Right seizes on false claim that Kagan's thesis shows she's a socialist
Research ››› ››› SARAH PAVLUS
Sean Hannity and Glenn Beck have falsely suggested Elena Kagan's college thesis shows she is a socialist or radical. In fact, Kagan's thesis did not express support for socialism or radicalism, and regardless, conservatives -- including Hannity -- previously said that nominees' political views are irrelevant to the confirmation process.
Right wing resurrected false claim that Kagan's thesis shows she's a socialist or radical
2009 Flashback: Weekly Standard's Goldfarb wrote that Kagan's thesis made clear her "radical" "political sympathies." In a May 6, 2009, Weekly Standard blog post, Michael Goldfarb wrote that Kagan's college thesis -- which was titled "To the Final Conflict: Socialism in New York City, 1900-1933" -- demonstrates Kagan's supposed "radical roots" and that "her political sympathies (at the time) seem quite clear -- and radical."
2010: Beck and crew suggested Kagan "was endorsing" socialism. On his May 10 radio show, Glenn Beck said, "The new justice ... has been named, Elena Kagan. Another left activist." Beck discussed Kagan's Princeton thesis, claiming that it was a "call to action" for socialists, while show producer Pat Gray said it "sounded like she was endorsing" socialism.
2010: Hannity asked, "So is this just another Obama radical being elevated to the highest levels of our government?" On the May 10 edition of his Fox News show, Hannity said: "Now the administration may also have been a fan of Kagan's senior thesis, in which she explored the history of the socialist movement here in the U.S. So is this just another Obama radical being elevated to the highest levels of our government?"
2010: NRO's Whelan said thesis showed Kagan was "well on the Left." In a May 3 National Review blog post, Ed Whelan cited Kagan's thesis as evidence that she "was well on the Left" at the time. Whelan wrote: "To be clear: I am certainly not contending that Kagan's views might not have changed over the years; I am merely pointing out the utter dearth of evidence that Kagan might secretly harbor conservative views."
Kagan is not and was not a radical or socialist; her thesis explored historical questions about socialism
Kagan did not endorse socialism in her thesis. Kagan did not express personal support for socialism or radicalism in her 130-plus-page undergraduate senior thesis, which she wrote as a history student at Princeton in 1981. Rather, she explored the historical question of why socialism did not become a major political movement in the United States as it had elsewhere in the world. Specifically, Kagan discussed rise and fall of socialism in New York City in the early 20th century, with a particular emphasis on why the movement collapsed.
2009: Kagan's thesis adviser told Salon that Kagan "is not a socialist" and that she was asking "an absolutely standard" historical question in her thesis. In a May 8, 2009, post, Salon.com senior writer Alex Koppelman quoted Kagan's thesis advisor, Princeton Professor Sean Wilentz disputing claims that Kagan's thesis indicates she's a socialist:
Princeton History Professor Sean Wilentz, who served as Kagan's thesis advisor (and who has previously written for Salon) told Salon that she is not a socialist, and that the question she was asking with the paper "was an absolutely standard" one about why the U.S. hasn't had the same kind of radical movements that have flourished in the rest of the world.
"Was she sympathetic to the socialists? Only insofar as the socialists were raising urgent issues about industry and labor even before unions were quite legal nationwide," Wilentz says. He added, "I'm proud of [the thesis]... I wasn't the only one who liked it. She went on to win the Sachs fellowship to Oxford, which is about as prestigious a fellowship as Princeton awards."
2009 Daily Princetonian report on Kagan's thesis extensively quoted Kagan's college peers asserting she wasn't a political radical. From a May 15, 2009, Daily Princetonian article:
In light of this speculation, Michael Goldfarb '02 argued in a blog post last week for The Weekly Standard that it is important to closely examine Kagan's undergraduate thesis on socialist movements in early 20th-century New York, saying it indicates political attitudes "sympathetic to the socialists."
Several people here at the University who knew her as an undergraduate, however, said Kagan is not a political radical.
"She's been called a left-wing crazy for what she wrote under my direction," said history professor Sean Wilentz, who was Kagan's thesis adviser. "I gather that [the] publicists ... of the conservatives are trying to raise all kinds of bogeymen around her. That is a mark of how formidable a candidate she would be."
Calling her "the opposite of an ideologue," Wilentz added that he thinks Kagan would be a "very pragmatic liberal" voice if nominated to the Supreme Court.
"There's nothing dogmatic about her approach," said Steven Bernstein '81, who worked with Kagan at The Daily Princetonian, where she served as the editorial chairman of the 104th Managing Board. He noted especially that "[Kagan's] views on presidential power and executive power were sometime more in line with Republicans."
Marc Fisher '80, one of Kagan's classmates at the University and someone who also knew her from her days at Hunter College High School in New York, also emphasized Kagan's moderate approach during her college years to social issues like apartheid in South Africa.
"She was not the kind of person who would get involved in [anti-apartheid] protests [at Princeton]," Fisher said. "She could step back and observe. She was not one of the people who would bang on doors and hold sit-ins."
Fisher and other classmates also said Kagan was a thoughtful and studious undergraduate during her years at the University.
"[Kagan] was very deliberate in her thought process-extremely focused and balanced in her judgments," Jason Brown '81 said. "A lot of college kids would start with the conclusion and then look for the facts to back it up. I didn't have that sense with Elena."
Fisher echoed Brown's sentiment, saying, "She has always been a very devoted and serious student and someone who's always had a purpose about her."
In 2010, Kagan thesis adviser re-asserted: "Elena Kagan is about the furthest thing from a socialist. Period. And always had been. Period." From a May 3 Daily Princetonian article:
Under [history professor Sean] Wilentz's direction, Kagan spent her senior year conducting research for her thesis on the history of the socialist movement, which was titled "To the Final Conflict: Socialism in New York City, 1900--1933." Her thesis has been criticized by her opponents for revealing sympathies with the Socialist Party and became a source of controversy when she was a potential nominee for Associate Justice David Souter's seat on the Supreme Court last spring -- a position which instead went to Sonia Sotomayor '76 -- and when she was nominated for her current position of solicitor general in January 2009.
"Americans are more likely to speak of a golden past than of a golden future, of capitalism's glories than of socialism's greatness," she wrote in her thesis. "Conformity overrides dissent; the desire to conserve has overwhelmed the urge to alter. Such a state of affairs cries out for explanation."
She called the story of the socialist movement's demise "a sad but also a chastening one for those who, more than half a century after socialism's decline, still wish to change America ... In unity lies their only hope."
But Wilentz defended Kagan against her critics, noting that she was adept at removing her personal beliefs from her academic research on labor and radical history. "Sympathy for the movement of people who were trying to better their lives isn't something to look down on," he explained. "Studying something doesn't necessarily mean that you endorse it. It means you're into it. That's what historians do."
Kagan said in her thesis acknowledgements that her brother's "involvement in radical causes led me to explore the history of American radicalism in the hope of clarifying my own political ideas."
Yet even if a deeper understanding of the Socialist movement helped Kagan understand her own beliefs, she did not follow her brother's path.
"Elena Kagan is about the furthest thing from a socialist. Period. And always had been. Period," Wilentz explained.
Republicans didn't address thesis during Kagan's previous confirmation process
Kagan's thesis has long been publicly available, but Republicans did not raise the issue during Kagan's solicitor general confirmation. The title of Kagan's thesis is publicly available on Princeton's website, and the thesis itself can be easily obtained by contacting Princeton. Thus, if Republicans actually believed the thesis is evidence that Kagan harbored socialist views, they presumably would have raised the issue during her confirmation for solicitor general in 2009. But at no point during Kagan's February 10, 2009, Senate hearing, the written questions following the hearing, or the March 19, 2009, floor debate on her nomination did any senator -- Republican or Democratic -- address Kagan's undergraduate thesis or concerns that she held socialist beliefs.
Conservatives previously argued "nominees' personal opinions are irrelevant"
Hannity: "[T]he nominees' personal opinions are irrelevant." In pushing the false claim that Kagan's thesis shows she is a socialist, conservatives have also ignored their own standard that a nominee's personal and political views are "irrelevant" to the confirmation process. For example, on the June 28, 2001, edition of Fox News' Hannity & Colmes (from the Nexis database), Hannity asserted: "But I -- but what bothers me about this -- the reason that the Senate has advice and consent and it doesn't include an ideological litmus test is because the nominees' personal opinions are irrelevant, as they're supposed to set those aside and rule as a matter of law. And it seems to me that they want to disqualify anybody because they have an opinion but which they're supposed to put aside."
Wash. Times criticized Schumer for "outrageous rationale for rejecting judicial nominees based on ideology." In a July 24, 2001, editorial, The Washington Times wrote: "Mr. Schumer lay down what can only be described as an outrageous rationale for rejecting judicial nominees based on ideology; or, more specifically, for rejecting nominees for thinking beyond the 'mainstream' -- the Democratic 'mainstream,' that is, particularly on political flash points such as abortion and race" (from Nexis).
Wash. Times advanced conservative argument that opposing a nominee on basis of "political views" is "outside the mainstream of our entire constitutional tradition." In a June 5, 2001, editorial, the Times quoted Bush judicial nominee Christopher Cox's complaint to Sen. Barbara Boxer that she had "made it clear that you believe it is acceptable to oppose a prospective judicial nominee on the basis of his or her political views" but "this view is outside the mainstream of our entire constitutional tradition." The editorial went on to assert: "Once upon a time, this was the stuff of high school civics courses. Now, U.S. senators such as Mrs. Boxer and her ideological cohorts on the Judiciary Committee seem to be in dire need of remedial help."
Conservative activist Wendy Long: A nominee's "personal and political views are irrelevant." In an October 3, 2005, CNN appearance discussing Harriet Miers' nomination to the Supreme Court (from the Nexis database), Wendy Long, legal counsel to the conservative Judicial Confirmation Network and a former law clerk to Justice Clarence Thomas, said: "[S]he pretty clearly signals that she shares his [President Bush's] judicial philosophy. And the key to that is, politics is different from judging. They will not legislate from the bench. Her personal and political views are irrelevant. She's just going to very modestly and strictly interpret the constitution and laws. It's a lot of what we heard from John Roberts, but it's the president's judicial philosophy."
Conservatives criticized Dems for focusing on things Alito did in college
WSJ criticized Dems for focusing on Alito's "ancient association" with group at Princeton. From a January 12, 2006, Wall Street Journal editorial:
It's a sign of how little Democrats have on Supreme Court nominee Samuel Alito that on Day Three of his confirmation hearings they were still pounding away on his membership in an obscure Princeton alumni group that flowered briefly at the judge's alma mater. They can't touch him on credentials or his mastery of jurisprudence, so they're trying to get him on guilt by ancient association.
Senators Ted Kennedy and Chuck Schumer did their best yesterday to imply that Judge Alito was racist and sexist by linking the nominee with the views of some members of Concerned Alumni of Princeton, which back in the 1970s and 1980s took issue with university policies on coeducation and affirmative action. The questioning was mean enough that Judge Alito's wife left the hearing room after GOP Senator Lindsey Graham apologized for the comments of his fellow Senators. "Are you really a closet bigot?" Mr. Graham asked the nominee. "No, sir, you're not."
Judge Alito doesn't recall being a member of CAP, but says that if he was it must have been because he shared CAP's concern about keeping ROTC on campus. For the sin of not recalling, he was then tarred as dishonest. Senator Kennedy demanded to know whether Judge Alito had read various articles on CAP that had appeared more than two decades ago, including an editorial that ran in these columns on January 17, 1985.
Much as we like our own work, even we confess to having forgotten about that editorial. We'd like to think Senator Kennedy reads us so assiduously that he knew just where to look, but something tells us his staff dug it up from our computer archives. But we appreciate the unlikely plug. (You can find the editorial here.) As for Judge Alito's prospects, if this irrelevant arcana is the most his opponents have, he can start measuring his new judicial robes.
GOP Sen. Allen approvingly quoted WSJ "ancient association" criticism. From a January 25, 2006, floor statement by then-Senator George Allen (R-VA):
Judge Alito was even forced to defend the statements of others when he was questioned about the Concerned Alumni of Princeton . That is a group that apparently Judge Alito joined when he was a member of the Armed Services because he didn't agree with the way the military was treated on the Princeton campus. As a result, some of the Democratic Senators tried to diminish Judge Alito. The Wall Street Journal had an editorial on January 12 of this year where they said they are trying to find him guilty by ``ancient association.'' Let me quote from the Wall Street Journal editorial page of that date.
They can't touch him on credentials or his mastery of jurisprudence, so they're trying to get him on guilt by ancient association. Senators TED KENNEDY and CHUCK SCHUMER did their best yesterday to imply that Judge Alito was racist and sexist by linking the nominee with the views of some members of Concerned Alumni of Princeton , which back in the 1970s and 1980s took issue with university policies on coeducation and affirmative action.
Of course, Judge Alito said he didn't agree with any of that. He was concerned about fair access for our military recruiters on campus.
The closing lines in the Wall Street Journal editorial stated:
As for Judge Alito's prospects, if this irrelevant arcania is the most his opponents have, he can start measuring his new judicial robes.
Conservatives have praised Kagan's judgment, consider her mainstream
Conservative activist Manny Miranda: Kagan is "a perfectly reasonably nominee for a Democratic president." On May 11, Dana Milbank wrote in The Washington Post: "One smart conservative activist, Manuel Miranda of the Third Branch Conference, gave Obama credit for disappointing the left: 'The president must be commended for shunning left wing activists who demanded that he select a Supreme Court nominee who could promise results for the clients that fund their advocacy. He selected a perfectly reasonable nominee for a Democratic president.'"
Reagan Solicitor General Charles Fried endorsed Kagan's nomination, calling her "not ideological." The Huffington Post reported on April 9 that Charles Fried -- solicitor general during the Reagan administration -- "said that he'd support a Kagan pick." Fried reportedly said: "She is a supremely intelligent person, really one of the most intelligent people I have encountered, and I have met a lot of them, as one does in this business. She is very adroit politically. ... She has quite a strong personality and a winning personality. I think she's an effective, powerful person and a very, very intelligent person, and a very hardworking and serious person." Fried reportedly added that Kagan was "not ideological" and advised Republicans to support her.
Committee for Justice's Curt Levey reportedly believes Kagan is "in the political mainstream." From a March 20, 2009, Associated Press article:
Kagan had little trouble winning confirmation as solicitor general, though only seven Republicans backed her. The 61-31 vote was seen as a warning to Obama that Senate Republicans "are not going to roll over" despite the hefty Democratic majority in Congress and Obama's solid win last year, said Curt Levey, executive director of the conservative Committee for Justice.
Yet Levey acknowledged that Republicans probably would not be able to block Kagan's nomination to the Supreme Court if Obama were to have the chance to fill a vacancy. "Let's face it, we probably will not be able to stop someone like that for the Supreme Court," Levey said, describing Kagan as liberal but in the political mainstream.
Bush assistant AG: "Kagan combines principle, pragmatism, and good judgment better than anyone I have ever met." In a letter supporting Kagan's nomination for solicitor general, Jack Goldsmith -- former assistant attorney general for the Office of Legal Counsel during the George W. Bush administration -- stated: "It might seem over the top to say that Kagan combines principle, pragmatism, and good judgment better than anyone I have ever met. But it is true."
Starr, Olson and bipartisan group of former solicitors general: Kagan held in "high regard" by "persons of a wide variety of political and social views." In a letter sent by people who "serv[ed] as Solicitor General over the past quarter century, from 1985 to 2009," Charles Fried, Kenneth Starr, Drew Days, Walter Dellinger, Seth Waxman, Theodore Olson, Paul Clement, and Gregory Garre stated:
The well-deserved stature that Kagan has achieved in the legal profession will enhance her tenure as Solicitor General, ensuring that, within the executive branch, her voice and the conclusions reached by the Solicitor General will be accorded the highest respect. The extraordinary skill she has demonstrated in bringing to Harvard an impressive array of new scholars, her ability to manage and lead a complex institution, and the high regard in which she is held by persons of a wide variety of political and social views, suggest that she will excel at the important job of melding the views of various agencies and departments into coherent positions that advance the best interests of the national government.
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- Government, Nominations & Appointments, The Judiciary
- Fox News Channel, The Weekly Standard, Premiere Radio Networks, National Review Online
- Sean Hannity, Glenn Beck, Michael Goldfarb, Ed Whelan
- Glenn Beck Program, Hannity
- Elena Kagan