Back when I was in my first iteration of grad school (Political Science, 1990-1993), I was witness to one of the more infamous scenes at that particular institution of higher learning. Most of the Political Science department gathered to hear a talk being given by one of the American politics professors. I don’t recall exactly the topic, but it had something to do with Congress and how the political process was perceived. During the Q&A time after the talk another of the Political Science professors, a well respected scholar in the field of International Relations, asked the following question:
What is meant by this phrase ‘inside the beltway’?
Well, every grad student at the talk groaned; inwardly in the room at the time of the question, audibly back in our T.A. offices or at a favorite watering hole later. It was typical, we said. The Political Science faculty simply did not seem to be as interested in the political world as we were. We devoured news coverage of national party politics, kept current on the latest controversies, had passionate opinions on policy debates, and many even kept a close watch on local party politics. We were, to a man and woman, political junkies. The professors were not. The political news that made up the fodder of our daily conversations and debates seemed to be only dimly perceived by the members of the faculty. A typical response from a professor were a current “hot” political topic to arise in a seminar would be something along the lines of “Yeah, yeah, yeah. That thing.” So, they were kinda aware of the debate, but not so much they’d actually have an opinion on the matter.
As good grad students we were, of course, scandalized. How and why, we wondered, did these people become Political Scientists in the first place if they were not all that interested in politics? We granted, being even handed folks, that they might be focusing upon their specific research questions, but was that any excuse for not having been exposed to the concept of inside the beltway? No! We answered over our frosty malted beverages. No! No! A thousand times no!
Ah, the joys of being young and in a near perpetual state of indignation.
Today, I have a lot more sympathy with my old professors. Yes, I still think it wouldn’t kill them to have some basic knowledge of the present political scene, even if they do nothing else in their careers but study sub-Saharan Africa or IR formal modelling. (Subscribe to Newsweek, for God’s sake.. It takes all of 15 minutes a week to read and you at least have a primer.) But, I think their aloofness was on to something about the political scene. There is a sameness about the disputes and controversies. Pure political junkies don’t really notice this as they can always live “in the moment.” They are like the guy in Memento: everything is perpetually new. Every new issue is taken upon its face value, and analogies are just tools used to bludgeon the other side and not to remind us that we have been here before.
For Political Scientists, however, we have always been here before. Every new political issue can be related to older issues. You don’t have to take anything at its face value, because chances are it is in reality an older controversy dressed up in new clothes. And, as much as it pains me to repudiate the me of 15 years ago, I can see a lot of merit in this view. Political junkies always see the world they live in as a “tipping point” (the most overused trope of the last fifty years). Every issue is of epoch making importance, each setback is a “disaster”, and every politician can be categorically labelled as ally, enemy, hero or traitor. Contrary to a common opinion Political Science has actually taught us some things, including that such hyperbole is largely nonsense. Today, I cannot blame these professors for not getting worked up about the controversies of the moment. Why should they? So the political junkies of today get themselves in a tizzy over the guilt or innocence of a man named Scooter? So what? In so many ways it is no different from all of the political junkies who got worked up (and still do) over Sacco & Vanzetti, Whittaker Chambers or Alger Hiss. The names may change, but the motivations remain largely the same. In any event, Political Science is more interested in abstracting out patterns of political behavior as opposed to obsessing about the minutiae of the political tabloids.
Political junkies simply do not and cannot recognize when their world is deja vu all over again.
Of course, there are those rare times when the political junkie has the better of the skeptical/cynical Political Scientists, such as when epoch changing moments do arrive. Soviet experts were too wedded to old patterns of behavior to notice the end of the U.S.S.R. until it was upon them, and the general reaction of Political Scientists to the Republican takeover of Congress in the 1990’s was “How’d that happen?” But these moments don’t alter the fact political junkies most often lack even the semblance of perspective.
Not that any real political junkie would ever care. Get them on a good day and they might even agree with my basic premise.
“Yes!”, they would say to me, “I’m often myopic and can rarely see the forest for the trees. But, when you get right down to it, that is part of the reason it is so much damn fun.”