Don’t Pay the Political Internship Pimp

Don’t Pay the Political Party Internship Pimp

Unpaid internships for political science students today is a right of passage, more of a fact of life than an extracurricular activity. Its an exercise in building social capital, but few of us students have ever stopped to analyze the narrative of the social capital we are constructing. Social capital is the mortar of the middle class, it is who you know, what they can do for you and who they know. Social capital will land you your job, it will land you a better deal on you car/student/home loan, it will guarantee your children’s passage into college and it will provide one with many of the luxuries of America’s middle class lifestyle. If social capital is so great, and interning such a small sacrifice for such a valuable resource, why would anyone ever consul against internships?

Social capital is critical to accomplishing anything in society. Without social capital there would be no social contract, literally no society. It follows that if you want to be independent in today’s society, the more social capital you accumulate the more you’ll be able to do what you want. The problem is that social capital does not exist in the abstract, it is a force that has direction, it be applied to accomplish different goals. Many political science students every summer forget to seriously evaluate why they are interning. I’ve heard dozens of students complain about the necessity of “selling out” and interning over the summer for x or y state representatives, or going to Washington to slave away for some agency or official. Every story starts about how, although their morals would lead them towards social justice politics, the only way to really impact society is through interning and obtaining a better resume for a future job, or for graduate school.

Certainly interning does build social capital necessary for a “career”, but the liberal students mentioned above do not analyze who’s goals they can and will accomplish with the social capital they are building. Most internship arrangements assign the paper pushing tasks to the interns, and usually dangle limited opportunities to participate in the ideological work of the organization . Also, internships for political science majors are almost universally unpaid, reinforcing the class tinged atmosphere of our political system. In exchange for compromising ideologically, doing uninteresting tasks, and making no money, the intern builds social capital within the organization and they “make connections.”

We need to debunk the “necessity” of interning for the local politician down in the state capital, or making the commitment to travel to Washington to pad a resume. Every relationship consists of a narrative that each party in the relationship subscribes to. The political party and the intern adopt different roles in the social narrative (think of a narrative as the justification society offers for a given relationship). The problem with the social narrative of an internship with a political party is that the role is singularly defined by and beneficial to the political party.

The social capital built during the internship reflects the relationship of the intern to the manager of the intern. Being a summer intern allows you to earn that coveted position after graduation, but why is such a position coveted? Often times its placement in one of the two major political parties, or their adjunct organizations like lobbying firms or think tanks. That coveted position is purchased, just like the position of intern, through ideological compromise and making one useful to one’s superior.

“It was only after the interns went on strike that Washington really went to hell. Just try to imagine Congress without coffee, copies and naughty instant messages.” Senator McCain after the general intern strike of 2009

I propose a different paradigm for ambitious political science students looking to make a positive impact on society. Instead of entering into the relationship of “intern” and building the social capital necessary to keep you in social captivity, expand your outlook and consider engaging in yourself and interested friends in your own project. One outlet is Students for a Democratic Society, it is entirely a student endeavor and a network you can access to build social capital with any number of people who can advance the goals of your project. Another outlet is an expanding number of organizations dedicated to social change, from environmental justice, to worker’s rights organizations, to any number of important issues.

Relate to your local politicians as equals instead of as eager servants. One example is the Rutgers SDS and alumni managed electoral reform campaign in New Brunswick, NJ, which is actively working to democratize the city’s Democratic machine politics. In Chicago I’m working to start Solidarity, a student and faculty clinic dedicated to connecting local green entrepreneurs with the resources necessary for starting up their business, while working to advance and encourage employee management and ownership in Chicago. Just because you don’t have your degree yet doesn’t mean you have to play indentured servant to a politician you disagree with. If its a good idea, you can be creative about financing it, the money is there, either through your school, donors, or institutions; if you are determined to get it. Reclaim your autonomy, it takes discipline but so does anything worth getting. Hit the books, build the social capital necessary to accomplish YOUR vision, (not the vision of the political pimp of your choice) reconfigure the social narrative to include yourself as an active participant, and comeback and tell Students for a Democratic Society about it because we’d love to hear from you and help you out.


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