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Friday, May 06, 2005

Are Conservatives the New Postmodernists?

I’ve been noticing an interesting trend among the group of conservatives today who are arguing for greater intellectual diversity in higher education and for inclusion of intelligent design in grade school textbooks.  The rhetoric being employed by these groups who aim to “reform” education seems to draw a lot on postmodernist ideas.

For a long while, it was the liberals who generally embraced postmodernism.  Certainly, not all liberals accepted postmodernist ideas, but I believe it is fair to say that the ranks of the postmodernists were largely filled with liberals, not conservatives.  Postmodernists focus on a set of interrelated themes, such as the blurring between fiction and reality, the impossibility of universals and master narratives, the multiplicity of valid interpretations, the social construction of individual identity, and the contingency of human events and culture.  Many conservatives resisted postmodernist ideas, arguing that objective “truths” were not merely “viewpoints” and that not all interpretations were equally valid.  The danger of postmodernism, these critics argued, was that it led to relativism.

But today,

the groups who are attacking the academy for being too liberal and who are pushing for inclusion of intelligent design in grade school education are using rhetoric laden with postmodernist ideas.  Consider the debate about intelligent design.  Brian Leiter’s blog contains a detailed documentation and thorough critique of repeated attempts by some to push for the teaching of intelligent design.  The method they go about doing this is to push for alternative perspectives to evolution because nobody can know for sure what is the truth.

Consider David Horowitz’s manifesto for attacking the academy for being too liberal.  It calls for “diversity,” “intellectual pluralism” and a “plurality of methodologies and perspectives.”

What I find interesting about this debate is how the rhetoric of those attacking the “liberal academy” in higher education and the teaching of evolution in grade school is based on postmodernist ideas.  This reminds me of a terrific article by Jack Balkin at Yale about the phenomenon of “ideological drift.”  Ideological Drift and the Struggle over Meaning, 25 Conn. L. Rev. 869 (1993).

As Balkin notes: “Ideological drift in law means that legal ideas and symbols will change their political valence as they are used over and over again in new contexts.” He goes on to point out:

Since the 1920s left liberals in the United States have tended to take relatively libertarian views on free speech, while conservatives have been more likely to balance the interest in free speech against the interest in social order, the preservation of important social values, and so on. In the last several years we have seen a gradual and partial reversal of these positions in debates over regulation of sexual and racial harassment, campaign finance, and pornography.  [Another] example arises from the notion of racial equality. The concept of the "colorblind" Constitution, offered by the first Justice Harlan in 1896 as a progressive (and even radical) argument against Jim Crow, has by 1992 become the rallying cry of conservatives who seek to protect white males from racial oppression.

Indeed, not only legal ideas are subject to ideological drift . . . certain ways of thinking drift as well.  In the case of intelligent design, it appears that these groups are merely using postmodernist thinking as a tool to achieve their ends.  I doubt many of those advocating for teaching intelligent design would accept the full implications of their embrace of postmodernism.  But I wonder whether they can just use ideas as rhetorical tools without it having some effect on their underlying commitments.         

Posted by Daniel Solove on May 6, 2005 at 07:44 AM in Daniel Solove, Legal Theory | Permalink


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Daniel Solove over at Prawfsblawg has a very interesting post on the rise of post-modernist rhetoric on the right. I am very much of the persuasion that post-modernism is a method and thus apolitical, and welcome its adaptation by the right wing. Ind... [Read More]

Tracked on May 6, 2005 3:26:50 AM


An interesting argument that I’ve heard put forward is that postmodernism becomes conservative. Because according to this piece I found 'The Conservative Praxis of Postmodernism' -

“failure of the western establishment and global economy should not be combated by undercutting our ability to make rational-choices and values in the pursuit of progressive enlightenment ideals. Postmodernist have pushed in the face of such challenges theories of cultural relativism, that values are cultural constructions and therefore to say that one value superior to another is foolhardy and even racist when involving inter-cultural discourse. Therefore we cannot declare the universality of the right to life because that creates a hierarchy of values; one which is in contradiction to other cultures i.e. death penalties in the USA or public beheadings in Saudi Arabia.

This denial of ones ability to choose one value over another serve only to sustain the value currently entrenched. Therefore by virtue of logical necessity postmodernism’s ultra-radical break with ‘convention’ becomes rather conservative. Left-wing politics and affirmation of value are firmly based on the enlightenment/modernist worldview”


i.e postmoderism Impedes the ability of one to critique and thus advocate progressive changes. it's an interesting thought.

Posted by: Mat Bryan | Apr 27, 2006 7:21:56 AM

Whether it's a good idea or not is an open question, but conservative in general, and religous conservatives in particular, spent 150+ years learning how to address the modern age. They finally figured it out in time for post-modernism. They have now figured out how to address the post-moderns and it only took 50 years. That's a pretty impressive learning curve.

It's also consistent with "being all things to all people" in the preaching of the Gospel.

That said, I'm not entirely sure that absolutes can be argued in relative terms, even if that is the language of the realm. So I'm inclined to view any post-modern language as a foot-in-the-door. Open relativity lets conservatives into the debate where they can then run their absolutes up the flag-pole and see who salutes.

All of that said, I'm with MJ in that I'm not convinced this is post-modern relativism so much as it is a resurgence of JS Mill's Utilitarian Liberalism (an inherently modern view, last I checked). I'm not a huge fan of Mill, being a Kantian (though Hume keeps trying to seduce me) and Lockeian myself, however, if it's between Mill and Sartre, Mill wins every time for me.

Posted by: M. Howell | May 9, 2005 1:31:28 PM


I think the primary adaption of postmodern ideas is rhetorical in this case. When you see zealots like Horowitz saying we need a "diversity of perspectives" and that "voices are being suppressed," you see postmodern language by those not-subscribing to the underlying beliefs. I agree with you that there is nothing similar between the right-wing zealots and post-modern authors, but I also see strong similarities in the rhetoric deployed.

Posted by: Corey Rayburn | May 6, 2005 12:12:02 PM


I understand your point, I just simply disagree that it is in any way an "embrace of postmodernism" to say something (arguably) deliberately excluded should be included.

That's not a rationale to "expand the realm": it's a rationale to not ignore the realm that already exists.

I just don't see how that fits in the po-mo box.

Posted by: MJ | May 6, 2005 12:02:18 PM

Corey, sophism is just staock in trade for the politicians. Without it, they all lose their demogaugery.

MJ, thank you for a fuller response. Post-modernism wasn't about a lack of truths or absolutes, though the ease withwhich a post-modernist could become a relativist was, as noted, one of the big critiques, but about the fluidity of viewpoint and of social identity. In being defined by the society around you, the multiplicity of viewpoints came into play and I think that, more then the allegaiton that only liberal theories are being taught, is where this argument comes from.

The allegation of what is or is not being taught is rhetoric in this situation and for the purposes of this discussion I am only concerning myself with the rationale to expand the realm and nature of instruction and the attempt to erode or undermine the status quo as it exists with respect to elementary education.

Posted by: Joel | May 6, 2005 11:27:38 AM


I will first confess that it has been a long time since I studied any of the po-mo philosophers, Baudrillard, Lyotard ect..

That said, attempting to analogize conservative arguments that educators should not teach exclusively from the liberal perspective on law, economics, sociology, philosophy ect...when there are equally valid conservative points of view and scholarship - seems a terrible stretch.

If postmodernism is defined roughly - "I define postmodernism as incredulity toward metanarratives." - Lyotard - that is not even second cousin to conservatives saying there is other scholarship of equal value (or at least some value) to what is being taught in public schools and universities. We are not saying "there is no truth" - we are saying "there are other points of view."

Posted by: MJ | May 6, 2005 10:46:56 AM

While I think your observation is essentially correct, I think it be better to say that members of the right-wing are coopting postmodern (and sophist) rhetoric in their cause (which is your emphasis later in the post). I don't believe any of them are committed to, or even familiar with, the observations and methods of any postmodern thinkers. Further, I think their tactics are fundamentally Straussian. The right-wing loonies like Horowitz use postmodern rhetoric of diversity and indeterminacy to support the one "correct" view. There is nothing postmodern about that. And so, in answer to your concluding remark, I don't think the use of postmodern rhetoric will have any effect on their underlying views.

Posted by: Corey Rayburn | May 6, 2005 10:23:59 AM

MJ, are you expressly denying that the rhetoric being emplyed in this situations is markedly post-modern, or are you just trying to make an attack on the post? Simply put, the arguments of the conservative groups pushing for changes in the educational system mirror those of po-mo intellectuals of previous decades.

Posted by: Joel | May 6, 2005 9:47:04 AM

Only to a liberal could fairness and the inclusion of competing viewpoints in state/federally funded institutions be considered postmodernism.

Posted by: MJ | May 6, 2005 8:55:49 AM

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