Topics and Thesis Statements for Papers & Presentations

Intro to American Politics

You may use any of these thesis statements as is, change any according to your liking, or compose a statement on your own. In any case, you must include the statement that you plan to use for your presentation and final paper along with your midterm exam. If you compose your own statement, you must also send me links to the sources that you plan to use.  This semester, midterms are due by midnight on Tuesday, March 24.  Please review the presentation schedule so that you are prepared to present on the date that you are assigned.

You must submit a highly polished and complete draft of your paper (at least 5 pages, sent as an email attachment with your name in the title, formatted in Microsoft Word) by Monday, April 20.  Corrected drafts will be returned by Monday, April 27.  Revised final drafts are due by Friday, May 1.

Remember that the thesis statement is the only part of your paper that you are not required to write in your own words.  No other part of the paper may be copied without attribution from an external source.  If you plagiarize any part of your paper, you will automatically fail the entire course.

Note: You must consult the Term Paper Checklist before you submit any work.

Typical Formula for Thesis Statements:

1st Sentence - General Observation   "Scholars once believed..."

2nd Sentence - Qualification  "In recent years, however, ..."

3rd Sentence - Statement of Strategy  "By..., this essay will show..." 

Web page option: If you are experienced in web design, and your grade on the midterm was "C" or above, you may create a web site instead of writing a final paper. If you choose this option, you must design the web site so that it achieves the same purpose as the paper, which is to support a thesis with reliable evidence, and to draw a conclusion based on research. You do not have to include as much text in your site as you would in the paper, but the text must be sufficient to show that you researched your topic carefully and that your perspective is based on evidence. You must also avoid grammatical and factual errors just as you would in a conventional term paper. You must check with me before you start working on your site, and you must also send me the URL of your site on April 20. Although you may still have some finishing touches to make, your site must be substantially completed by April 20.

Defining the Scope and Power of American Government: Federalism, Anti-Federalism, and other Issues in Constitutional Law

  • In Federalist #6, in defense of the ratification of the Constitution, Alexander Hamilton cited the defects of human nature to explain the need for vigorous federal government.  According to Hamilton, pretending that the States could maintain peace in the absence of strong federal authority, "would be to forget that men are ambitious, vindictive, and rapacious."1  In Federalist # 10, James Madison used less forceful language, but he also pointed to human imperfection to justify the expansion of federal power.  By comparing and contrasting Hamilton's and Madison's arguments, this essay will show that both viewed centralized government as the safest means to restrain the irrational impulses that drive human behavior.

  • Proponents of the doctrine of original intent contend that we are required either to follow the Constitution as was written or to change it if we choose to depart from the historical text. Rejecting this position, Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall publicly criticized the idea that constitutional questions should be settled according to the intentions of the men who wrote the original document. In support of Marshall’s conclusions, this essay will compare the opinion issued in Dred Scott v. Sandford in 1857 to the decision reached in Brown v. Board of Education in 1954.

  • The Tea Party is widely seen as a grassroots movement motivated by secular commitments to small government, free markets, and individual rights. However, an examination of the commonalities among Tea Party supporters shows that the majority are most interested in increasing the role of religion and, more specifically, conservative Christianity in American political life. By summarizing recent surveys of the Tea Party movement, this essay will explore its members' efforts to lower traditional boundaries between church and state in American politics.

Race & Politics Before & After the Civil War
  • Before the Civil War, abolitionists and supporters of women's suffrage united in a common struggle for equal rights. However, after black men won the right to vote, a split developed between civil rights leaders and proponents of women's right to vote. By examining the historical break between the civil rights and women's rights movements, this essay will explore how this split hindered the progress of equality in American politics.
  • One of the highest expectations of Barack Obama's presidency was that the election of the nation's first African-American president would transform the conversation about race relations in the United States. However, despite Obama's re-election in 2012, many people still contend that the exchange of ideas about race in America remains fundamentally unchanged. By analyzing various explanations for our apparent impasse on racial issues, this essay will explore why Obama's elevation to the Oval Office has yet to resolve the problem of race in American politics.

  • In 2008, in "Two Speeches on Race," historian Garry Wills compared an address that presidential candidate Barack Obama had recently given in Philadelphia to a speech made by presidential candidate Abraham Lincoln in New York City in 1860.  Although Wills' comparison is instructive, he misinterprets Lincoln's campaign pledge to do nothing about slavery as a brilliant political strategy.  By casting aside this effort to minimize Lincoln's racism in my own comparison between these two speeches, I will argue that the historical tendency to excuse the racial prejudices of prominent political leaders helps to explain why Obama was forced to contend with the irrational fears of white extremists so many decades later.

  • Before the award-winning film 12 Years a Slave opened in theaters, British-born director Steve McQueen castigated American film makers for their general failure to address brutalities of slavery, pointing out that fewer than twenty movies on the subject had been made in the U.S.  But while McQueen is right that Hollywood has overlooked the realities of slavery, the true story of Solomon Northup, whose account of his captivity in the deep South from 1841to1853 inspired 12 Years a Slave, was portrayed on screen, not for release in theaters, but in Solomon Northup's Odyssey, broadcast by American Playhouse in 1984. By comparing these two adaptations of Northup's memoir, this essay will explore the differences and similarities in their presentations of his harrowing ordeal. 

Capitalism & Democracy from the Industrial Revolution to the Post-Industrial Age  

  • In 2011, speaking in Osawatomie, Kansas, President Barack Obama evoked the Progressive-Era policies of Theodore Roosevelt, who delivered his "New Nationalism Speech" in the same city in 1910.  Unlike Roosevelt, who went to Osawatomie to dedicate a statue of abolitionist John Brown, Obama did not mention slavery, nor did he follow his predecessor's example by quoting Abraham Lincoln.  While it is ironic that the first African-American president ignored the legacy of slavery in a place so closely associated with the Civil War, it is even more striking that Obama's speech was in some ways profoundly more conservative than Roosevelt's.  By comparing these two historic orations, this essay will argue that Obama's ringing endorsement of free competition and his reluctance to regulate financial institutions shows how far to the right the U.S. has traveled since the Progressive Era.

  • As J. Robert Constantine observed in "Eugene V. Debs: An American Paradox," Debs was denounced as an extremist and jailed for advocating social and political reforms in the early twentieth century that were later widely accepted. By tracing the historical movement of some of Debs's ideas from the radical fringe to the mainstream, this essay will explore the socialist roots of prohibitions against child labor, equal pay for equal work, and other principles that have passed into orthodoxy in the United States.
  • When Barack Obama won the presidential election of 2008, it was widely assumed that he would be a transformational leader on par with Franklin Delano Roosevelt.  However, having started his second term, Obama has turned out to be far more moderate than his supporters had hoped and his detractors will admit.  By comparing major aspects of Roosevelt's New Deal with the policy achievements of the Obama Administration, this essay will explore the contrasts between them.

Race, Gender & Politics Before and After the Civil Rights and Women's Rights Movements
  • In "Du Bois's Crisis and Woman's Suffrage," Jean Fagan Yellin describes how the scholar and activist W.E.B. Du Bois differed with other African-American men, including civil rights advocates, in actively supporting voting rights for women.  Du Bois had no illusions about the racism of some of the white women who led the women's rights movement, but he maintained that these prejudices would fall away after women became more involved in political life. Drawing from Yellin's work and other sources, this essay will show how much more effective the women's rights and civil rights movements of the 1960's and 1970's would have been if both had heeded Du Bois's warning that progress toward equality would be hampered by divisions based on race and sex.       

  • Looking back on Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream Speech" fifty years after it was delivered, Gary Younge argued that the message that the civil rights leader meant to send in 1963 had yet to be properly understood in 2013.  Drawing from Younge's "The Misremembering of 'I Have a Dream,'" as well as other sources, this essay will explore the meaning of King's iconic address both from the perspective of his time and from the vantage point of the twenty-first century.

  • In 2012 and 2013, academics and activists looked back fifty years to the publication of Rachel Carson's Silent Spring (1962) and Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique (1963), books by two very different women that transformed American politics in similarly fundamental ways.  Carson's work played a central role in sparking the environmental movement, while Friedan's ushered in a new chapter in the struggle for women's rights.  Comparing the ferocious backlash that each of these landmarks ignited is instructive because it illustrates both how far the women's movement has come and the progress that has yet to be made toward realizing the environmental ideals that Carson espoused.           

  • In "Fear of a Black President," Ta-Nehisi Coates reflects on the political forces and historical legacies that have deterred President Barack Obama from focusing on racial issues since his election in 2008.  Drawing from Coates, as well as studies that document the over-sized role of race in shaping white Americans' view of Obama, this essay will explore the extent to which our first African-American president has been forced to downplay the problem of race in American politics.

  • In a commentary on the use of lethal force against African Americans, Isabel Wilkerson emphasizes the parallels between the lynchings that went unpunished during the Jim Crow era and the spate of recent cases in which police were vindicated after killing black men and women.  While the similarities that Wilkerson describes are haunting, public understanding of both lynching and police killings has been hampered by a lack of reliable information about the circumstances under which these deaths occurred.  However, two recent research projects promise to supply this information: Lynching in America: Confronting the Legacy of Racial Terror, a study undertaken by the Equal Justice Initiative to document the number of African Americans who were lynched between the Civil War and World War II, and Fatal Encounters, a database that is being developed by journalist and editor D. Brian Burghart to ascertain the overall number of people who have died in the course of interactions with police, as well as the race of those killed, since 2000.  By highlighting representative findings from each of these projects, this essay will evaluate Wilkerson's claims about the similarities between the lynchings of the past and the use of deadly force by the police today.

  • As police killings of African-Americans began to receive unprecedented attention in 2014, the lack of complete information about the number of cases in which law enforcement officials used lethal force against black people became increasingly hard to ignore.  To address this problem, President Obama convened a federal task force to review the FBI's annual reports on "justifiable homicides by law enforcement," and the reviewers quickly discovered that the agency had failed to count nearly half of those killed by police for almost a decade.  By examining the findings of the federal task force, as well as recent studies by academic experts and investigative journalists, this paper will provide an overview of the role of race in police killings in the United States.  

American Politics in an Age of Inequality
  • One of the interesting observations included in "Federal Government 101," a guide put together by the National Priorities Project (NPP), is that tax breaks will cost the federal government more than all of the appropriations included in the federal budget for 2014. These exceptions to general provisions, such as lower tax rates for hedge-fund managers, provide insight into increasing economic inequality because they mainly benefit people at the top of the income scale. By drawing from NPP and other sources, this essay will describe how our tax code has widened the gap between the upper and lower segments of American society.

  • In "Wall Street and Main Street: The Rise of Finance," Colin Gordon places the spreading gap between the top and the bottom of American society within the context of the growth of the financial services industry. By using specific examples drawn from a variety of sources, this paper will provide additional insight into Gordon's historical analysis of the role of the financial services in fostering inequality in the United States.

  • In 2014, in a presentation at the Conference on Economic Opportunity and Inequality in Boston, Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellin departed from the vague commentary typical of her predecessors by voicing specific concerns about the consequences of increasing inequality in the United States.  One of the problems Yellin cited as a growing threat to the long-term health of the economy was the unprecedented levels of student loan debt assumed by college graduates.  By summarizing Yellin's findings and exploring various proposals to relieve the burden of student loans, this essay will show that policymakers yet to deal with what is fueling student debt, which is the spiraling cost of tuition and fees combined with decreasing support for public colleges and universities.

  • The payday loan industry, which provides short-term loans to people who need quick cash, has come under fire for duping the poor into taking on unmanageable debt and charging sky-high interest rates.  However, in "What Good are Payday Loans?," Lisa J. Servon points out that real issue raised by these loans is not the predatory practices of unscrupulous lenders, but the constant emergency that low-wage workers face every day as they try to negotiate with poverty.  By exploring the economic conditions that drive so many people to borrow money at exorbitant rates, this essay will show that the payday loan industry can best be understood as one more symptom of increasing inequality in the United States.

  • In "Dumping in Dixie: Race, Class, and Environmental Quality," Robert D. Bullard showed how racial discrimination and the concentration of impoverished populations in blighted neighborhoods forces poor people to shoulder the health costs of greater exposure to toxins in their environment.  In "Unequal Exposure to Ecological Hazards 2005: Environmental Injustices in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts," Daniel R. Faber and Eric J. Krieg demonstrated that the patterns of injustice that Bullard found in the South have been recreated in the Bay State.  By examining how these patterns have affected residents in selected towns and cities, this essay will provide an overview of environmental inequality in Massachusetts.

  • In the mid-nineteenth century, when the productivity of labor reached new heights, and industrial workers faced sharply declining wages, Karl Marx and other radicals concluded that the crisis-ridden nature of capitalism would eventually lead the impoverished majority to overthrow the minority who owned most of the wealth.  While this global revolution never came to pass, twenty-first-century activists such as Naomi Klein contend that we currently face a similarly revolutionary moment.  According to Klein, the self-defeating operation of fossil-fuel based economies, in which the accumulation of wealth depends upon intensifying climate change, has created such a level of crisis that the miseries caused by the free market system can no longer be managed by the ruling elite. By examining the arguments made by Klein and others, this essay will explore the notion that the environmental catastrophes that capitalism has set into motion will prove fatal to the system itself.

Miscellaneous Topics

One of the most interesting and overlooked aspects of the advent of communications technology in American society is that it dealt an unprecedented blow to the supremacy of the testimony of white men in courts of law. Previously, the word of a white man would almost always carry more weight than that of a woman, a child, or an adult male member of a minority group. In order to explore the anxiety created by the introduction of visual and audio evidence into the American legal system, this essay will examine the first Supreme Court ruling on wiretapping, Olmstead v. United States.

In 1973, in Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court granted women qualified access to abortion. Since then, anti-abortion forces have steadily reduced the scope of abortion rights. By summarizing landmark cases before and after Roe v. Wade, this essay will provide a brief history of decreasing access to reproductive choices in the United States.

In 1973, in Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court included the decision to obtain an abortion within a general zone of privacy that is implicit in various amendments to the Constitution. Although privacy rights expanded throughout the twentieth century, the boundaries between public and private are often difficult or impossible to fix. By examining the logic used in this landmark decision, this essay will explore the problems inherent in defining access to abortion as a subset of privacy rights.

In recent years, same-gender marriage has gained popular acceptance with dizzying speed. One of the primary reasons for this shift in public opinion is that tens of thousands of gay and lesbian couples have tied the knot without provoking the social collapse that used to be commonly predicted.  In fact, as the expansion of marriage rights has produced increasing numbers of stable and close-knit families, many of the arguments that conservatives once used against same-gender marriage have been adopted by its supporters.  By recounting how advocates of marriage equality took the 'family values' mantle away from their opponents, this essay will explain why the tables turned so quickly in the national debate.

You can find additional thesis statements related to this class on my Gender, Law & Politics page.  Please check with me if you would like to use or revise one of these statements.

Additional source: Right to Die