Benjamin Ginsberg


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

Cover Interview of December 05, 2008

The wide angle

In more than thirty years of teaching politics, I have observed that students’ natural healthy cynicism is constantly criticized by the press and by their teachers.  I want to assure students and all readers that it is appropriate to be cynical.  Ambrose Bierce defined a cynic as a, “blackguard whose faulty vision sees things as they are, not as they ought to be.”  If anything, too many Americans lack a requisite sense of cynicism.  About half those responding to University of Michigan surveys say the government can be trusted most of the time and nearly two-thirds disagree with the proposition that public officials don’t really care what people think.  These recent percentages actually represent an increase in public trust after some decline between the 1960s and 1990s.  But, shouldn’t every American be just a bit distrustful of a class of individuals whose most prominent members, contrary to all logic and evidence, claim never to have inhaled, aver that they hardly even knew that pesky Ms. Lewinsky, or suggest they reluctantly agreed to forego the opportunity to serve in Viet Nam in order to undertake the more onerous task of defending the air space over Texas?  For that matter, can anyone truly believe the legions of lesser politicians who portentously declare that they are driven by an overwhelming urge to “fight” for the right of every last geezer to receive a pension check?  Far from being a pathological condition, cynicism is a useful defense against such duplicity.

Yet, cynicism alone is hardly an adequate guide to the reality of politics.  Political cynics often see through the lies of politicians only to fall prey to even more bizarre fantasies.  Millions of Americans, for example, who don’t trust the government, also believe that federal officials are hiding evidence of extraterrestrial visitors at a secret base in New Mexico.  These individuals are ready to spurn official claims but, in their place, accept science fiction tales as reality. An understanding of politics requires not only a willingness to reject falsehoods, but also the ability to assess objective evidence and arrive at the truth. The Chinese call this marriage of cynicism and objectivity, “cynical realism,” connoting an effort to substitute a true and accurate picture of political life for the lies told by the authorities.

Cynics are sometimes accused of being without principles.  Cynical realism, however, is based upon three core principles of political analysis.  The first is that politics mainly revolves around self-interest.  In particular, actors generally compete in the political arena to increase their resources and stature.  Individuals strive to enhance their own wealth, their own power and their own status rather than for more altruistic or public-spirited purposes.  Second, even if political actors actually have less selfish aims, they must almost always, nevertheless, work to acquire wealth, power or status to achieve these other goals.  As Machiavelli observed, prophets generally must arm themselves if they hope to succeed. Unfortunately, though, the effort to maximize these interests often becomes an end in and of itself even if it was not a political actor’s primary initial goal.  The quest for power can be as corrupting as its exercise.  Third, the issues and ideas publicly espoused by political actors are more often the weapons of political struggle than its actual goals.

The idea that political action is governed by selfish motives is hardly novel.  Indeed, for centuries, political and social theorists have conceived self-interested conduct to be a fundamental reflection of human nature, “For it may be said of men in general,” said Machiavelli. “That they are ungrateful, voluble, dissemblers, anxious to avoid danger, and covetous of gain.”  This rather bleak view of human nature has a substantial scientific basis. Evolutionary psychologists argue that power, status and possession of material resources have been associated with reproductive success throughout the evolution of the human species.  Hence, the desire to acquire these assets is a potent driving force.

Psychologist Steven Pinker writes that while humans have not evolved the rigid pecking orders characteristic of some animal species, in all human societies,  “High-ranking men are deferred to, have a greater voice in group decisions…and always have more wives, more lovers, and more affairs with other men’s wives.”  Of course, individuals vary enormously in the extent to which they are driven by greed or the lust for power and status.  Yet, those drawn to political life are, by virtue of self-selection, more likely than others to desire the substance, trappings and privileges of rank.