Dissertation work


While many may view conservatism as monolithic, this dissertation describes a taxonomy of seven tendencies in conservative thought in the United States: 1) traditionalist conservatism, 2) social conservatism, 3) capitalist libertarianism, 4) authoritarian populism, 5) functionalist conservatism, 6) neoconservatism, and 7) paleoconservatism. This dissertation then employs discourse-historical analysis to uncover the diversity of conservative thought among these tendencies in the example of undocumented migration. It supports distinctions between most of these tendencies. However, George Nash described social conservatives and traditionalist conservatives as allies on most issues; this dissertation finds members of each of these tendencies divided on the issue of undocumented migration between those who emphasize compassion over law and those who emphasize law over compassion. This dissertation also fails to support a distinction between authoritarian populism and paleoconservatism as members of both tendencies subscribe to an “us” versus “them” view toward undocumented migrants. Finally, it observes a profound difference in epistemology between most conservatives and many others in that most conservatives prefer some form of what traditionalist conservatives label “transcendental knowledge” over empirical evidence.

Keywords: Conservatism, Undocumented migrants, Immigration

Photograph by Suzy Fisher, taken following the commencement ceremony at the Westin San Francisco Airport, August 20, 2016.

Relevant references

Tendencies of Conservatism

Note that this dissertation fails to support the distinctions 1) between authoritarian populism and paleoconservatism, and 2) between social conservatism and traditionalist conservatism. Followup work is organized here.

Preliminary work and other documentation

Post-defense procedure

  1. incorporate suggested changes from my committee (done, November 20, 2015),
  2. get approval for the abstract (apparently done on December 15, 2015, or shortly thereafter),
  3. have entire dissertation proofread and checked for APA compliance (submitted November 23, 2015; seeking funding to cover this cost; completed December 25, 2015), and
  4. publish the dissertation on ProQuest (published February 18, 2016).
  5. My degree was conferred on January 8, 2016:

Robert McAndrews, my committee chair, hooding me at the commencement ceremony. My other committee members were JoAnn McAllister and Marc Pilisuk. Photograph by Suzy Fisher, August 20, 2016.

The dissertation

Dissertation: [PDF] [HTML] (as of December 24, 2015, just prior to submission)


Archived at: https://parts-unknown.org/drupal7/sites/default/files/dissertation-2015/Benfell dissertation.pdf (public)

APA: Benfell, D. (2016). Conservative views on undocumented migration (Doctoral dissertation). Available from ProQuest Dissertations and Theses database. (UMI No. 1765416126)

Chicago note: David Benfell, "Conservative Views on Undocumented Migration" (doctoral dissertation, Saybrook, 2016). ProQuest (1765416126).

Chicago bibliography: Benfell, David. "Conservative Views on Undocumented Migration." PhD diss., Saybrook University, 2016. ProQuest (1765416126).


APA: Benfell, D. A. (2015). Conservative views on undocumented migration (Unpublished doctoral dissertation). Saybrook, Oakland, CA. doi: 10.13140/RG.2.1.4776.2001

Chicago note: David Benfell, "Conservative Views on Undocumented Migration" (doctoral dissertation, Saybrook, 2015), doi: 10.13140/RG.2.1.4776.2001

Chicago bibliography: Benfell, David. "Conservative Views on Undocumented Migration." PhD diss., Saybrook University, 2015. doi: 10.13140/RG.2.1.4776.2001

DOI: 10.13140/RG.2.1.4776.2001


I finished writing the dissertation on October 22, 2015; apart from one URL (changed for consistency as a content type within the content management system where I'm hosting all this), changes since that date are strictly limited to those suggested by my committee at and following my oral examination or by my APA proofreader, but there have been updates:

  • Representative Paul Ryan has been elected Speaker of the House of Representatives amid continuing concerns, which seem to have been vindicated at least in the short term, about the 'governability' of the Republican Party.2 John Boehner, Ryan's predecessor, exacted a high price from the authoritarian populist Freedom Caucus which had compelled Boehner's ouster, however, as Boehner worked with Democrats to "clean the barn," evading Freedom Caucus demands on Planned Parenthood funding, the budget, and the debt limit that had threatened to force a government shutdown.3 By falling on his own sword, Boehner fulfilled the functionalist conservative priority of 'governing' and pulled off final defeats over the authoritarian populists, leaving only a $1.1 trillion omnibus spending bill which, in its final form, authoritarian populists despised but Ryan shepherded through, upholding the functionalist conservative priority of avoiding a government shutdown. It seemed uncharacteristic, but so-called 'Freedom Caucus' members of Congress spun their loss by arguing that by following something closer to regular order and by consulting with them, Ryan was still an improvement over Boehner.4 Authoritarian populists back home were outraged, calling Ryan a RINO ("Republican In Name Only") and sought a candidate to challenge Ryan in the Wisconsin Republican primary.5

  • In this dissertation, I dismiss the paleoconservative grievance of the white race being under some sort of attack as unjustified. Research has since come to light suggesting that mortality rates are rising among middle-aged whites with no more than a high school level of education due to "deaths of despair": suicide, alcohol, and drugs.6 There is some question of causality:

    A study from the Commonwealth Fund released last year suggested that while suicide and substance abuse contributed to deaths of middle-aged white people, factors such as heart disease, diabetes, and respiratory disease also played a big role. These factors may themselves have causes, such as diet and lifestyle, that are independent of macro-economic changes.

    [Anne] Case and [Angus] Deaton agree that deaths from those factors are important, but emphasize that they see a large uptick in deaths from suicides, poisonings, and alcoholic liver disease among whites with lowest levels of educational attainment. This is in contrast to Europe, where people of all educational backgrounds are living longer, which suggests that there’s something unique among middle-aged Americans without a college education that’s making them sicker. It’s also in contrast to other Americans. For instance, whites aged 50-54 with a high-school degree or less had been dying at a rate 30 percent lower than that of that of all blacks in the same age group in 1999, but by 2015, their mortality rate was 30 percent higher than that of all blacks in that age group. Between 1998 and 2013, death rates for Hispanics fell as well.7

    Economic factors weigh heavily on this group.8 Further research conducted by the New York Times found that mortality rates among white adults, especially those aged 25 to 34 and especially those who are less educated, are also increasing in significant part due to drug overdoses. “It’s not medical care, it’s life,” Eileen Crimmins, a professor of gerontology at the University of Southern California, said. “There are people whose lives are so hard they break.”9 A survey suggests that working class white males feel that they are victims of discrimination; they blame inward migration and anti-discrimination laws.10 This problem should not be minimized:

    Case and Deaton argue that it’s not just poor job opportunities that are affecting this demographic, but rather, that these economic misfortunes build up and bleed into other segments of people’s lives like marriage and mental health. This drives them to alcoholism, drug abuse, and even suicide, they say, in a new paper released Thursday in advance of a conference, the Brookings Panel on Economic Activity.

    “As the labor market turns against them, and the kinds of jobs they find get worse and worse for people without a college degree, that affects them in other ways too,” Deaton told me.

    What differentiates Case and Deaton’s paper is this idea that as people get older and their fates deviate more and more from those of their parents, they struggle to keep their lives together.  The very act of doing worse than their parents’ generation—what Case and Deaton call “cumulative disadvantage”—is killing them.11

    Ross Douthat, a (probably traditionalist) conservative columnist for the New York Times, correctly points out, however, that unemployment rates are higher among non-white groups whose mortality rates continue to decline. Douthat speculates that these other groups must offer some form of cultural support that is unavailable to the afflicted white males.12 Andrew Cherlin, a sociologist at Johns Hopkins University, suggests that Douthat's question might be answered with reference group theory, an understanding that "our parents . . . were our first reference group," and thus that we "compar[e] our lives to the lives our parents were able to lead": Prospects for whites, especially white males, have declined since the relatively-prosperous (for whites) 1960s and 1970s while other groups faced greater discrimination in the past and are conversely seeing improved prospects.13

    In an interview, Deaton explained, “The cohort that entered the labor market in the ’70s on down, their jobs earnings and prospects are worse. That affected their marriage prospects. Marriages got screwed up. They had children out of wedlock. Their pain levels [are] going up.” All that contributes to the deaths of despair.14

    I would argue that because the criminal [in]justice system disproportionately targets people of color,15 this research should be broadened to include incarceration rates as an alternative to mortality—neither death nor imprisonment can be considered a desirable outcome. However, Case and Deaton's research clearly suggests that the authoritarian populist and paleoconservative view that they are targeted is not entirely unjustified, but it has been known for a while that they misplace blame from where it properly belongs—(functionalist conservative) wealthy (mostly) white (mostly) males—onto other subaltern folks.16

  • The 5th Circuit Court of Appeals has again upheld an injunction against President Barack Obama's executive order setting priorities on who should be deported first, an order many conservatives saw as an 'amnesty' for those Obama considered to be a lower priority for deportation.17 The Obama administration appealed to the Supreme Court,18 which failed to overturn it.19

  • In my discussion of the history of the relationship between people in the U.S. and Mexico, I omit mention of two 20th-century mass deportation programs. I had heard of one in the 1930s but I think not an Eisenhower-era program, known as "Operation Wetback," and failed to find either in my perusal of the history. These were highlighted in response to comments Republican presidential primary candidate Donald Trump made at a debate. Trump inaccurately portrayed the Eisenhower-era program as having deported 1.5 million people; the correct number is probably closer to 300,000. He also neglected the mass human tragedy of broken families and of U.S. citizens deported because they had the wrong skin color.20 The Mexican Repatriation, carried out by the Herbert Hoover administration in the 1930s, did deport over 1 million people, most of whom were U.S. citizens.21 The program that Trump proposes might "cost up to $300 billion to catch, detain, process through the courts and transport those 9 million back to their home countries."22 Further, "[i]f you think about what’s going on on the ground, basically the police looking for everybody, checking credentials, following people. You got a police state."23

  • I might better have chosen the term 'unauthorized migrants,' rather than 'undocumented migrants.'24 It is also possible to question my choice of the word hispanic over the words latino and latina to label the ethnicity of the migrants concerned. As near as I can determine, all of these terms are acceptable even if the people involved prefer to be referred to by their countries of origin; the migrants I focus on come from Mexico and, especially, Central America and all of these countries are principally Spanish-speaking (hence hispanic). They are also countries in the western hemisphere south of the United States (hence latin).25 However, I should probably confess that I was overly hasty in making this choice.

  • Some research supports the view that much of the vitriol directed against President Barack Obama is indeed racist,26 but one of my reasons for suspecting this is that the "birther" claim, that Obama was born in Kenya rather than Hawaii and is therefore not a "natural born citizen" eligible to serve as president, appears to me to be a blatant attack on Obama's origins. A similar claim has been made against Ted Cruz, a candidate for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination who was apparently born in Canada to a U.S. citizen mother and a then-Cuban (and, apparently, Canadian27) citizen father. In Cruz's case, an originalist interpretation of the U.S. Constitution may support such a claim.28 By this account, Cruz, who had earlier renounced his Canadian citizenship,29 is half-Cuban. By Obama's own account, he is "the son of a black man from Kenya and a white woman from Kansas."30 I find it interesting that such a "birther" claim never really seemd to gain much currency against the apparently lily white Senator John McCain, who won the 2008 Republican nomination for president and was born in the Panama Canal Zone, which was then, but is not now, a U.S. territory.31

  • Cliven Bundy, whose cattle the Bureau of Land Management had attempted to seize but had been prevented from doing so by armed men and had seemed successful in his defiance of the U.S. government,32 was arrested on arrival in Portland, Oregon, presumably en route to support the seizure of a wildlife refuge by a group led by his sons.33 Bundy and four others, including his sons, face charges including "conspiracy to commit an offense against the United States, conspiracy to impede or injure a federal officer, weapon use and possession, assault on a federal officer, threatening a federal law enforcement officer, obstruction, extortion to interfere with commerce, and interstate travel in aid of extortion."34