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.