When I was but a wee political scientist, I remember reading old-timey American political scientists writing that two things ailed American politics: the absence of ideological parties and the disinterest of the American public in politics.
At the same time I was reading these now-laughably outdated tracts, I would occasionally find myself at extended family vacations at which my aunts, uncles, parents and grandparents would talk politics nonstop. Of course, these conversations interested me greatly, and on occasion I would try to interject an opinion that I’d developed from, you know, trying to earn a doctorate on the subject.
These efforts inevitably fell on deaf ears. To my parents’ generation, my graduate studies in political science were likely outweighed by their memory of me, as a teenager, repeatedly losing my wallet or forgetting to pack underwear on vacations.
Eventually I came to peace with the minimal sway I held in my family discussions — it just gave me more time to read what I wanted to read anyway. I grew accustomed to not talking about politics all that much in social settings. I enjoyed the quiet.
Fast forward to 2016, and three things have changed:
- Our political parties have gotten way more ideological
- The American public is paying pretty keen attention to politics
- My friends and family are now treating me like an expert on politics — and it’s killing me, it’s just killing me.
I began to notice this last thing at the beginning of the calendar year, when my wife, the Clinton supporter, and my son, the Sanders supporter, began asking my opinion of both the GOP and Democratic primaries every night at dinner. (My daughter, bless her heart, is too young to care about politics too much, but she did grow concerned that her daddy, who ordinarily never drinks, began drinking every time there was a debate on television.) As the primaries continued, when we would go out to dinner with friends, questions about politics dominated the conversation. Phone conversations with my parents frequently turned to a brief Q&A about the 2016 election. My family has just returned from a lovely vacation with them — lovely, that is, except for the barrage of questions directed to me about Brexit and Trump and the parallels between Brexit and Trump.
I have no doubt that this sounds like petty whining to most of you: “Poor Drezner, your friends and family treat you like an expert, that must be so rough!” And you’d be right. Politics in 2016 are legitimately fascinating. The political turmoil in Britain right now is making “House of Cards” look gritty and realistic. The United States election right now is making reality show television look bland. Americans are engaged and interested, and they should be, because there’s an approximately 1-in-5 chance we’re going to elect an unqualified bigot to the White House.
For me and my fellow political scientists, however, this year has been utterly exhausting. I now understand the looks that doctors get when, at a barbecue, you ask them what you think is an innocuous question about some minor medical ailment. If you spend your entire day doing your job, and then you go home and your friends and family want to talk about nothing else but your job, life gets reduced to a single dimension. For 2016, my professional and social worlds have fused into a single conversation about politics, politics, politics. And as a political scientist, let me assure you that there is much more to life than politics.
Of course, there is something else going on: The very things that make politics so interesting make it painful for political scientists to discuss. It seems like ordinary politics has gone haywire. Donald Trump was not supposed to win the GOP nomination. Bernie Sanders was not supposed to push Hillary Clinton to the brink of political survival. Britain was not supposed to support a ballot measure that every serious economist warned would trigger a recession. So we are being asked why the world has gone crazy at the exact moment that a lot of our standard tools of causal analysis seem to be working less well.
For decades, political scientists have bemoaned their perceived lack of influence and impact on the world, that no one listens to them. If this year is an indication, however, there is a worse alternative: a world in which politics never stops, and everyone wants your opinion about what is going on when all we want to do is take a break from politics.
So on this July 4 weekend, as we celebrate our country’s birthday in a time of political ferment, I humbly beseech you for a favor. If you encounter friends and family who study politics for a living, don’t be the one to bring up politics with them. If they want to talk about it, let them bring it up. Otherwise, let them enjoy their beer and hot dog and ballgame in peace. They need a break, too.