Over at Politico, Evan Mandery wonders why there’s no liberal equivalent to the Federalist Society, the right-wing legal organization that’s become the guiding light of conservative thought about the law:
Over the past three decades, the Federalist Society has ascended from modest origins to become one of the most influential legal organizations in American history, with intellectual reach and political clout that no other legal group can match. As a presidential candidate in 2016, Trump effectively outsourced his Supreme Court picks to Federalist Executive Vice President Leonard Leo, and the group has enjoyed a near-lockdown on new appointments to the federal bench under Trump, most notably on the Supreme Court, where Justices Brett Kavanaugh and Neil Gorsuch each had long-standing Federalist ties prior to their nominations.
So where’s the response from the left?
….There actually is one liberal analog to the Federalist Society, but chances are you haven’t heard of it: the American Constitution Society, founded in 2001, after the Supreme Court decision that effectively handed the presidency to George W. Bush….But the playing field is decidedly not level. The Federalist Society has more student chapters, more than twice as many lawyer chapters and a huge fundraising edge.
This is wrong on a fundamental level. Liberals do have an equivalent to the Federalist Society, and yes, you have heard of it. In fact, conservatives studied it very carefully when they created the Federalist Society back in 1982.
If you’re shaking your head here, I don’t blame you. What is this thing that I say you’ve heard of, but Mandery says doesn’t even exist? The answer is simple: it’s not one single organization. It’s a vast, well-funded movement that’s far older and far more influential than the Federalist Society. Its only problem is that it doesn’t have a name.
It started in the 50s, when groups like the NAACP and ACLU began aggressively fighting for liberal causes in the Supreme Court. It continued as New Deal liberals took over law schools, professionalized them, and started churning out thousands of young lawyers steeped in a liberal understanding of the law. The Ford Foundation began funding legal aid groups in 1959, and later Congress created the Legal Services Corporation. In the 60s, powered by the legal sea change going on around it, the Warren Court revolutionized American constitutional law. At the same time, public interest law exploded, and in 1971 Ralph Nader started Public Citizen. And there were dozens of others: The Center for Law in the Public Interest, Public Advocates, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund, the Leage of Women Voters Education Fund, and on and on and on. There were (and are) literally hundreds of these groups.
This is what conservatives were up against in the 70s, and it’s why they started the Federalist Society. They weren’t politicizing the law out of the blue. They were responding to an explosive surge in the liberal legal network that, in their view, threatened to overwhelm conservative legal thought completely.
So: do liberals have anything similar to the Federalist Society? Sure. But it’s not one single group that you can hang a name on. It’s an enormous network of liberal legal groups, some of them big and famous and some of them small and unknown. As usual with liberals, these groups are more focused on doing good than they are on pushing ideology, but there’s plenty of ideology involved too.
Do we progressives need our own version of the Federalist Society? Maybe, but it’s really not the way we normally operate. Conservatives tend to be comfortable building big organizations that represents their interests. Building big umbrella organizations for liberals, by contrast, tends to be like herding cats. Over and over, no matter who tries or how much money is put into it, it just doesn’t work. We don’t want to be herded.
So don’t complain that we don’t have a Federalist Society of our own. We do. The thing is, it’s a sprawling mishmash of groups with different focuses and different ideas. Why? Because that’s the way we like things.