The confirmation of Justice Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court is an historic victory for the conservative movement and the crowning achievement of decades of political organizing by social and judicial conservatives.
Justice Barrett’s achievements speak for themselves, and full credit goes to her. Her life story, her devotion to family, her hard work, her intellect, her grace under pressure—she did all that herself. Yet it takes nothing away from her to note that she had help, and it’s important to understand the nature of that help with an eye toward replicating that help in yet more areas. As we shall see, Barrett had an effective team around her. And as smart coaches say, “There’s no ‘I’ in team.”
Indeed, as we think about teams’ getting things done, we might recall that more than two centuries ago, the Duke of Wellington is believed to have said about his great victory over Napoleon in 1815, “The battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton.” That is, boys’ sports competition at England’s Eton College—in which Wellington, then Arthur Wellesley, participated—had taught many British officers early on the meaning of team play, of common purpose, and of discipline, and such traits were just as important for a military unit as for a sports team.
The “Iron Duke” was a brilliant commander, and yet he was only as good as the army underneath him. And the same can be said of ACB.
So let’s take a look at Barrett’s “army,” starting with some of the “officers” around her. We can begin with the Federalist Society, a legal group founded in 1982, of which Barrett is a long-time member.
For four decades now, the Federalist Society has been organizing and convening right-of-center seminars, conferences, and other activities for conservative law students and lawyers. These programs, as well as associated efforts aimed at building community and refining conservative thinking, have become a full-spectrum approach for launching public-policy careers, from placements in judicial clerkships, to the promotion of books, to the slotting of judicial nominees.
The Federalist Society is no secretive cabal. It has a transparent website, and it encourages curious attendees and new members. It simply serves as a high-level clearinghouse for conservative minds that helps assess legal talent and future potential, especially for judgeships.
The need for an accurate assessment of conservative potential became clear after the disaster of George H.W. Bush’s nomination of David Souter to the Supreme Court in 1990. Souter was a Republican, albeit of no particular ideology; Bush 41 was persuaded to nominate him based on the personal recommendation of John Sununu, a non-lawyer on his White House staff. Unfortunately, once confirmed, Souter turned out be a strong liberal during his two decades on the high court. “No more Souters!” is a common thought among Federalists.
Since Souter, the Federalist Society has became the go-to place for identifying judges for Republican administrations, and this has become especially true for the Trump administration. The Federalists have helped in the vetting of Trump’s hundreds of judicial picks, including Brett Kavanaugh, who was confirmed to the Supreme Court in 2018.
So we can see, the Federalists are simply another set of well-informed eyes helping with the process. Just as the Constitution dictates, it’s the president who actually selects the judge, and the Senate which actually advises and consents or not.
Thanks to the combined efforts of President Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, conservatives have scored hundreds of judicial successes over the last four years, culminating now in the confirmation of Barrett.
Two years ago, during the Kavanaugh confirmation fight, the New York Times’ somewhat right-of-center columnist David Brooks explained how this process had been working and how it had come to work so smoothly:
Kavanaugh is the product of a community. He is the product of a conservative legal infrastructure that develops ideas, recruits talent, links rising stars, nurtures genius, molds and launches judicial nominees. It almost doesn’t matter which Republican is president. The conservative legal infrastructure is the entity driving the whole project. It almost doesn’t even matter if Kavanaugh is confirmed or shot down; there are dozens more who can fill the vacancy, just as smart and just as conservative.
Yes, that’s how it’s done. The Federalist Society has made it easy for Trump just to pick strong judicial candidates, as it were, “off the shelf.”
We might say that the Federalist Society is the American equivalent of “the playing fields of Eton”—the place where young lawyers practice their craft and test their legal thinking. Or, to put the matter in purely American terms, the Federalists have been helping to operate the legal equivalent of the baseball farm-team system. Here’s how Brooks described it:
This community didn’t just happen; it was self-consciously built. If you want to understand how to permanently change the political landscape, it’s a good idea to study and be inspired how it was done.
Brooks further added that the Federalist system was a model that could be applied to other fields, beyond the law:
It’s a lesson for everybody. If you emphasize professional excellence first, if you gain a foothold in society’s mainstream institutions, if you build a cohesive band of brothers and sisters, you can transform the landscape of your field.
Yes, this idea of building a farm-team system to funnel talent upward applies to many other fields other than the law—and on both sides of the partisan aisle.
In fact, not much happens in Washington without the creation, first, of a “school of thought.” A school of thought emerges from a network of like-minded souls, all gathered around a unifying principle or a cause.
For instance, on the left, the environmentalists have a school of thought—or perhaps more than one—as do the feminists, the progressives, as well as, of course, left-wing legal types. (The lawyer-left, of course, has the benefit of the big law schools, many of which do the work of opposing Federalist-type conservatism as part of their basic curriculum.)
In each case, the school of thought, if it is to be effective, builds a system that can attract supporters and turn them into cadres by polishing them up, providing them with credentials, and helping them make social and professional connections. Then the goal is to get them hired into positions of influence.
Such systems are based on an axiom familiar to Washington hands: “Personnel is policy.” One proof of this concept came in the 1930s, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal transformed American life. And that transformation came in no small part because New Dealers knew exactly what to do when arriving at a government agency. That is, they had read the literature, they were familiar with the people, and so they knew how to advance FDR’s agenda.
As one prominent New Dealer, Tommy Corcoran, explained to historian Arthur Schlesinger:
What is a government? . . . It’s not just the top man or the top ten men. A government is the top one hundred or two hundred men. What really makes the difference is what happens down the line before—and after—the big decisions are taken.
Such is the power of a school of thought. So that’s a lesson for anyone who wishes to make change in Washington: It’s vital to have a school that can be as helpful to a cause as the Federalist Society has been helpful to its chosen cause. So if we were to look at places where Trump administration policy has fallen short—and we can cite health care and infrastructure for openers—we can see with regret the absence of a robust conservative school of thought.
So the building of more such schools is an important mission no matter who wins the election this November.
We should also note, of course, that ACB has had foot soldiers, as well as officers. That is, millions of people who had never heard of her until a month ago were immediately attracted to her and to her story. And while these grassroots folks played no role in positioning Barrett for her Supreme Court nomination, they were cheering for her as soon as her nomination was announced.
This popular wave of support was soon manifested in public-opinion polls. Back in September, a survey found that just 37 percent of Americans supported her nomination, while 34 percent were opposed. Yet now, in the wake of her triumphant Senate hearings, ACB’s support has risen to 51 percent, while opposition has actually fallen six points. We might observe that in this polarized climate, when opposing opinions are typically deeply entrenched, any positive movement in the polls is a testament to her large and enlarging appeal. And so that made it easy for cautious Republican senators to support her.
The laurels in this victory go to Amy Coney Barrett, and rightfully so. But those who wish to see more ACBs in judicial robes—and more true conservatives all along the watchtowers of the right—should study the planning that went into achieving this victory. As we have seen, the plans go back decades.
That’s how politics works, that’s how policy is shaped, and that’s how history is made.