, to distill a common essence from the motivating impulses of large corporate interests, small-government libertarians, social and racial traditionalists, and, eventually, evangelical Christians? What did these populations have in common? What made them all identifiably "conservative"?

The answers to these questions, Buckley knew, were critical. Without a common set of commitments around which to gather — without something, or someone, to believe in — the burgeoning American conservative movement was in constant danger of implosion. And so, Buckley, wary but undaunted, set about to define "what conservatism is."

Buckley's definition of American conservatism proceeded according to "processes of exclusion." And because he knew "who is a conservative less surely than I know who is [not]," Buckley was confident in his exclusions: Ayn Rand and the followers of her atheistic dogma of "objectivism"; Robert Welch and the conspiracy-mad denizens of his John Birch Society; the anarchist, state-hating followers of economist Murray Rothbard; and, most painful, former National Review authors such as Max Eastman and Garry Wills, who had both criticized Buckley's characteristic sanctification of American conservatism with Christian principle. These exclusions allowed Buckley to sketch "the confines of contemporary conservatism" so that after twenty-three pages of text, he was able to deliver on his goal of defining American conservatism. Modern conservatives, he declared, shared a "spirit of defiance" that issued "from distinctively American patterns of thought, from the essence of the American spirit." American conservatives, Buckley opined, "dragg[ed] their feet, resist[ed], kick[ed], complain[ed], hugg[ed] on to our ancient moorings."

Those "ancient moorings," it turned out, were built with specifically paternal anchors. Indeed, the "American spirit" transmitted the "faith of our fathers" to the present day, bringing their paternal disapproval, in particular, to two of the twentieth century's most troubling trends: its "beatification" and concomitant "integration" of the state "as a member of the American household" and its reigning intellectual cynicism, which gave rise to the "trauma of self-doubt." Modern American conservatism accordingly channeled the "certitudes" of the American fathers; it "intellectualized" paternal desire in order to resist "the twentieth century's" attempts to rearrange the "American household." Linking conservative purpose to the spectral dictates of "the founders of the American republic," Buckley rejoiced:

In the past fifteen years in America a literature has emerged which taken together challenges root and branch the presumptions of the twentieth century. The intuitive wisdom of the founders of the American republic ... is being rediscovered. ... The meaning of the spirit of the West is being exhumed; impulses that never ceased to beat in the American heart are being revitalized.

But what was this "intuitive wisdom of the founders of the American republic"? What were the "certitudes" and "rediscovered ... impulses" that fired the "faith of our fathers" and coursed through the defiant "American spirit"? Buckley identified them in 1955 as the "fixed postulates having to do with the meaning of existence, with the relationship of the state to the individual, of the individual to the neighbor, so clearly enunciated in the enabling documents of our Republic." They were, in short, the individual rights that are sacralized in our founding documents — the rights according to which American government was founded and legitimized. Cocksure, nontraumatic belief in the dictates of both paternal influence and individual rights: this, according to its undisputed intellectual founder, was the distinctive, unifying creed of modern American conservatism.

But this is curious. Paternal influence, with its spectral transmission of the timeless certitudes of the fathers, stands for external domination; the self-governance championed by Enlightenment notions of individual rights stands instead for autonomous self-creation. The one gestures toward control, the other toward freedom.

What are we to make of a political movement that celebrates both submission to paternal will and defiance to ascendant social, cultural, and political orders? A movement that not only champions such a paradoxical creed but, according to its "patron saint," requires its presence as the catalytic force that harmonizes its fractious member populations? More: What does it mean for those public figures whom the movement champions as its heroes, who both contain within themselves and publicly articulate such warring impulses? Indeed, what does it mean that modern American conservatism is founded on, and regenerates itself, paradoxically, through a paternal demand for rights?

Raised Right approaches these questions through an interrogation of the shared meanings that inform American life. In so doing, it eschews study of the formal, institutional dynamics — the elections, interbranch relations, and legislative and judicial debates about the proper scope of governmental authority — that are the typical subjects of scholarship on American law and politics. Instead, it offers a specifically cultural analysis of modern American conservatism, arguing that the otherwise uncomplimentary actors who make up the movement mutually celebrate a series of iconic public figures (including especially the trinity of William F. Buckley Jr., former president Ronald Reagan, and current US Supreme Court justice Clarence Thomas). What makes these figures iconic is that they each employ(ed) a common familial and legal discourse — one that identified, as did Buckley Jr., the timeless certitudes of paternal authority and individual rights as the warp and weft of modern American conservatism's intellectual weave.

Indeed, these iconic conservatives celebrated citizens who were reared in conventional domestic and family circumstances. As we will see, Buckley Jr., Reagan, and now Thomas were especially fond of households in which fathers exercised unstinting authority and mothers were supportive and nurturing but never overbearing, or smothering of, their (especially) male children. From such families emerged the vaunted citizens of republican nations — the citizens who were disciplined and responsible enough to be trusted with the rights that confirmed them as autonomous, self-governing subjects. The seedbeds of self-governance, such patriarchal family units were said to prepare the way for the mature, rights-bearing subjects who were needed for modern democratic practice.

The effects of this paternal rights discourse, I will argue, radiate in multiple and paradoxical directions. The discourse, on one hand, is the common denominator of modern American conservatism; as such, it both defines the conservative movement's goals and has a salutary effect on the movement itself, working to smooth the jagged edges of conservatism's discontinuous elements. But as will become increasingly clear as this book's chapters unfold, the hortatory and catalytic impulses of modern American conservatism's central creed exert a heavy toll: on the intellectual coherence of the conservative movement, its iconic figures (whose own personal histories call into question the supposed virtues of stern paternal authority), and, especially, American conservatism's stated goal of creating autonomous, rights-bearing citizens. The process according to which modern American conservatism at once defines and rejuvenates itself — its cultural, discursive regeneration through rights — thus carries within it the seeds of the movement's instability — an instability whose marks escape the confines of American conservatism and surface in contemporary American politics writ large.

Scholarly and Methodological Principles

Although its approach is, as I have suggested, unconventional to most political analysis, Raised Right relies on two premises about rights discourse that are well established by scholars who work in the area of law, society, and politics. The first of these premises is that the discourse of the self-governing, rights-bearing citizen — exactly that lexicon that in part animates American conservatism — is a distinctive, and perhaps the defining, American political discourse. Yet in spite of that discourse's claims to universality — all Americans, it holds in principle, are properly vested with and can employ rights — commentators of all partisan positions have conventionally placed conditions on the attainment and exercise of rights. The most prominent restriction has been that only those persons who exercise self-discipline, and the autonomy that it is said to enable, are fit for rights. Raised Right builds on this well-established scholarly premise. Indeed, it finds that the conventional American preconditions for rights, self-discipline and autonomy, are themselves frequently held to be attainable only when particular kinds of domestic and familial circumstances — strong paternal and weak, or missing, maternal authority — are present.

Thus, written into the facially egalitarian discourse of individual rights is a qualifying, exclusionary logic that conditions rights on particular familial and gendered dynamics. And as we will see, these exclusionary dynamics frequently align with racial and class-based inequities such that those persons disqualified from rights are marked not only by supposed family dysfunction but also by racial and class difference. Gendered, bleached, and classed, the "normal" rights-bearing American citizen has conventionally been emblematic of white male privilege.

The second scholarly premise on which this book rests, however, maintains that although the accreted weight of historical and cultural practice emphasizes the limits of American rights discourse, that discourse is not simply disabling. Instead, its cultural legibility has consistently made it a powerful vocabulary for all Americans, including those historically denied the benefits of American democracy. Indeed, one of the outstanding characteristics of the previous sixty years of American history is the expansion of rights discourse, and the valued identities that it transmits, to include many nonwhite male Americans who had previously been marked as lacking the self-discipline and autonomy required for proper rights practice.

But isn't this odd? How is it that our rights discourse can transmit, without undermining its own legitimacy, such a deeply ambivalent, even puzzling message? How can our dialect of rights point to both universal entitlement and the boundaries of personal and social (especially family) circumstance? The paradox that animates our rights discourse — it at once legitimates individual autonomy and heteronomous limit, individual liberation and social constraint — is derived, it turns out, from the character of modern law and politics itself.

According to Peter Fitzpatrick, the assemblage of legal and political practices that we call "modernity" is united by a rejection of the superstitions of the premoderns (of myth) and a celebration of its own supposed universality (of antimyth). This modern pretension toward transcendence and rationality is itself the artifact of an underlying horror of, and paradoxical attraction to, all manner of difference and particularity — to "myth." Refracted through the still-prevalent tropes of personhood that inform Anglo American colonial and imperial imaginations, modernity represses the racial and sexual desires of socially dominant, "civilized" populations, which it then demonizes and projects onto the "savage" bodies, minds, families, and cultures of colonial and imperial subjects. Thus is modernity's repulsion of myth and insistence on its own rational, transcendent character — its denial of the exotic and erotic desires that constitute it — both its distinctive mark and the key to understanding how modern "law transcends society yet is of society." This "myth of transcendence" is, in Ewick and Silbey's more recent formulation, at the center of how most Americans, for example, believe without contradiction in the apparently irreconcilable "before the law" and "with the law" forms of legal consciousness.

So, too, it seems, is there something of this forbidden desire for difference in what Scheingold called the American "myth of rights." Scheingold's innovation, the one that propelled multiple generations of scholars, was to see how modern law's distinctive pathologies could be mobilized as political resources by "empire's children" — by those on whom the Anglo American imagination projected its own desires and fears: by women, racial and sexual minorities, and other disdained peoples of all sorts. Evoking the entrenched, constitutive desire for transcendence, these marked others leveraged their subjugated statuses as resources for political insurgency that, at least occasionally, successfully gained for them some of the long-denied benefits of democratic citizenship. The "politics of rights" — the mobilization of a culturally salient, if deeply ambivalent discursive convention — is thus a hallmark of both modern law and the modern configuration of politics itself. Paradoxical though it is, a politics of rights simply makes sense to most Americans most of the time.

These insights provide the historical and conceptual backdrop for my interrogation of modern American conservatism. Indeed, the instability of rights discourse — the simultaneous signification and troubling of undemocratic privilege that is derived from modern law and politics itself — lends to conservative politics, ironically, its vitality. Articulation and defense of the "normal," paternally disciplined, rights-bearing citizen thus works as the conservative movement's catalytic and harmonizing force; it is the cultural source of the movement's seemingly limitless capacity to regenerate itself as a relatively cohesive, unified movement in spite of ongoing internal tensions.

Given these core scholarly premises and commitments, I engage in a particular form of investigation and employ a particular set of methods in order to conduct that investigation. The source material, or "data," on which this book relies is contained primarily in chapters 3 to 5, which explore the trio of public figures whom movement conservatives consider to be their most important representatives: William F. Buckley Jr. (in Chapter 3), Ronald Reagan (in Chapter 4), and Clarence Thomas (in Chapter 5). Each of these chapters interprets the distinctive, paternal rights discourse with which these figures articulated their visions of the American nation, the sorts of family structures necessary for the production of virtuous citizens, and the acts of governance that would best reflect the nation's core commitment to autonomous self-governance. In short, each of these chapters interrogates the presence, and the effects, of the paternal rights talk that distinguishes, rejuvenates, and troubles modern American conservatism.

As such, I rely on methods of inquiry that are drawn from interpretive approaches to the social sciences and the humanities. My interpretive account fixates, in particular, on the effects of language — effects that register in the domains of both the conceptual and the epistemological. Indeed, interpretive scholars are concerned with how a culture's common vernaculars at once reflect and constitute the widely shared meanings with which people make sense of themselves, others, and the possibilities of action that do and do not exist at any particular time. It is through the habitual speaking and hearing of such commonly held discursive conventions that we become meaningful; they lead us to know who we are (and are not), what we desire (and what we fear), and which practices are best suited (or not) for realizing our goals.


Excerpted from Raised Right by Jeffrey R. Dudas, Austin Sarat. Copyright © 2017 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University. Excerpted by permission of STANFORD UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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Table of Contents


1. Raised Right,
2. Something to Believe In: Modern American Conservatism and the Paternal Rights Discourse,
3. Penetrating the Inner Sanctum: William F. Buckley Jr., Paternal Desire, and the Rights of Man,
4. "The Greatest Nation on Earth": Ronald Reagan, Fathers, and the Rights of Americans,
5. All the Rage: Clarence Thomas, Daddy, and the Tragedy of Rights,
6. A Nightmare Walking: The Haunting of Modern American Conservatism,

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