It is no accident that in Judge Samuel Alito’s famous 1985 application for a job in the Reagan Justice Department he mentioned his membership in two organizations: the Federalist Society and the now-notorious Concerned Alumni for Princeton. Both were founded as a dissent from liberalism’s grip on academe. What were initially the rumblings of a powerless conservative counterculture eventually gelled into an effective conservative counterestablishment.
CAP is long-since defunct, although its model of conservative activism/journalism–often in alliance with conservative alumni–thrives on campuses around the country. The Federalist Society has gone from a tiny, embattled group when it was founded in 1982 to a steppingstone to countless careers in government, on the bench and at law schools. Liberalism still dominates the elite universities, but that means much less than it used to, thanks to the counterestablishment that has nurtured and credentialed the likes of Samuel Alito.
At his hearings, Alito didn’t seem counter- anything. He is sober, intelligent, and thoughtful. He is the opposite of a bomb-thrower, but when he entered Princeton University in 1968, that made him a dissident.
Alito mentioned this fact in his opening statement. He was from a middle-class family in Trenton, N.J., and was shocked at what greeted him at Princeton: “I saw some very smart people and very privileged people behaving irresponsibly, and I couldn’t help making a contrast between some of the worst of what I saw on the campus and the good sense and decency of the people back in my own community.” Alito joined the ROTC, which was thrown off campus, forcing him to go to Trenton State College for his ROTC work. In their wisdom, Princetonians firebombed their own ROTC building.
“Conservatives lived quiet lives of desperation,” is how one Federalist Society lawyer describes the environment on campus at this time. A conservative with intellectual or public-policy interests in the late 1970s surveyed a bleak environment. The universities, the law schools, the federal government and the courts were held by the left.
But then, the values Alito had grown up with struck back with Ronald Reagan’s election in 1980. What was most important was not that conservatives had gained power, but what they did with it. The Reagan Justice Department set out to grow the counterestablishment. It identified bright young conservatives and prepared them for bigger things. It hired Alito, then got him a gig as a U.S. attorney, knowing that might prepare the ground for becoming a judge.
Twenty years later, he is about to assume a seat on the Supreme Court. Part of what so offended conservatives about President Bush’s initial nomination of White House counsel Harriet Miers was that it bypassed the counterestablishment that had been built so painstakingly. As Stanley Kurtz of the Hudson Institute has argued, Alito’s pick signals a shift in the nomination strategy of Republican presidents. No longer do they need unremarkable “stealth candidates,” but they can go with nominees from the growing ranks of credentialed conservatives, because Alito shows that talent and intelligence are the most formidable weapons.
It helps, of course, that there are 55 Republican senators. The work of the Federalist Society and others in honing conservative constitutionalist arguments through the years has been indispensable. There is no substitute for intellectual rigor, which some early conservative counterestablishment outfits didn’t have. The publication of the Concerned Alumni of Princeton seems to have aimed to vent and repel as much as to argue and convince. But conservatives came to realize that the crucial thing wasn’t to get even with the liberal establishment, but to get better–smarter, more qualified, more persuasive.
At the Alito hearings, it is now liberal senators who flail wildly and convince no one. Maybe their establishment needs revivifying, or they need a counter-counterestablishment of their own. If so, there can be no better advice than: Watch Samuel Alito and learn.
–Rich Lowry is author of Legacy: Paying the Price for the Clinton Years.
(c) 2006 King Features Syndicate