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.
“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.”
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.
Many of the same Americans who believe in the Easter bunny also think that public opinion is a significant force in political life. Perhaps, not all would accept James Bryce’s famous assertion that popular support “has been the chief and ultimate power in nearly all nations at all times.” Most Americans, however, agree that citizens’ preferences have a good deal of influence over the government and its policies. Nearly 80 percent of those responding to a recent national survey said that the government listened to the people most or at least some of the time. More than 90 percent agreed that elections made the government pay attention to public opinion.
School textbooks, politicians’ pronouncements and even the supposedly cynical mass media contribute to this view of the political potency of citizen sentiment. Newspaper columnists and television commentators, for example, frequently link the power of presidents and other politicians to their popular standing. In 2005, when President George W. Bush’s rating in the polls fell sharply, many pundits asserted that his loss of citizen support would erode the president’s ability to govern. More generally, continual print and broadcast coverage of opinion surveys, the “mood” of the electorate and the meaning of election outcomes certainly conveys the impression that public opinion and voting must be important phenomena. The media devote nearly as much attention to poll results and election analyses as they do to the celebrity gossip with which Americans seem endlessly fascinated.
To be sure, citizens’ perspectives are continually monitored and frequently evaluated by political elites and government decision makers. Popular support is obviously essential to those seeking election or reelection to office. Nevertheless, public opinion, voting and other aspects of popular political involvement are seldom the driving forces of national politics. Public opinion is not an autonomous and immutable force that politicians must discover and obey. The will of the people is, instead, a rather pliable phenomenon usually created by the very individuals and groups who claim to submit to it. Typically, forces seeking to achieve particular goals in the political arena, be they offices, programs or policies, will endeavor to create a climate of opinion conducive to their efforts. Rather than satisfy citizen opinion, politicians and competing political actors ordinarily attempt to create opinions supportive of their own purposes and preferences. Any resultant consistency between citizen opinion and political or policy outcomes is more a reflection of the common origins of the two phenomena than a tribute to the power of public opinion.
Certainly, public opinion can be a powerful force once formed. The formation of opinion, though, is typically a result of efforts on the part of contending interests, parties and politicians to attract popular support, and mainly reflects these groups’ relative capacity to achieve visibility, to communicate cogent appeals and to offer citizens solidarity and material incentives sufficiently compelling to secure their fealty. Of course, all citizens cannot always be convinced of all things. Large numbers of Americans, however, have little knowledge of, or firm opinions about, most aspects of government and politics. Consequently, their views are susceptible to frequent manipulation by politicians, advocacy groups and political parties. Lincoln was surely correct when he said that all the people could not be fooled all of the time. But, even Honest Abe knew that all the people could be fooled some of the time, and that at least some of the people might be duped all the time.
“Public opinion is not an autonomous and immutable force that politicians must discover and obey. The will of the people is, instead, a rather pliable phenomenon usually created by the very individuals and groups who claim to submit to it. […] Any resultant consistency between citizen opinion and political or policy outcomes is more a reflection of the common origins of the two phenomena than a tribute to the power of public opinion.”
Americans are taught to equate political participation with personal empowerment and individual freedom. Yet, the relationship between politics and freedom is more complex than the civics teachers acknowledge or know. Whatever its other virtues, popular political participation functions as a source of state power. James Wilson urged his fellow Constitutional Convention delegates to accept widespread popular participation as the price of raising the “federal pyramid” to a “considerable altitude.” But, real freedom does not simply mean a formal opportunity to take part in organized political activity. Real political freedom must include a considerable measure of freedom from politics as well as the freedom to take part in politics. Freedom implies a measure of personal autonomy, a sphere within which individuals are not followers of movements, causes, candidates or parties and are not subject to policies, initiatives or programs. Nietzsche might have been gazing at Wilson’s pyramid when he cried, “Break the windows and leap to freedom.”
Unfortunately, though, the government and the members of the meddlesome political class, more generally, are seldom content to leave their fellow citizens to their own devices. Officials and politicians not only want to explain things to their benighted fellows but for better or worse–too often for worse–they seem to suffer from some compulsion to interfere in everyone’s lives. When not merely engaged in their normal rent-seeking endeavors, a gaggle of officials want to seize homes and turn them over to private developers. Other politicians and officials want to redistribute incomes for the benefit of their friends and supporters. Still others endeavor to impose their own moral values on everyone else. And, of course, there are those who insist upon sending other peoples’ children to die on distant shores for reasons that are usually difficult to explain.
The political class can and should continually be subjected to embarrassment, ridicule and harassment. Not only does constant pressure keep the politicians and officials uncertain and off balance, but the exercise reminds the citizenry of the clay feet of their erstwhile idols. This, in turn, helps individuals maintain some critical distance from the state and its rulers and preserve at least a measure of inner freedom. This effort should be understood as defensive politics, an attempt to maintain individual autonomy and freedom from conventional politics. The first rule of defensive politics is always to be cynically realistic. When any politician intones, “ask not,” assume he or she has something to hide.
Benjamin Ginsberg is the David Bernstein Professor of Political Science and Director of the Center for the Study of American Government at the Johns Hopkins University. He is the author or co-author of a number of books including Presidential Power: Unchecked and Unbalanced, Downsizing Democracy: How America Sidelined Its Citizens and Privatized Its Public, Politics By Other Means, The Fatal Embrace: Jews and the State, The Consequences of Consent, American Government: Freedom and Power, We The People, and The Captive Public. Ginsberg is a frequent radio and television commentator and his political essays have appeared in such publications as The Washington Post. He lives in Potomac, Maryland, just outside the capital beltway, a location he believes gives him both analytic proximity to and critical distance from Washington politics. Ginsberg received his Ph.D. from the University of Chicago in 1973. Before joining the Hopkins faculty in 1992, Ginsberg was Professor of Government at Cornell.