Lessons from Political Science: Why it’s Worth It

I’m in the home stretch. I have a month left until I graduate with a degree in political science. I’ve been an executive legislative intern for the California State Senator that represents my hometown. I’ve been a district intern for the State Senator that represents me in my college town. I’ve served on numerous boards and committees in my university’s student government. I’ve worked in public outreach campaigns to reduce the university’s carbon footprint, and I’ve phonebanked for Congressional candidates and presidential candidates. All in all, it has been a great four years.

I have a strong love for politics. Most of my peers don’t. They see their political science degrees as stepping stones to law school. The career itself is not particularly lucrative. When I discuss potential career paths with my professors in the department, most are quick to say that very few people get rich in this field. Websites listing which major has the highest opportunity for growth and job opportunities seldom list political science on their charts.

But that’s because a majority of people studying political science don’t apply the field’s lessons to their lives. They think studying politics is studying what President Trump does every day. They think political scientists sit down and analyze the Constitution over and over endlessly. They think the field is writing laws and schemes to rip-off taxpayers. They think that members of Congress are either twisting arms or extorting each other behind the scenes, and the reason why change is so hard is because the entire system is corrupt. Inept bureaucrats are grifting and politicians are lining their pockets with our money.

This article isn’t about that. I’m not going to sit here and say whether politicians are devils or angels. I’ll let you decide that. What I am going to say is that the problem isn’t so black or white. In general, most politicians think they’re genuinely good people. They believe that they are the best suited person for a job, and they are the ones to bring change. Freshmen members of Congress protest the old guard and senior members’ power, until they are the senior members themselves.

Politicians are human beings. They make decisions on the fly, primed and led to a certain conclusion by the company they keep or their pre-existing ideologies. If a Congressman thinks that the government is bad and can only cause harm, then they think they are doing society a favor by stopping laws that would make the government more involved in our lives. In the long run, this Congressman thinks that expanding the government will harm more people, crippling their ability to fend for themselves and will disincentivize them from working hard.

If a Congresswoman thinks that kids deserve free school lunch, she will propose that the government enact a policy that funds it. In her eyes, nonprofits and charities aren’t combating this problem well enough, so the government needs to step in to provide the service. She doesn’t believe that there’s some greater ideological battle here. It’s not like funding school lunches now will create citizens dependent on politicians for all of their desires. It just means that kids are hungry, and she would like to see them fed.

Neither of them are wrong. Actually, they are both right. The most persuasive arguments cannot move either of them from their positions. Like abortion policy or same-sex marriage, there really is no middle ground on some issues. Both people are so firmly entrenched in their positions that arguing is pointless.

Members of Congress know this. So do lobbyists. Unlike the Hollywood version of politics, lobbyists are not bribing undecided representatives to support their cause. Instead, they are donating to campaigns where a member is a very vocal supporter for that lobby. Instead of arguing with their ideological opponents, lobbyists avoid them like the plague. If a lobbyist is walking around the halls of Capitol Hill and encounters a Congressman who disagrees with them, the lobbyist does not say hi. They don’t wave. They pull their phones out and look down, or do their best to avoid their gaze. Why? Because it is better not to piss off your enemy. Catching their attention does nothing, because they aren’t going to change their minds. If you don’t irk your ideological opponent, then at least they won’t go after you. If they disagree with your organization, that’s fine. But don’t let the member hate you so much that they’re actively working behind the scenes to undermine you.

Political scientists and lobbyists know this unofficial policy well. You also know this rule just as well. You apply it in your daily life without even thinking about it.

When your highly opinionated uncle or grandparent visits, you do your absolute best to avoid discussing politics. You know it will turn into a shitshow and that it will strain your relationship. Instead, you discuss things that you have in common with them. Interest in sports, business, cars, TV shows, or whatever else you both have in common are typical conversation points. When members of Congress debate over policy, they know they won’t win the hearts and minds of their opponents. They’re trying to swing the people on the fence to their side. Behind closed doors, they’re working together on the issues that they do agree on. If a politician actually wants to see a problem solved, they have to focus on the aspects that everyone agrees on, not the ideological problem that has no middle ground.

That’s one of the biggest issues today. That middle ground disappears every day. Your uncle or grandparent with the radically different opinions now has a radically different opinion than you on every single subject. As the middle ground drifts away, we lose sight of each other and our respect for each other. Much like the lobbyist that avoids their political opponent, you stop visiting that relative or friend with the substantially different outlook on life.

There are quite a few lessons like this that one can learn from the political science literature. While it is not spelled out in the terms that I have put it, a lot of the themes accurately reflect our daily lives. The lessons are communicable to every facet of our society, since politics is inherently a part of who we are. We want our beliefs to be supported and enacted into law. It makes us feel safer and happier. Our political environment thus mirrors our own environment.

So yes, there isn’t a lot of money to be made in political science. If you aren’t going to law school or into the political field, the major probably isn’t for you. But there is a lot to learn from it. It can show you different insights not only into society as a whole, but into your own behavior. It can help you pick and choose your battles with your loved ones, and help you think about where to find the middle ground in the polarized era we find ourselves in.

Our field can teach you a lot of things. Even if you don’t like politics, consider reading more into the political science literature. Maybe take a class on the subject. Think more about why people do what they do. Think about why politicians and their staff act the way they do. Think about why your friends and family think and act the way they do. If we can all work on where to find the middle ground, then we all stand to benefit.

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View of the Washington Monument from its base: I took this on a trip to D.C. in early January.

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Writings on politics, history, and the interplay between the two. UC Santa Barbara graduate.

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