I am a political science major and I love it. I love the classes, the professors and from time to time, I even enjoy writing the papers. We learn about topics as different as presidential cycles and the Lockean proviso, modern terrorism and Nigerian coups, and even the international political economy and what defines a Machiavellian prince. We learn about the factors that lead to modernization at the same level of depth and complexity as an English major would learn about Shakespeare or a chemistry major would learn about the periodic table.
But what is the difference between political science and all other majors? Well, when a biology major tells you about genetics, you’ll usually take his word that DNA is composed of a chain of nucleotides. However, when a political science major tells you that funding Syrian rebel groups really isn’t a viable option, you might enter into a very long and upsetting conversation where you explain beyond a reasonable doubt that Syrian rebel groups are obviously the best course of action to ensure peace and stability in the region. The experience political science majors receive when recounting what they learned from class is not to be unexpected, but it is disconcerting nonetheless. When I bring up points about American politics, not only do people from other majors think I’m wrong, but they think they know more than me.
I am not an expert, but only a student. I cannot and will not claim that I am some kind of an authority on matters of politics, because I am not. But my major does afford me access to information about politics that my fellow students do not receive. People in other majors probably have not heard the phrase, “Presidential power is the power to persuade.” This maxim, coined by Richard Neustadt, is among the most famous lines to describe the nature of presidential power. Although most people have not heard of Richard Neustadt, they usually agree with the meaning of this statement without even realizing it. Essentially, this quote means that the power of the president resides in his ability to use his office to convince other politicians, the American people, and even members of his own administration to follow his lead.
This conventional view of American politics is generally accepted, and even those with minimal interest in political matter tend to agree because it is logical. However, contemporary studies have disproved this theory by recording the incredible lack of influence presidents actually have on changing anyone’s opinion on anything. But no matter what texts I can reference, like those by George C. Edwards III, I find that the conventional explanations win because they are far easier to accept.
That is the peril of being a political science major. No matter what we learn in class, our knowledge is controversial to everyone. What Shakespeare’s intent was in Hamlet may be very open to debate, but I have never seen students argue on that topic. Conversely, political debates are very common. It often seems as though what I learn is irrelevant, because I will always find resistance when I try to recount an interesting perspective I learned in class. Often, at the lunch table, the best I can hope for is a conciliatory shake of the head as we finish yet another fruitless political discussion.