by Jeffrey R. Dudas. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2008. 224pp. Cloth. $50.00. ISBN: 9780804758093.

Reviewed by Laura J. Hatcher, Department of Political Science and Women’s Studies Program, Southern Illinois University at Carbondale. Email: hatcher [at]


Jeffrey Dudas has written an eloquent analysis of the politics of treaty rights as they have played out over the last few decades. His analysis develops a framework for understanding the language of “special rights” and the cultivation of resentment. His conceptual work provides a lens for grasping the complex dynamics of post-Civil Rights claims made by politically marginalized groups, while also highlighting the Right’s mobilizations against the claims made by these groups. Thus, not only is the book important for scholars interested in studying the politics of rights of Native Americans, but also for anyone who has an interest in the evolution and development of “backlash” and “counter-mobilizations;” the relationship between law and social movements; and rights discourse in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. While I think the book might be challenging for undergraduates (except perhaps seniors in discussion-driven courses), it certainly can be used in graduate courses that touch on any of the topics mentioned above.

Dudas is deeply influenced by the legal mobilization literature that has so captured the imagination of law and society scholars since the publication of McCann’s RIGHTS AT WORK (1994). However, Dudas does not merely use the framework of RIGHTS AT WORK, but rather incorporates a deeper discussion of interpretive methodology and its relationship to the epistemological importance of understanding meaning-making to the social sciences. This is an argument we have seen more recently among scholars who are especially attentive to the methodological techniques as well as the epistemological arguments made in interprevist research (see for example, Fischer 2003; Yanow and Schwartz-Shea 2006; Yanow 2000). Dudas begins with the observation that the notion of “special rights,” a formulation popularized by New Right intellectuals, carries with it a sense that there is a “class of rights that are special and that, as such, they are illegitimate” (p.1). The illegitimacy of these claims also shapes the resentment underlying the condemnations of rights claims made by politically marginalized groups.

As Dudas explains with particular reference to comments made by George W. Bush during the 2000 presidential debates, “The special-rights talk employed by Mr. Bush expresses resentment over how those rights that are presumed to be special threaten the things that equal rights supposedly guarantee: that individual success should be based upon one’s merits, that communities should be places of relative calm and harmony, and that American governments should treat all people exactly the same” (pp.1-2). This observation is only the beginning of [*860] Dudas’ analysis. Employing interpretive methods to understand the meaning-making activities that occur when New Right activists use the language of special rights, he highlights the structure of these claims as they relate to cultural power. As Dudas points out, his approach focuses attention “on how shared values and practices provide us with the cognitive resources for making sense of ourselves and others” (p.12). Language becomes central to the analysis, in part because it reveals how research subjects understand themselves, but also because the language they use and the meanings they employ “inspire behavior” (ibid.). Such inspiration galvanizes action and often provides a means to bring new participants into the movement.

His theoretical perspective is clearly social constructionist. Following the dictates of good interpretive work, he has grounded his analysis by historically situating it, and building conceptually and theoretically from his data. His empirical work includes a careful content analysis of primary materials that allows him to formulate concepts with which to analyze two case studies (the Anti-Treaty Rights Movement and a mobilization of an Anti-Tribal-Casino Movement). Interpretive work requires theoretically and empirically grounded research. To that end, Dudas has combed through archives, personal papers, position papers, speeches and various other written and spoken materials in his analyses. “Winning,” in the sense of New Right activists getting their political way, is of little importance to this analysis. Rather, Dudas focuses our attention on the political practices through which, in his words, “a zealous social movement that appropriated one of the core legitimating symbols of American democracy – equal rights” was mobilized (p.93). Thus, Dudas provides us with one of the most provocative analyses of special rights discourse to date by focusing attention on language rather than outcomes. Moreover, his is not merely a description of political activism. Instead, he provides a conceptual framework for understanding activism. Further, he presents an organizational analysis that is directly linked to rights consciousness and political opportunity in his case studies. In a sense, then, this is one of the most methodologically complex and theoretically nuanced books on conservative counter-mobilizations written thus far.

One of the more intriguing moments in the book that indicates potential avenues for future research comes early as Dudas discusses the legal mobilization of marginalized groups (pp.18-22). As he begins to explain the differences between Indian mobilizations for treaty rights and other non-Indian activism, Dudas observes, “Whereas the legal mobilizations of non-Indian people have typically (though not exclusively) emphasized that they are similarly situated vis-à-vis other American citizens and that, therefore, they should be treated similarly, the legal mobilizations of Indian people tend to emphasize that Indians are differently situated vis-à-vis other American citizens and should therefore be treated differently” (p.19). He goes on to point out that this difference is often missed by their opponents: “A typical strategy is to deny or degrade the nationhood of tribes” (Ibid.). Such a tactic, Dudas tells us, “makes sense for only by such a tactic is it possible for anti-treaty-rights [*861] activists to argue that treaty rights are ‘special’ rights that deny the principle of equal treatment” (p.19). Such claims (as Dudas also notes) have some basis in law, as US courts have long seen the tribes as “quasi-sovereign.” But from an analyst’s perspective, Dudas’ larger point – that “special rights” talk requires the speaker to claim that those seeking redress for past harms or greater equality through rights talk are really already “the same” – is one of the most important insights he offers us.

If we push on this insight a little bit, it also suggests some things analysts of other legal mobilizations may want to consider as they proceed in their work. First and foremost, to what degree are counter-mobilizations always about claiming that whatever or whomever is being back-lashed against are making illegitimate claims that would cause them to become more empowered rather than merely equal? And secondly, in situations where equal protection is not invoked, one has to wonder what other practices give shape to these legal mobilizations? This seems especially important when studying activists (whether in the New Right or not) who position themselves as outside and in opposition to the status quo, but who seem by other empirical measures to be well within established power relations. Are conservative movements making use of other areas of law (for example, the First Amendment’s free speech clause in religion cases or the Fifth Amendment’s takings clause), then, going to have to draw on a different set of cultural practices in order to advance their position? If so, what are those other cultural practices, and how does the cultural power of law engage them?

Dudas has some important insights about the relationship between “special rights talk” and resentment against less politically empowered groups. There is a note of caution here, however: not all of the rights talk by New Right activists is necessarily “special rights talk.” Dudas is careful, most of the time, not to over-generalize, but it would be easy to over-state his argument or misunderstand the implications of “special rights talk” when thinking about still other conservative mobilizations. Dudas does not make any such claim; however, he also does not explicitly discuss other forms of rights talk by conservatives in much detail. We need more research to understand how the variations in rights claims interact with other cultural beliefs and ideas in order to have a fuller understanding of the cultural power of law. The contrast between the New Right movements and others is particularly instructive in this regard as they so often both make use of and react against beliefs about the power structures that are at odds with other activists. In a sense, cultural beliefs come into relief, thus enabling greater attention to them. Therefore, this careful interpretive work can be very helpful understanding the way identities are constructed and how such identities provide the imaginative possibilities and dynamic energy that gives rise to social movements.


McCann, Michael W. 1994. RIGHTS AT WORK: PAY EQUITY REFORM AND THE POLITICS OF LEGAL MOBILIZATION. Chicago: the University of Chicago Press.

Yanow, Dvora. 2000. CONDUCTING INTERPRETIVE POLICY ANALYSIS. Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications.

Yanow, Dvora and Schwartz-Shea, Peregrine. 2006. INTERPRETATION AND METHOD: EMPIRICAL RESEARCH METHODS AND THE INTERPRETIVE TURN. New York: M.E. Sharpe & Company.

© Copyright 2008 by the author, Laura Hatcher.