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Politicians and their Scapegoats

by Dietmar Herz Wednesday, Nov. 03, 2004 at 10:44 AM

Politicians create scapegoats and use them for their goals. Politicians manipulate the population because it is easier to govern with scapegoats.


To most Germans, Bush embodies all of America’s negative qualities. The Political Scientist Dietmar Herz on the genesis of scapegoats and their positive effects on a society.

[This interview originally published in: SZ-Magazine, October 22, 2004 is translated from the German on the World Wide Web,]

[Dietmar Herz, 45, is a professor of political science at the University of Erfurt. He studied and taught at many American universities including Harvard, Stanford and Vanderbilt. Herz wrote several books on the political system of the United States. The last book was titled “Understanding America” (“Amerika verstehen”).]

SZ-magazine: Mr. Herz, can George W. Bush be described as the greatest current scapegoat of Germans?

Dietmar Herz: There can’t be any doubt about that.

SZ-magazine: Even a greater scapegoat thant he dreaded “Islamists”?

Dietmar Herz: Let’s say a present scapegoat as long as al-Qaida or other terror organizations do not commit any attempted assassination in Germany. Current surveys show that more than ninety percent of Europeans would vote George W. Bush out of office – if they could vote for the American president. Never has an American politician met such wide disapproval in Germany and Europe as George W. Bush.

SZ-magazine: How was he made the scapegoat?

Dietmar Herz: To most Germans, Bush embodies all the negative qualities that they always associate with Americans. Bush stands for religious bigotry, imperial foreign policy, corruption, dubious oil business, arrogance and lack of culture. This is seen very differently in the US. Many reasons why Europeans reject Bush are part of the everyday American political routine.

SZ-magazine: What are some examples?

Dietmar Herz: The religious rhetoric and the division of the political world in good and evil. In American politics, scapegoats play a much greater role in domestic and foreign affairs than in Germany.

SZ-magazine: Why is that?

Dietmar Herz: Simply because scapegoats can have positive effects. For example, they help in forming and strengthening a society. In many sections, the American Declaration of Independence was written explicitly against George III of England. This scapegoat is effective in the current popular culture. Johnny Cash in country songs insults George III.

American politics is always bristling with scapegoats: the Mexicans, the slave states of the South against the Yankees, the Nazis, later communism and today political Islam. A scapegoat always helped the powerful to bring the nation together and carry out an often unpopular policy.

SZ-magazine: The psychoanalyst Arno Gruen sees this differently. He claims scapegoats usually arise out of inner conflicts of people.

Dietmar Herz: I don’t believe that for the political realm. In my opinion, scapegoats in politics are not abstract or subconscious. Politicians create scapegoats and use them for their goals. Politicians manipulate the population because it is easier to govern with scapegoats.

Scapegoats explain political developments in simple words and justify actions so that the so-called truth falls by the wayside or drops out of the race. Thus all possible groups are classified today as “radical Islam” although this is absolute nonsense in many cases. Scapegoats help in justifying dubious and controversial decisions.

SZ-magazine: If scapegoats help in re-uniting, does the aversion against George Bush help the European Union grow closer?

Dietmar Herz: Yes in a certain way because this scapegoat spreads across countries in Europe. Europeans are re-united in their aversion.

SZ-magazine: If hatred of Bush accelerates Europe’s reunification, what is so bad about scapegoats?

Dietmar Herz: Simplifications can help people continue but are not enough for a comprehensive politics. A negative justification of a political idea is dangerous. What happens when the scapegoat is suddenly dropped? Still I admit that scapegoats can often have a positive effect…

SZ-magazine: Resentment produces values, Nietzsche said. Was he right?

Dietmar Herz: Scapegoats obviously promote reflection on one’s own strengths and principles. However there is already an intense concealed anti-Americanism in all political camps in Europe. This should not be encouraged.

SZ-magazine: What will happen if Bush is elected president a second time?

Dietmar Herz: I fear that the aversion to Bush could expand to “Americans” generally. In Europe, criticism of the policy of the president will then refer more and more to the whole American system according to the motto: the Americans could have corrected their mistake and at least elected John Kerry.

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