Reactionary Rhetoric and Liberal Legal Academia

Author: 
Justin Driver

As celebrations mark the fiftieth anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, it is essential to recover the arguments mainstream critics made in opposing what has become a sacrosanct piece of legislation. Prominent legal scholarship now appears to misapprehend the nature of that mainstream opposition, contending it assumed more aggressive forms than it actually did. Upon examining the actual arguments respected figures wielded against the Civil Rights Act during the 1960s, certain patterns of argumentation become almost immediately apparent. Mainstream critics consistently opposed the legislation not by challenging it head on, but instead by employing three standard arguments that Professor Albert O. Hirschman's The Rhetoric of Reaction identified as sounding variously in perversity, futility, and jeopardy. In addition to demonstrating how Hirschman's taxonomy illuminates mainstream opposition to the Civil Rights Act, this essay proceeds to argue that modern legal academia accords The Rhetoric of Reaction inadequate attention. That is so because the forms of argument Hirschman explored now frequently appear in what would initially seem an improbable place: the scholarship of liberal constitutional law professors. Left-leaning legal scholars often propose revised assessments of high-profile Supreme Court opinions, asserting that-properly understood-those opinions have had perverse effects, ended up being futile, or jeopardized some larger achievement. Legal scholars also deploy such reactionary rhetoric prospectively, warning about the dangers that they assert will accompany future efforts to issue progressive judicial decisions. Given the prevalence of reactionary rhetoric among liberal law professors, it is crucial both to grapple with the reasons that may explain its current ascendance and to identify some of the undesirable consequences that could flow from its common usage.