‘Our mission is scholarship’: Berkeley Center for Right-Wing Studies brings academic lens to conservative movements

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Elise Ulwelling/Staff

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Although Berkeley has recently been the site of multiple fiery protests against conservative figures and concepts, one campus department has dedicated itself to studying right-wing political movements with an academic eye.

Founded in March 2009 in the wake of former president Barack Obama’s inauguration and the formation of the tea party, the Berkeley Center for Right-Wing Studies, or CRWS, is a stand-alone research unit under the campus Institute for the Study of Societal Issues, or ISSI.

Lawrence Rosenthal, chair and lead researcher of CRWS, described the center as a “hub” for people who study the right, with affiliated faculty on campus, across the country and abroad.

The center’s mission

The center’s mission is to bring academic rigor to bear on the question of right-wing movements and right-wing thought in the 20th and 21st centuries, according to Rosenthal.

“We don’t start from the premise that the right wing is, either by virtue of its tactics or its ideology, good or bad,” Rosenthal said. “We start from the premise: ‘What is it? Where does it come from? What is its history? What is its trajectory?’ ”

Rosenthal added that although it may seem strange to study the right while dealing with “Berkeley’s leftism,” he believes that personal political alignment is a secondary concern in academia.

Christine Trost, academic coordinator of CRWS and associate director of ISSI, said that when CRWS first opened, people assumed that the role of the center was to advocate for the right.

“We worked really, really hard over the last eight years to brand ourselves as not a political organization,” Trost said. “We do not have a political agenda. … Our mission is scholarship.”

Right-wing movements in Berkeley

Berkeley is no stranger to conflicts between “alt-right” supporters and counterprotesters. Violence broke out in August 2017 as counterprotesters confronted an “alt-right” rally in the streets of Berkeley.

The UC Berkeley campus was also the site of multiple controversies over conservative speakers, such as Ben Shapiro and Milo Yiannopoulos, whose campus appearances last year were met with fierce opposition from protesters.

With millions spent on security in anticipation of potentially violent protests, fostering understanding of right-wing movements is an ongoing issue for both the campus and the city of Berkeley.

Past research

The center supports a number of students in their research efforts, which include a project done by campus senior Hollis Potts regarding the Freedom of Information Act and the digitization of a variety of FBI materials, including memos, newsletters and pamphlets.

“The project is putting together an archive of right-wing radicalism in the United States, which will serve as a genealogy of right-wing extremism in the United States,” Potts said.

According to Potts, the project came about because of a prior interest in studying American political organization after the 2016 presidential election.

Campus junior Kelly Jones, another undergraduate collaborating with CRWS, is working on a project to summarize and catalog rare audio and visual recordings from the John Birch Society — a conservative advocacy group — about recruiting and mobilizing individuals in the 1960s. Jones emphasized that while her research proposal is still in progress, she hopes to write a thesis paper on these materials.

“I’m doing a narrative discourse analysis to see the instances of metaphors in each of the materials, and I’m hoping that these will reveal how the John Birch Society has been able to defend its identity as an Americanist organization to the general public,” Jones said.

Jones’ hypothesis is that the more frequently metaphors such as “nation as family” are found in media, the more right-wing groups are able to indoctrinate people into subscribing to their ideologies.

Jones added that she believes there is a large gap in scholarship when it comes to examining movements such as these.

“It’s very important to evaluate the differences, evaluate the similarities. … It adds balance to scholarship,” Jones said.

An independent research unit

CRWS receives no financial support from the campus and relies on donations from the general public, according to Rosenthal.

“As for our funders, we receive donations from individuals in different sizes,” Rosenthal said in an email. “Most are from Cal alums. We also receive funding for specific projects from foundations and non-profit organizations.”

Trost said that while there is “great interest” in studying right-wing movements, the center does not have enough money to bring researchers to UC Berkeley, and one of its long-term goals is to establish the sustainability of the center.

“My dream is to send out a call for postdocs to come to Berkeley — postdocs who are interested in using some of the archival resources that we’ve collected to write scholarly pieces,” Trost said.

As a testament to the center’s contributions to right-wing discourse, Rosenthal said he has been featured in a variety of publications, including the Huffington Post and the San Francisco Chronicle.

“The extent in which we have become a kind of indispensable resource following things like the ‘alt-right’ has been very significant,” Rosenthal said.

Future of the center

The center aims to study not only right-wing movements in the United States, but a resurgence of similar movements abroad as well.

“I think at this particular political moment now than ever, we need informed scholarly research to help us understand the resurgence of the far right,” Trost said. “To make sense of what’s happening, we need scholars who are engaged in rigorous research and valid methods of study of this phenomenon.”

Trost said a big part of what CRWS does is serve as a repository for rare materials that she believes would be highly relevant to scholars who are doing work on various aspects of the right.

Students not directly involved in the center are also able to see the value of engaging with right-wing studies.

“I think it’s important to study political movements,” said Cal Berkeley Democrats President Caiden Nason. “Maybe it would be cool if they did some events with people talking about the dangers of the far-right movement.”

Martín Sánchez-Jankowski, director of ISSI, emphasized the importance of CRWS, saying that centers such as CRWS serve as a source of information and help people get in touch with experts in the field.

Despite varying perceptions of the right — both on campus and in the general public — Rosenthal said “the right will always be with us” and that approaching the subject with academic rigor is important.

“Berkeley is one of the leaders and cannot be pigeonholed as a university that is composed of one set of people or another set of people. … It’s an intellectual center, and that’s what has made it a great place,” Sánchez-Jankowski said.

Phil Zhang is the lead research and ideas reporter. Contact him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @philzhangDC.