The recent election demonstrates that the Republican Party is deeply fractured. Its internal disarray reflects not only disagreements over issues, but also class and cultural conflict between the party’s elite and populist elements. That tension has become especially pronounced during the past decade and painfully obvious during the last stages of the 2008 presidential campaign. John McCain, who once denounced the religious right as agents of intolerance, chose Sarah Palin as his running mate to try to mend his relationship with social conservatives. But his V.P. pick alienated the party’s business constituency and educated classes, which tend to identify less with Joe Sixpack than with the coastal sophisticates whom Palin regularly derided in her paeans to regular folk in the heartland. These class differences extend to the lawyers representing the various constituencies within the party.
The coalition that has stood behind the Republican Party during the past few decades is divided on both of the primary principles that organize party competition in the United States. On the social dimension, religious conservatives clash with the business set, who are uncomfortable with the GOP’s association with anti-abortion advocacy and Protestant fundamentalism. The economic dimension also generates significant conflict; social conservatives dislike big business and tax policies that favor the wealthy. Melding the social and economic elements of the alliance into a cohesive political force has been one of the Republican Party’s great challenges.
The conservative movement’s heroes include men who helped to forge consensus. Public intellectuals such as William F. Buckley and Frank S. Meyer promoted cooperation by articulating a shared agenda at the National Review. Ronald Reagan managed to embody the diverse impulses of the conservative alliance, and he remains a unifying figure today, as demonstrated by the 2008 Republican presidential candidates’ frequent invocation of his name and legacy.
Lawyers are divided, too
Lawyers might be expected to help unite the coalition. They have assumed important positions in the conservative movement as they have built an infrastructure for conservative legal advocacy during the past few decades. Their common characteristics and experiences — educational backgrounds and professional socialization, understanding of the relationship between law and politics, and occupational interests — might draw them together and link their constituencies.
But my research suggests that class and cultural conflict inhibits cooperation among lawyers for the various constituencies of the conservative alliance. These lawyers are fundamentally divided by social background, values, geography and professional identity. Advocates for religious conservative groups come primarily from rural, working class backgrounds, and many of them express mistrust for economic elites and secular institutions. They openly invoke God as a source of inspiration and guidance. Lawyers for libertarian groups also generally come from modest backgrounds, but they are much less religious and more enamored with markets and personal liberty. Most of the business lawyers were born into economically secure households, work in large cities and claim only loose ties, if any, to organized religion. Also, social conservatives and libertarians strongly identify with the causes they serve, while business lawyers typically see their work as an occupation rather than a mission.
It is now common knowledge that informal lawyer networks created and nurtured by the Federalist Society play an important role in vetting federal judicial nominees, staffing conservative public interest law groups and Republican administrations, and matching conservative law students with conservative judges for clerkships. Less noticed is the society’s part in fostering conversation between different types of conservatives and libertarians. Under the leadership of President Eugene Meyer, the son of Frank Meyer, the group has pursued a consensus among conservative lawyers much like the “fusionism” that Meyer’s father earlier sought among conservative intellectuals. Similarly, the Heritage Foundation’s Center for Legal and Judicial Studies convenes frequent meetings of lawyers for various advocacy organizations. Those meetings encourage bonds among lawyers with divergent political commitments and promote cooperation among their constituencies.
Yet these lawyer “mediator” organizations have not prevented high-profile clashes among lawyers for the different constituencies in litigation and other controversies. The lawyers have sparred over Harriet Miers’ nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court; the Bush administration’s approach to the War on Terror; and the Department of Justice’s hiring, promotion and firing practices. These disputes are about policy and professional values, to be sure, but they also reveal social stratification within the profession, just as the election reflected social stratification within the electorate. It remains to be seen whether the Republican Party will rebuild a winning coalition and what role lawyers might play in efforts to forge common ground within the party’s ranks.
Ann Southworth is a founding faculty member at the University of California, Irvine School of Law and author of Lawyers of the Right: Professionalizing the Conservative Coalition (Chicago 2008).