The Weekend at Yale That Changed American Politics


Spring of 1982. America was mired in a recession —still-new President Ronald Reagan was being forced to defend to a skeptical public his economic policies—while members of Congress fretted about the chances of a nuclear war with the Soviet Union.

Despite this uncertainty, a few conservative students at elite law schools sensed not anxiety but a moment of opportunity. Inspired by Reagan’s ideology and emboldened by his election, they did something ambitious to the point of audacious. They asked a collection of the country’s most notable right-leaning scholars, judges and Department of Justice officials to assemble at one of the very hubs of liberal orthodoxy, the campus of Yale University.

Convened principally by Steven Calabresi, who was at Yale Law, and Lee Liberman and David McIntosh, who were at University of Chicago Law, some 200 people arrived in New Haven, Connecticut, on the last weekend of April for a three-day symposium.

It had a dry title—“A Symposium on Federalism: Legal and Political Ramifications”—and it easily could have been just another set of lectures, of interest only to a small lot of participants and attendees, the kind of higher-ed, corkboard-flyer get-togethers that happen all the time with no broader fanfare or larger lasting consequences.

But at this one, as speakers castigated what they viewed as coastal elites and a leftist media and legal establishment and argued for a more “originalist” reading of the Constitution, people present felt a new sort of buzz. In the hallways, between the sessions, the vibe was more than just brainy. It was practically giddy.