In Defense of Conservatism, the Benson Center, and John Eastman

A few weeks ago in the Denver Post, columnist Ian Silverii published an op-ed urging the closing of the Bruce D. Benson Center for the Study of Western Civilization at the University of Colorado. Silverii criticized both what he took to be the conservative character of the center, and some recent comments and advocacy by John Eastman, this year’s Benson Center Visiting Scholar in Conservative Thought and Policy.

I occupied Eastman’s position during the 2018-2019 academic year. Eastman is a well-respected constitutional scholar (and a co-author and friend of mine), and it is a great tragedy that those who have not taken the time to understand conservatism, the Benson Center, or what Eastman’s advocacy was seeking to do, have disparaged all three.

No one who has spent any time in the American academy over the past two generations could fail to conclude that the predominant ideological, political, and cultural opinions among students, teachers, and now administrators lean to the Left.

The Benson Center was established some years ago, and eventually named after its greatest advocate, former University of Colorado President, Bruce Benson, because he recognized what was happening, and quite correctly believed that the students and faculty at Boulder would find their intellectual lives enriched if they were offered some additional perspective. 

The men and women who have served as visiting conservative scholars have included some of the most distinguished writers, thinkers, and teachers in the American academy. Their classes and lectures have offered inspiration and challenge not only to students but to the many local adults who have taken advantage of Boulder’s wonderful auditing program.  

Why is this “conservative” perspective important and useful? What, exactly, do “conservatives” stand for? There are many varieties of conservatism—paleoconservatives, neoconservatives, libertarians, traditionalists, and social conservatives—but all share some basics. These include a veneration for our past, for the contributions to our civilization from Athens, Rome, and Jerusalem, and an understanding that humans are fallible creatures, and, further, that while the individual’s judgment may be faulty, the species is wise, and therefore we ought to hesitate before we engage in a radical restructuring of society.

Conservative lawyers, like Eastman and me, share a belief that there is nothing more important than the restraint of arbitrary governmental power, and that the survival of that principle of restraint—the rule of law—is fundamental to the maintenance of our republic and of the sovereignty of the American people. 

Our mainstream media, and apparently the critics of the Benson Center and John Eastman, fail to understand that he and his client Donald Trump were actually acting in defense of the rule of law. Viewed from that perspective, Trump has actually been one of our most conservative presidents. His criticism of the election and the litigation in which he was involved (with Eastman’s help) was, ultimately, to defend the rule of law itself and the restraint of arbitrary political power.

What bothered President Trump and his supporters was that in the 2020 election, election procedures were altered not by state legislators, as the Constitution requires, but by often partisan state officials, who bent the rules in a manner that aided Joe Biden and hurt Trump. It is unclear whether or not this misconduct (misconduct, which, unfortunately, the Supreme Court refused to review, over powerful dissents by conservative justices) actually affected the election, but without our actually knowing the scale and magnitude of the effect the changed rules had, we cannot be sure.

When Trump sought (with the help of Eastman and others) to encourage his supporters to pressure Congress, and, in particular, Vice President Mike Pence, not to certify the Electoral College results until there was a further examination of possible election misconduct, the president and his supporters were simply seeking enforcement of pre-existing norms and rules—not the undermining of our democracy.

Neither the president nor Eastman, by their statements, were advocating the violence that occurred on January 6. While one can, of course, debate the wisdom of the political and legal course they were following, it is still a defensible path, and one that falls squarely within our political, legal, and constitutional traditions. 

What one ought not to do, however, is to condemn the president and his supporters, like John Eastman, for simply seeking to enforce the conservative Constitutional and legal norms that, in the end, are all that bind us together as a nation. That is what the Benson Center seeks to preserve, that is why it is such a crucial part of the University, and that is why it was such an honor for Eastman and his fellow scholars to serve in our positions.

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About Stephen B. Presser

Stephen B. Presser is the Raoul Berger Professor of Legal History Emeritus at Northwestern University’s Pritzker School of Law, and the author of “Law Professors: Three Centuries of Shaping American Law” (West Academic Publishers, 2017). In the academic year 2018-2019, Professor Presser is a Visiting Scholar in Conservative Thought and Policy at the University of Colorado, Boulder.

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