Friday, March 20, 2015

Senator Cotton's Thesis

Arkansas’s freshman Senator Thomas Cotton is a comer.  Not yet 40 years old, he is a graduate of Harvard College and Harvard Law School, a veteran of the Iraq War, and a Tea Party favorite.  He vaulted into the news recently as the author of the letter to the Iranian government signed by 47 Senators, warning that any agreement they might reach with President Obama might not last.  Having read that he majored in Government at Harvard and became a protégé of conservative Professor Harvey Mansfield, and that his senior thesis dealt with the Federalist papers, I checked to see if the thesis (like my own) was in the Harvard University Archives.  It was, and yesterday I went and read it.  Entitled “Irrationality and Politics: The Federalist and Deliberative Democracy,” it was an informative experience, laden with irony. Less than twenty years after writing it, Cotton has become just the kind of politician the thesis warns against.

The design of a senior thesis is critical to its success, and Cotton and his tutor came up with a straightforward formula.  (The tutor was not Harvey Mansfield, who may therefore have been one of the graders of the thesis.) The thesis simply compares two texts with different views of how American politics should work.  The first, which was then very recent, was Democracy and Disagreement, by Dennis Thompson and Amy Gutmann; the second was the Federalist Papers.  Gutmann and Thompson advocated “deliberative democracy,” involving the continuous, intense involvement of the whole citizenry in the making of laws.  The second was the Federalist Papers.  Here Cotton made an interesting decision that saved himself a lot of work.  Decades ago, modern textual analysis which of the three authors of the Federalist—Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay—had written each of the individual essays, but Cotton decided simply to refer to the author as “Publius” throughout, as they did at the time, with the excuse that that is how the authors wanted the papers to be read.  That saved him the trouble of distinguishing the views of Hamilton, Madison and Jay on the issues he was interested in, but his tutor evidently went along and his readers (of which the tutor is never one) apparently did not mind.  

Essentially Cotton argued, clearly and repetitively, that Publius, following Aristotle, did not trust the mass of the people or direct democracy, and argued for the new Constitution precisely because it kept the people at an appropriate distance from the government.  Now it is quite possible that a reader of The Federalist with a different agenda might be able to paint a very different picture, but Cotton had no trouble supporting his arguments with quotations. Publius, he points out, wrote that “the passions of men will not conform to the dictates of justice without constraint.”  Factions, including majority factions, were united by passion, not reason, which could threaten the rights of other citizens and “the permanent and aggregate interests of the community.” Such passions could be religious, as well as political.  He also argued, in one of his more debatable and less supported points, that Publius, in contrast to Gutmann and Thompson, had no faith that education could ease this problem.  Publius’s solution, he argued, was to extend the sphere of politics as widely as possible, making it harder for local factions to dominate, or for a popular faction to pass unwise legislation.  A second solution was to encourage commerce, which would tend to unite the people together against factions.

According to Cotton, Publius mistrusted the House of Representatives because it was elected every two years, making the members too responsive to popular passions, but trusted the Senate, becaus3e of its six year term, to be more carefully deliberative and foster more stability in government, which was essential to progress.  Instability, various essays argued, would encourage foreign interference in America, poison “the blessings of liberty itself;” gives advantages to “the moneyed few over the industrious and uninformed mass of the people,” and allows the few to take advantage of changes in government.  It also discouraged entrepreneurship and it weakens the people’s attachment to their government.  The Senate’s six year terms would encourage ambitious Senators to show patience, wisdom, and concern for the common good, rather than yield to momentary passions. Lastly, Cotton argued that Publius wanted to promote “an unthinking reverence” for the Constitution to shield it from popular passions and protect it against changes.  

Cotton’s thesis was pure intellectual analysis. It contains no specific historical references of any kind and makes no attempt to cite actual events to validate the points of Publius or refute those of Gutmann and Thompson.  This was another instance of carefully limiting his design, and the design and execution paid off.  The thesis must have been awarded a grade either of magna cum laude (with high honors) or summa cum laude (with highest honors), since only such theses are retained in the archives.  Because the work was based almost entirely on two medium-sized texts, it could not have been particularly demanding to prepare.  Cotton was evidently a young man in a hurry—he took advantage of the opportunity to graduate in three years—and he found a relatively painless way to write a successful thesis.  These qualities have evidently served him well ever since, and he is now being mentioned as a future presidential candidate.

It so happens that I think that the skepticism about popular passions expressed by the authors of The Federalist was well founded, although their contemporaries discovered within 40 more years that the Constitution could easily survive the expansion of the franchise to include all white males.  The irony, of course, is that Cotton himself now holds office as a member of one of the most passionate, regional and religious factions ever to emerge within American politics, the Tea Party.  He and his Republican colleagues are passionately opposed to the whole trend of government over the last century. For the last four years, the Republican-dominated House of Representatives has played exactly the role Cotton seemed to fear in 1998: driven by the Tea Party faction (which included Cotton in 2013-14), it has repeatedly passed radical legislation that both responds to and arouses the passion of its followers.  The Tea Party has a narrow regional base, and they control the Senate, where Cotton sits, only because the disparity in the populations of the various states has become so enormous.  They are hostile to critical aspects of modern science and their trust in the literal word of the scriptures would be quite astonishing to Hamilton, Jefferson, and Jay.  They have shown no appetite for reasoned deliberation.  Cotton certainly understood certain key aspects of the Federalist in the late 1990s when he wrote his thesis, but I do wish that he and his Republican colleagues might take the time to reread them now.


Bozon said...


great post.

It seems to me that Gingrich had a somewhat similar, academic, pedigree.....

all the best

ed boyle said...

More radicalization coming from younger generation does not promise a good future in US or abroad. Such people are ideological and serve corrupt, ideological interests. 'Peace in our times' is not coming. Achmadineschad was a rabble rouser. Do we need that sort in the White house. Obama is criticized but maybe only much worse is coming in our future. Politics attracts ideologues and funded are only corrupt yes men. Perhaps the likes of Mccain and Nuland and Hillary are hardnosed, war mongerers but if the next generation of politicians ups the ante, throws all caution to the wind. Cotton as a young vet who wants more war does not bode well for relations with middle east, china, russia.

As economy slides politicians become more aggressive. Structural reforms, military savings not considered although 20% of Americans on food assistance, half underemployed, unemployed, most highly indebted, without savings. Washington and Wall Street live in own world like some meaningless internet forum, only their policies affect everyone else in the whole world, not as Hamilton and Jefferson, a couple of guys on the edge of the world. Military, economic hegemony is dangerous combined with foolish, lazy, hypocritical, corrpt people like Cotton. The fix is in and the voter has no power however(gerrymandering, lobbying) so only extremists come to power.Even the population has sorted itself out geographically according to ideolog making it clearer. Is civil war in USA or global war more likely or just economic collapse as rich collect all income growth for themselves due to power monopoly. Endgame roman empire.

Unknown said...

This is really an excellent post. Your insights into the process of thesis are revealing, both for the process and the advantage that Cotton achieved by shortcutting his research, which marks him as an opportunist. (Plus, a subtle indictment of the University.) Well educated Tea Party favorites are the Ross Perot's of today's political scene. The advantage they see is a movement of a white, older, voting, socially fearful, sometimes racist segment of US population that is generally deeply disappointed with the lack of achievement in lives for which blame is sought to lie on anything but personal shortcomings, including government. These, led by political opportunists. Cotton and other Tea Party members recognize the opportunity to play on these fears and disappointments to achieve power. No educated, much less Harvard educated person truly believes that evolution is a canard, that global warming is not influenced by human activity, that supply side economics have not been disproved in practice, or that ACA leading to an overall healthier population is not advantageous to the country. Tea Party congressional members, therefore, are opportunists hitching their personal fortunes to a movement that requires public hypocrisy. To what end? They cannot govern according to Tea Party principles: they would either be thrown out and the Republican Party consigned to an historical artifact; or in the worst case US democracy would die the death of tyrannical methods for them to remain in power; or, the most likely scenario, that the American public would eventually recognize the Tea Party and its ideas as the dangerous fringe element it is and it would devolve in the same manner as American communism and its counterpoint, McCarthyism.

Bruce Wilder said...

I liked this post a great deal, though it tantalized more than it satisfied. I often wonder to myself, wtf are these people thinking?
The politics of the Tea Party does seem to me to be the nemesis of rational deliberation, and, yet, I wonder if the weakness of the relict Left, represented here by the political philosophy of Dennis Thompson and Amy Gutmann, doesn't play as large a part as the self-confidence of an opportunistic conservatism. As you seem to imply, it was a carefully "designed" thesis: the liberal strawman was no doubt chosen for ease of refutation. Thompson and Gutmann seem to be purveying so much drivel, including a variation on the naive pretence Obama brought to office, of changing the political culture.
You say that Cotton warned against the kind of politician he became, but I wonder if that view isn't the kind of profound misunderstanding that undermined liberal politics continually during the rise and now impending eclipse of the Baby Boom generation. If he seems to have taken his own thesis as a blueprint for his career, maybe that's how it should be read -- maybe he doesn't share "our" value judgements.
The generations that built the New Deal and led in WWII did not imagine that they shared values with their opponents.