Personal Politics in the Age of Cynicism
“No snowflake in an avalanche ever feels responsible.” — Stanislaw Jerzy Lec
Over the past few months there has been a lot of discussion about the politics of de-legitimization. Much of this discussion has rightly focused on the role of politicians and the media; however, by doing so it is overlooking the role of the individual citizen in the process of de-legitimization. Taking a bottom-up approach illustrates how individual cynicism is rife for exploitation and has laid the groundwork for our current political environment. And while the phenomenon of political cynicism is certainly not new, the narratives that it’s inspiring are exacting a heavy toll on democracy. At best, these narratives perpetuate political gridlock; at worst, they encourage a slow erosion of legitimacy. What they don’t do is offer solutions. In short, cynicism lacks effectiveness, it encourages apathy, and it degrades democracy.
Replacing Skepticism with Cynicism
When it comes to politics, a large portion of the US electorate has replaced skepticism with cynicism and this swap has profoundly altered the political landscape. A skeptic harbors suspicion for something they’ve yet seen proven, while a cynic harbors suspicion about everything — regardless of proof. One will challenge ideas, while the other deflates them. One frustrates, while the other exhausts. Cynicism is a cheap and dangerous alternative to thoughtful deliberation — cheap, because it’s easy, dangerous because a slide towards cynicism is hard to reverse. Adopting a cynical attitude over a skeptical one has consequences for one’s life; most notably it directly affects a person’s ability to feel satisfaction. By extension this affects one’s politics.
This cynicism imbues our political system with a negativity that requires politicians to defend rather than define themselves. Politicians spend large quantities of time describing how they are not like other politicians, how the other politicians are untrustworthy, how the very system itself is rigged. Even more damaging is that politicians spend little time defining their political agenda and how it will positively affect the country. Prioritizing defense over definition means politics is expressed through mainly negative terms. This is unfortunate because despite some fraudulent activity, unethical behavior, and high-levels scandals, the US ranks well on corruption, transparency, and world governance indicators that measure rule of law and government effectiveness. Certainly some pervasive political issues exist; however, solutions to these issues will never materialize from cynicism.
It is tempting to blame this cynicism on the current political environment, but doing so ignores the decades of cynical accusations that have been slowly undermining faith in the system. These accusations, regardless of their origin or validity, have been repeated to the point where they’ve become acceptable conversation. And despite what some politicians suggest, responsibility for this transcends political boundaries — Republicans, Democrats, Independents, and “don’t-give-a-shits” have all taken up the cause. These accusations are so widespread they have normalized the cynical attitude. And this normalization is dangerous because unlike skepticism, cynicism stands in the way of change.
The normalization of cynical attitudes in politics has resulted in endemic cynicism and political exploitation, where charges of stolen elections, fraudulent activity, and conspiracy theories abound. While there have always been those that harbor unsupported suspicion of the government, they’ve typically been small, fringe elements. However, during the past two decades these cynical suspicions have entered the mainstream with alarming regularity. Reference the “stolen” 2000 election that remains a hotly contested issue almost two decades later. Or the 2004 charge by Howard Dean that Republicans manipulated elections and suppressed voters. Even the 2008 election, relatively controversy free compared with 2000 and 2004, saw the “birther” debate take hold and despite ample evidence disproving it, the controversy persists. One of the reasons these storylines continue uncontested by large portions of the electorate stems from the endemic cynicism that’s developed.
Undoubtedly, some political accusations have merit and that’s precisely why skepticism is healthy for democracy. Questioning politician’s platforms, requiring proof of media claims, thinking critically about issues — these are all useful skills for an informed citizenry. Conversely, assuming all politicians are dishonest, disputing every media claim outright, and passively thinking are all actions that encourage endemic cynicism. This is dangerous because our democracy is by the people, for the people; as such, it depends on the people. It depends on the people to actively engage the political system, to help shape the national narrative, and to challenge the false storylines designed to mislead and dissuade. Unfortunately, many have indulged in this endemic cynicism and it has allowed stories to manifest into dangerous political narratives.
An Erosion of Legitimacy
Unchecked, cynical narratives have steadily risen to the level of questioning the legitimacy of sitting presidents and the states institutions. Take two of the post-election narratives that took hold after each of the past elections: George W. Bush “stole” the election and Barack Obama won more because of his race than his qualifications. And the groundwork already exists for similar narratives — ‘Clinton (Trump) only won the election because s/he ran against Trump (Clinton)’ or ‘Gary Johnson only won because the two major candidates were so distasteful.” Even the oft-repeated metaphor about voting for the lesser of two evils smacks of a cynicism, rather than a belief in candidates qualifications. Though varied, the narratives have a common theme that serves to undermine the democratic process. Namely, that the person in the office is somehow undeservedly there, that forces that had little to do with their qualifications led them into the Whitehouse. While these are attempts are primarily designed to attack the individual or a political platform, they have a secondary effect of eroding the legitimacy of the position as well.
This erosion has a trickle down effect that permeates politics. Like the fruit of a poisonous tree doctrine inherent in our legal system, implying that a president is not legitimate, by extension questions the legitimacy of their policies, their appointees, and their legacy. In concrete terms this means that appointed Supreme Court Justices, signed legislation, domestic and foreign policies all become questionable. At the most personal level, these narratives attempt to invalidate the citizens who voted for that individual, leading to further polarization amongst the voters.
A Return to the Skepticism
Politics in this age of cynicism have become negative and ineffective, leaving many individuals feeling hopeless and disenfranchised. But individuals are not passive bystanders in this process. Every individual has the power to alter their course, to replace cynicism with skepticism, to challenge the narratives and look for solutions. Decades of cynicism have slowly eroded thoughtful political deliberation and replaced it with negativity and partisanship. Democracy requires that one believe in something bigger than themselves, but to do that one has to first believe in their individual ability to bring about change. In politics, like life, there is more to be gained from a skeptical outlook than a cynical one.