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Tea and Sympathy

September 6, 2012
by Jill Cowan

The Berkeley Center for Right-Wing Studies—formerly called the Center for the Comparative Study of Right-Wing Movements—opened in March 2009, just a month after the Tea Party was officially founded. The timing was pure coincidence. Executive director Lawrence Rosenthal says he was putting the center together just as “the Bush government was closing down”—apparently taking the relevancy of American conservatism down with it.

“People were saying, ‘What are you doing this for?'” Then along came the Tea Party, Rosenthal says, “and people stopped asking me that question.”

The center, which is affiliated with the University’s Institute for the Study of Societal Issues, was first conceived as a way for scholars to examine “elements of the Right” both here and abroad. Rosenthal, who has a background in Italian Studies, is working on a comparison of the contemporary American Right with right-wing movements in 20th century Europe. A graduate student researcher with the center is studying an indigenous right-wing movement in Vietnam during the Vietnam War, and another student is studying depictions of Jewish males with relation to the Dreyfus Affair in late 19th-century France. Still, despite the breadth of the center’s mission, that singular conservative American groundswell had a major hand in generating the initial buzz.

The center’s first academic conference, held at Alumni House in October 2010, was called “Populism and the Tea Party in American Politics.” Slate political reporter David Weigel was in attendance and filed a story headlined “Radical Shriek.” The subhead: “Lefty academics convene in Berkeley to try to make sense of the Tea Party movement.” Reached by phone for comment, Weigel recalled a “panicky glibness” at the event. On the other hand, Weigel said, the center’s increasing focus on its archive of “conservative political ephemera” makes it a valuable resource for journalists looking to root their coverage in something more concrete than, say, the GOP’s latest talking points.

For his part, Rosenthal vehemently denies any political agenda. Those who see one in the center’s work are, he insists, buying into “the Berkeley cartoon.” He adds that people on both ends of the political spectrum have expressed support for the Berkeley center—not because they understand its mission necessarily, but because they assume it fits their own orientation.

Still, doesn’t the mere identification of the right wing as a subject of study define the center as being in opposition to it? What would the equivalent on the other side—a Center for Left-Wing Studies—look like? Rosenthal confesses that he doesn’t know of one, and allows that grouping together academic studies of topics that “are often regarded as leftish in their orientation” under a single banner would be “to invite offense.”

And if conservatives take offense to the Berkeley center’s wide-ranging approach? “I can’t fix that one for people,” he says.

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