Beware: Your Thesis Will Come Back to Haunt You
As a new(er) observer of the political scene, I have to ask, have pundits and strategists always gone back to candidates undergraduate thesis to dig up “the truth”?
The most recent victim is Elena Kagan, who wrote her senior undergraduate thesis at Princeton on the dissolution of the Socialist Party in New York City titled, “To The Final Conflict: Socialism In New York City, 1900-1933.” Newsweek did a meticulous read-through and declared it a “meticulous and balanced academic work;” It is a scholarly account of the internal divisions within the Party, concluding that internal strife rather than outside pressure doomed the the Party. Scandalous! The thesis scare-tactic was also brought up against Michelle Obama who wrote about race at Princeton, “ Princeton-Educated Blacks and the Black Community.” How dare she use her thesis to examine a topic so close to her own life experience!
Although they keep trying, the thesis-attack doesn’t work. Kagan’s thesis does use the word socialist, otherwise, there’s not much there. Likewise, Obama’s thesis proved nothing. The thesis attack, however, won’t go away because it feeds the conspiratorial needs of the right. The obvious reason a thesis is not necessarily an accurate barometer of someone’s perspective is that they are necessarily the work of someone from a long time ago, when they were young, and when academic scholarship was a new endeavor. Opinions change. Interests change. Besides, most people really aren’t radicals, at least on the left. And if they are, they probably haven’t spent their adult lives masking that radicalism in order to navigate the ranks of the moderate Democratic Party so that one day they can unleash their radicalism as a Supreme Court justice. That’s just not the radical’s game plan.
Yet this meme permeates right-wing mythology of the left (Obama hid his Islamic beliefs and African heritage for 46 years so that he could destroy America once elected president). They thrive on finding hidden radical agendas or Nazi connections in moderate liberals. And the idea that someone has harbored radical ideas for 30 years, as demonstrated in a thesis, is great fodder for this conservative theme.
The only thesis attack that has actually impacted an election the Virginia gubernatorial election last year, in which the Washington Post revealed that then candidate Bob McDonnell had, in 1989, written a socially reactionary master’s thesis. McConnel still won, but his ratings took a dive. Unlike Kagan or Obama, his thesis seemed pretty relevant; first, because the material was more extreme than the others, and second, because it was written comparatively recently. Written two years before McDonnell entered public office, his thesis called working women “detrimental” to family and argued that contraception should be withheld from unmarried couples. There is a difference between scholarly questions explored by undergraduates and policy prescriptions made by 30-something year old graduate students at evangelical universities. The difference makes one relevant to the evaluation of a candidate.
This is why Kagan’s thesis is a non-issue, except for those who thrive on baseless conspiracies. And thank god, because if Kagan’s thesis were a serious offense, then my future in public life would be ruined. My thesis was also about a New York socialist from the 1910s and how the left has been crippled by internal disputes. A friend of mine wrote about Southern identity before the Civil War. Is she a neo-confederate? Luckily for her, that may not be the political liability race or socialism seems to be (at least within the new McDonnell administration).
Pema Levy is a staff writer for Campus Progress.
- Obama Threatens To Veto House Republican’s Student Loan Bill
- A Stronger Middle Class Leads to More Investment in Postsecondary Education
- Craving a Psychological Thriller? Go No Further Than Your Student Loan Bill [Film Review]
- House Proposes ‘Simple’ Solution to Student Loan Rate-Hike
- Student Loan Refinancing Bill to Be Unveiled This Week