Bad Pragmatism pt. 2: Benjamin Ginsberg’s The American Lie

Published online 10 July 2008.

This, part two in a series, will analyze Benjamin Ginsberg’s book The American Lie as a “cynical realist” take on the American political process, suggesting that even though it’s marginally useful to be “cynical,” we still must be against “bad pragmatism” and in favor of politics for the greater good even when confronted with the corrupt system we have today.

Next: either a history of bad pragmatism, or a diary on the latest bad pragmatist outrage.  There WILL be a Bad Pragmatism pt. 3.

(crossposted at Docudharma)


I can see, now, that there will be a multi-part diary on the topic of “bad pragmatism.”  Part 1 was an attempt, however half-baked, to weave Obama’s vote on FISA into the conversation.  It was a sprawling mess, but it said what I wanted to say.  For Part 2, I’m just going to review Benjamin Ginsberg’s The American Lie, a pop-politics book about American politics written by a professor at Johns Hopkins.  Then I’m going to relate this to modern political behavior and use it to refine my thesis about bad pragmatism.  Bad pragmatism, I will argue, still defines much of what our government does, and it does so because our system “rewards” foolishness to the point of being dangerous to everyone.

So what’s bad pragmatism?  Bad pragmatism, to grant my readers the short version, is when political actors, either politicians or their boosters, do something that is supposedly motivated by “pragmatism,” by a concern for what is realistically possible in politics, but is just plain bad.  Bad pragmatism, I argue, is not really justified by expediency because doing the wrong thing is ultimately disabling no matter how much the elite think tanks may recommend it as a way of getting ahead.  OK, now for the book review:


Book Review: Ginsberg, Benjamin.  The American Lie: Government by the People and Other Political Fables.  Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers, 2007.

The American Lie is a book about politics, written from a perspective its author calls “cynical realism.”  The idea is that to be cynical about politics is in fact realistic: Ginsberg argues that “cynicism should be understood as a reasonable, if mainly intuitive, popular response to the realities of politics.” (3)  Another realist (*sigh*).  Ginsberg summarizes his own book’s thesis on the publisher’s webpage I cited above:

   *  Politics is not about truth, justice and principle. It is about money, power and status.
* Politicians habitually lie, pretending to fight for principles, in order to conceal their true selfish motives.
* Most individuals gain little from political participation. Participants are the foot soldiers of political warfare. Even if their side is victorious, they receive few of the spoils of war.
* Citizens should learn to think outside the (ballot) box but if they do vote, their motto should be “when in doubt vote them out”.
* Helps readers navigate our dark political times.
* Shows readers the way toward more fruitful political involvement—outside the boundaries of conventional electoral politics.

Ginsberg grounds his “cynical realism” in a perceived divide between private and public motivations.  He explains:

Perhaps political figures should be forgiven for their hypocrisy.  Like other human beings, politicians are usually driven by personal desires and private ambitions.  Yet individuals in public life are compelled to provide publicly acceptable justifications for their actions.  Accordingly, they explain what often is self-interested conduct in terms of high-minded goals, civic needs and national interests.  Honesty would so frequently be politically damaging that virtually all politicians and public officials would be practiced liars. (2)

Thus, for Ginsberg, cynicism about politics is described in terms of a tension between public and private.  The public is supposed to be “government for the people,” but cynical realism argues that “politics mainly revolves around self-interest” (4).  Even if politicians have “less-selfish aims,” Ginsberg argues, they must acquire the instruments of money, power, and status to  pursue these aims.  “Before an individual in public life can do good, with or without the expectation of later reward, they must acquire resources.” (17)  Lastly, Ginsberg suggests that issues and ideas are “weapons of political struggle” (4) rather than actual political goals.

For Ginsberg, then, politicians are like capitalists.  They are stuck in a mode of accumulation, and the point is never really any high-minded version of state governance, but always just more.  This itself is a reasonable thing to believe, but Ginsberg doesn’t really question the system very much.  The American Lie is kind of like Murray Edelman’s Constructing the Political Spectacle in this take on politics, but not so systematic.  Anyway, here is how Ginsberg divides up his book:

Chapter 1 is about money, power, and status, the things he regards political life as being about.  The chase for money, power, and status is illustrated with copious examples taken from political history.   Politicians wouldn’t take such huge sums from lobbyists if they didn’t need them.  Presidents wouldn’t expand the powers of the White House if they didn’t want them. Chapter 2 is about public opinion.  Here Ginsberg wishes to show us that, in politics, public opinion really begins with campaigns to influence public opinion, and here he shows how “major institutions and the wealthy and powerful have a distinct advantage in the marketplace of ideas.” (42)  The media are biased toward the rich.  The rest of the chapter is a dissection of journalism and its role in making this reality so.

Chapter 3 attempts to dissuade America of its obsession with elections. Here Ginsberg notes astutely:

Elections do not create a possibility of popular political action and citizen influence where none would otherwise exist.  Instead, they offer a formal and institutional channel to take the place of the more impromptu tactics, including protest and violence, that might be employed by citizens seeking to force a government to listen to them. (85)

In short, voting is a placebo.  It’s supposed to make you feel as if you did something to make your political situation better, whereas real political action (protest, demonstration etc.) may in fact display your power more effectively.  Unfortunately, Ginsberg talks too much about voting here and not enough about the alternatives.

Rather than flesh out the political implications of this thesis, then, Ginsberg finishes Chapter 3 like Chapter 2, discussing “political grooming” and the efforts of politicians to create voter blocks and exploit them through “stepping-stones strategy” to gain public offices.  His example should be amusing to readers here:

For example, Senator Barack Obama (D-IL) seemed to view his seat in the Illinois legislature mainly as a launching pad for a U.S. Senate campaign, and his Senate seat primarily as a good place to from which to mount a 2008 presidential campaign.  His razor-thin legislative record appeared not to discourage millions of Americans from viewing the attractive and glib Obama as an excellent presidential prospect.  (95)

So there’s “cynical realism” for you.  sigh

Chapter 4 is a discussion of how public policy is biased in favor of private interests.  In this regard, Ginsberg identifies three “pathologies” of public policy decisionmaking: “Mobilization bias,” the ability of select groups to press their agendas upon the political class, “organizational bias,” in which organizations trusted to develop policies work said policies in favor of organizational (and not public) interests, and “private capture,” in which private interests take over government programs.  Examples of these are: 1) Ethanol fuel, which despite its inefficiency has gotten major attention due to the influence of the corn lobby, 2) the military-industrial complex, which hosts enduring government-corporate partnerships, and 3) “government-sponsored corporations” such as “Fannie Mae” and “Freddie Mac.”

Chapter 5 tries to find out where exactly power lies.  Its conclusion:

Today’s federal government undertakes a myriad of social, regulatory, moral international, and economic policies.  This is the turn-of-the-century liberal-conservative detente.  The two sides have reached a compromise in which the federal government does everything.  (160)

Generally, its conclusion is that the Presidency and the bureaucracies, and not Congress, have most of the government’s power.  But this conclusion is qualified by the specification of numerous instances in which Congress does in fact have some power.

Chapter 6 is a “what to do” chapter.  If the readers of this book have gotten this far, they doubtless wish to ask the critical question, “why should I care?”  An important reason why not is given in the first paragraph:

In political combat, most participants are foot soldiers in battles fought for the benefit of others, for goals that are seldom fully revealed to the public at large.  (189)

So that’s a good reason to believe that politics sucks.  Ginsberg’s torrent of advice starts by debunking “the myth of political leadership.”    He argues that politicians are generally mediocre and ambitious.  The government, moreover, has become mendacious and duplicitous in its attempts to manage opinion.  And, as a result, “popular political participation functions as a source of state power.” (197)  But here Ginsburg boils it down: people must “gird themselves for political struggle” (197) because the state is pernicious as such.  Here he recommends a defensive participation: be cynical, “choose action over participation,” and, when in doubt, vote them out.  But, most importantly, never trust the state, and use your power as a citizen to harass corrupt politicians.  In this regard, Ginsberg endorses Saul Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals.  Ginsberg would especially like Alinsky’s Rule 5:

Rule 5: Ridicule is man’s most potent weapon. It’s hard to counterattack ridicule, and it infuriates the opposition, which then reacts to your advantage.


Conclusion: “Cynical Realism” and Bad Pragmatism

Ginsberg assumes that politicians are trapped in a series of contests, kind of like the tennis season for pro tennis players, in which they must constantly prove their possession of money, power, and status.  I share his preference for political action over voting and I think his cynicism is an improvement over the gullibility often shared by the partisan boosters of politicians.

But that’s the extent of my endorsement of this book.  I don’t think Ginsberg’s attitude of “cynical realism” is anywhere close to offering a meaningful opinion on political issues, and this is his shortcoming.  Pandering to pubilc opinion himself, Ginsberg wants to criticize Democrats and Republicans equally.  Whatever.  One could, in theory, be a “cynical realist” and still support the politicians, under the pretext that Politician X is better than Politician Y (despite their mutual attachment to money, power, and status), and that political duplicity is merely the price that has to be paid for not having the “wrong” politicians in office.  This is, in fact, the accommodation that “cynical realism” typically spreads, and I call it “bad pragmatism.”  My critique of it is here.  Bad pragmatism, in my theory of it, is shared by both politicians and followers.  The followers, as Ginsberg points out, have been made into pawns.  The politicians may think that all of the maneuvering they do, the “stone-stepping” and so on, is in their “private interest.”  But this version of “private interest” is itself impoverished.  Gee, you’re a politician, you’re privileged, you get to have a bunch of stuff while people are starving and while the industries which support you kill the planet off.  What fun.  So even from the politician’s perspective the pandering after money and power counts as bad pragmatism.

Bad pragmatism happens all the time.  Here’s an example Devilstower pointed out just yesterday.  “Democrats Prepare to Buckle on Offshore Drilling.”  This stuff is bad for planet Earth.  As we continue down the road of political “self-interest” we can see options dwindling for everyone, as the Bill of Rights succumbs to the latest political dogfight.  That was in yesterday’s news too.  “Senate bows to Bush, approves surveillance bill.”  Kos knows bad pragmatism when he sees it.

What we tend to forget, in our rush to judge the latest outrage, is that politics really is about creating a better world.  Or, rather, forgetting that politics is about a better world gives us a world that is decidedly worse.  Yeah, that’s the world we’re living in today.

In this light, and given the otherwise valuable nature of many of his suggestions, Ginsberg’s take on political economy is too thin.  He argues that “to be sure, neither the political class nor the state can ever be truly defeated,” (197) yet I find an acquiescence in this.  Even today, the people can create new political and economic structures and vest power in those structures, for the people are ultimately the source of all political and economic power.  Workers of the world, unite, baby.  Yeah.  Let me suggest a strategy for pursuing this, in an era of technological agglomeration, overweening Federal and corporate power, and individual vulnerability to homelessness, starvation, and police harassment, a strategy which builds on Ginsberg’s suggestion of “defensive politics.”  My strategy will be called backing out of the existing system.  We need to, from within the existing system, create a new system, a system which fulfills everyone’s basic needs while keeping planet Earth in livable condition.  What else is there to do?

Whaddaya think?  Eh?


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