By Byron Cohen (CMC ‘16), Founder and Editor-in-Chief Emeritus
Professor Areshidze walked slowly around the classroom, a well-worn and aggressively annotated copy of John Locke’s Second Treatise On Government in his hand. Smiling, he read, “[t]he reigns of good princes have been always most dangerous to the liberties of their people: for when their successors, managing the government with different thoughts, would draw the actions of those good rulers into precedent, and make them the standard of their prerogative, as if what had been done only for the good of the people was a right in them to do, for the harm of the people, if they so pleased.”
To my surprise these turned out to be fighting words, sparking a heated class argument about Lockean prerogative and the proper limits of executive power that spanned questions surrounding the current era of mass-surveillance, the president’s authority to initiate military operations without congressional approval, and even torture. The debate was passionate, with ideas flying back and forth around the room, thesis and antithesis, students exchanging friendly intellectual jabs as fast as the words could tumble from our mouths. The air pulsed with an electric energy, pregnant with the deepest questions about who we are as a people and how we should govern ourselves—questions which often seem abstract and at a remove from daily life, but which are ultimately profoundly important. The whole class was engaged, engines running, wheels spinning.
Then, seemingly all of a sudden, class was over. As we trudged out of our classroom in Kravis Lower Court under the hot, sleepy Claremont sun, something changed almost immediately. The same students who had just minutes earlier fervently argued over deep questions of political philosophy, constitutional law, and public policy moved almost instantaneously to the subject of where the party that night would be. I was not surprised by this rapid shift, but I was a bit unnerved. Perhaps I read too much into that moment of abrupt transition, but it made me uneasy because it brought to mind the uncomfortable fact that sincere and intellectually rigorous civic debate is unfortunately more rare than it should be.
It was that day that I decided to help build a campus culture that would in some small way help sustain the kind of meaningful conversation about law and public policy that had abruptly ended as class ran out. I am deeply grateful to so many of my classmates at the Claremont Colleges who chose to do just that by embarking with me on the journey of building this journal, which I am glad to see is continuing to grow and thrive long after I graduated from CMC.
If our current political moment teaches us anything, it shows us that the Madisonean system of checks and balances that safeguards our republic is not immune to atrophy, nor is this system self-driving. Rather, our political system’s health and proper function depend on an educated citizenry actively committed and perpetually re-committed to substantive participation in our shared civic life, bound together by broadly shared liberal democratic values, even as we vigorously contest the precise meaning of those values. That kind of substantive and respectful civic participation involves construction of inclusive discursive communities. Building these communities is hard—it is a perpetual civic challenge handed down from generation to generation, never complete, replete with setbacks. Nevertheless, if we want our democracy to not only survive but also to thrive, we cannot let the conversation stop.
Byron Cohen is an alumnus of Claremont McKenna College, where he studied Philosophy, Politics, & Economics (PPE), was elected to Phi Beta Kappa, and graduated with honors in 2016. As a senior at Claremont McKenna, Byron was awarded a Senator George Mitchell Scholarship to pursue graduate study in Ireland, and completed a master’s degree in public health at University College Dublin in 2017.