Benjamin Ginsberg

 

On his book The American Lie: Government by the People and Other Political Fables

Cover Interview of December 05, 2008

In a nutshell

Americans are constantly urged to involve themselves in political life, to pay attention to the issues, to vote for the best candidates and, above all, to avoid succumbing to political apathy and cynicism.  The unpleasant truth, though, is that for most individuals, most of the time, politics is a rather unrewarding enterprise.  Clausewitz was correct to equate war and politics.  Both are nasty, sometimes brutish activities from which ordinary participants secure few benefits.  And yet, like war, politics is sometime forced upon us and we must defend ourselves.

Self-defense requires some understanding of the realities of political struggle. To begin with, much of what we see and hear in the political world consists of lies and deceptions.  The issues addressed by competing cliques of politicians are typically developed for tactical purposes and cannot be taken at face value.  Politicians are generally, albeit not always, a currish lot, driven by a desire to acquire power or status or wealth, not by some commitment to the public interest.  Indeed, since politicians, political parties and other political actors habitually lie, citizens who heed the frequent injunction to abjure cynicism are likely to be duped into contributing their tax dollars and even their lives for dubious purposes such as building democracy in Iraq.  Those who actually work in the political arena, politicians, journalists, consultants, lobbyists and other political practitioners are a notoriously cynical bunch.  While encouraging ordinary citizens to trust the government and the political class, members of the political class are not so foolish as to trust one another.

Five hundred years ago, Niccolo Machiavelli dedicated his masterpiece of political realism, The Prince, to Florentine ruler Lorenzo de’ Medici whose favor Machiavelli hoped win.  In truth, Lorenzo did not need Machiavelli’s advice; he already practiced what Machiavelli preached.  Whether in the 16th century or the 21st, those who need a firmer understanding of political realities are credulous citizens, not calculating and rapacious princes.  Ordinary citizens usually do what is asked of them, steadfastly offering their support and trust only to be victimized by the Machiavellian tactics of their rulers.  Thus, contra Machiavelli, this book is not dedicated to the education of would-be princes.  Instead, it is designed to arm their subjects against them.