Okay, you got me — I did clickbait. It won’t happen again, I promise.
But I’m not being entirely insincere with this title. The University of Connecticut undergraduate political science program has long been a labor of love for me. The “love” comes from the content of the subject — its diversity of fields, its theoretical and practical depth and the universe of thinkers and vocabularies that it exposes you to. I am — and, whether you like it or not, you are — a political being. Our communities are governed by political decisions; whether they be from the school board, the zoning commission or budget committee, even minute policies have extensive seen and unseen impacts on our own material conditions as well as our neighbors’. These communities span from the local to the global, enabling political moves in one hemisphere to influence politics in the other — sometimes for better, but far more often for worse.
Political bias and messaging appears in most, if not all, of the media we consume, subtly shaping how we think about the world around us even if our daily media diet appears neutral. Even something as fundamental and individual as our identities grants different political and economic privileges (e.g. white privilege) or burdens (systemic racism, anti-LGBTQIA+ bigotry, barriers to access for people with disabilities etc).
Politics are so intricately woven into the fabric of our lives that deep, theoretical inquiries into political processes or institutions may strike some as unnecessary and overly intellectual; for political scientists, however, these questions of gripping existential importance, answering not only how humans organize societies, but why. And while much academic scholarship in political science is extremely self-indulgent and purposefully inaccessible for readers who are not academically trained, there is also no shortage of captivating work with real-world implications developed within and outside of the academy. Generating theories about the world in order to change it — this perception of the supposed function of political science is where the love comes from. The “labor,” however, is a different story.
In spite of how gratifying it can be to study politics, the structure of UConn’s political science program — and academic political science more broadly — limits the potential of students to freely pursue political inquiry and, more importantly, implement it in the world around them. The program’s lack of diverse, experiential learning opportunities paired with the inherent class bias of the discipline create a major where the benefits of studying it are undermined by the potential harm it can perpetuate.
Although I couldn’t quantify the extent to which political science scholarship actually makes it out of the academy in a meaningful capacity, my best good-faith estimate isn’t optimistic. Internship and career fairs, for example, are bombarded with campaign offices, government agencies and nonprofits that are so mired in the status quo that chances are slim that prospective employees or internships could actually employ the skills from challenging and transgressive courses such as Critical Race Theory (shoutout to Dr. Fred Lee) in the field. Bright-eyed political science students emulating Leslie Knope from “Parks and Recreation” or President Josiah Bartlet of “The West Wing” flock to these fields yearly with the poorly-defined intention of “changing the world.” However, as principles clash with the bureaucratic red tape and the necessity of purchasing food and shelter for survival under capitalism, it makes sense why “change” is pain-stakingly slow, and increasingly occurs in the negative direction.
Electoral politics and the nonprofit-industrial complex seek to repair democracy and capitalism in perpetual crisis, and are neither prepared nor willing to take on the necessary endeavor of overhauling them, nor the systemic backlash for trying. For those cynical enough to bypass the optimistic phase, political science mainly appears to be a stepping stone for law school, lobbying or consulting, which again do little other than make some income and perform routine maintenance on the dominant systems. Thus, a major that often makes room for harsh critiques of inequality and exploitation gives way to them outside of campus borders.
It makes sense that experiential learning opportunities for most political science classes are so few and far between. As previously mentioned, politics appear in everything from our streets to our air to the population of endangered North American red foxes. As such, one might think that building in field work for most courses would be a no-brainer, especially given the size of UConn and the scale of its connections. The political science department could hypothetically foment relationships with community organizations and support grassroots fights against issues from economic inequality to pipeline construction with ranks of scholar-activists. Ultimately, though, empowering students to implement what they learned from courses that are critical of neoliberal capitalism, settler-colonialism and authoritarianism would irrationally threaten its revenue-maximizing, anti-democratic model. This dynamic confines groundbreaking theoretical developments that are critical of existing hierarchies of race, class and gender to journal articles and classroom discussions while the orthodox consensus of liberal democracy and neoliberal capital remain hegemonic.
To renege on the title slightly, I think those who are interested in politics should study political science, namely because it exposes you to eye-opening modes of thought and criticism that you may not have had the time or opportunity to study otherwise. However, political science as a career is not for the selfless, nor the scholar-activist, nor the disillusioned. Studying both political science and journalism, I’ve found ways to engage with politics outside the scope of academic research and theorization. With real-world organizing often requiring a diversity of skills from construction know-how to web development to growing your own food, political science is a discipline that can’t just be studied; it must be practiced.