Lily Tomlin once said, "No matter how cynical I become, it's never enough to keep up." This bit of self-disclosure has become deeply embedded in the national psyche. Of all the political challenges we face today, perhaps the most difficult is the depth and breadth of cynicism in America. This attitude, from across the political landscape, is a contagious virus limiting our trust and confidence in institutions both big and small, public and private. In February, a New York Times/CBS survey found that just 19 percent of Americans trusted government to do the right thing, matching the all-time low and well below the level of trust in government in the aftermath of Watergate. ¶ At its core, cynicism is the belief that nothing is what it seems, that motivations are always suspect, that agendas are always hidden. Cynicism in our country has become a form of both cheap intelligence and pseudo-sophistication. Cynics can often appear as floating above it all, as realists who refuse to be duped by our political leaders or other elites in society. Cynics' stock-in-trade is to always question motives. Whatever your views are regarding the size and scope of government, cynicism has a powerful corrosive effect that undermines its core legitimacy and its ability to carry out functions both large and small.
This form of civic dysfunction comes from both ends of the political spectrum.
The political left's unyielding belief in the power of government to effect positive change in American life has caused liberals to time and again overpromise and underproduce what government can accomplish in our lives.
The ever-increasing inflation of their rhetoric at election time is a source of deep cynicism in America's political culture. One example is how the government never "spends" money; it now "invests" in programs with a supposed return that rarely seems to materialize. The simple fact is there appears to be an inverse relationship between politicians promising what government can do and the public's confidence in government action.
The political right is not without blame in fanning the flames of cynicism. Conservatives' relentless effort to convince the public that government can do nothing right has taken a huge toll on government's ability to take on any big issues. We recently saw this in the health care debate. Democrats were cast as wanting to provide insurance to 30 million Americans simply to "hook more people on government." On the other hand, Republicans were seen as opposed to health care so they "could destroy the Obama presidency." Both of these narratives will ensure that the health care bill will be fought over for years to come, regardless of any merits it may or may not have.
Free trade is another issue that plays into the hands of cynics. Is it a strategy for building living standards worldwide or a race to the bottom that harms our environment and exploits the poor?
Perhaps no other institution fuels the flames of cynicism in our country more than the press. Like schoolyard instigators who want to see a good fight, the media relentlessly call into question the motives and goodwill of all sides of an issue, while bemoaning the lack of civility and bipartisanship. Their relentless focus on what doesn't work, political conflict, and the real or imagined motives of leaders in both the public and private sector has had a huge impact on public confidence in major institutions.
Every one agrees that the press has an important "watchdog" role in our democratic society. What the press does not do, however, is look at the impact its coverage has on our political and civic culture. When the press plays "gotcha" journalism, or focuses only on conflict between various parties, even when it is only a small part of a story, the public trust, confidence and cynicism are affected.
While this dynamic has always existed to some extent in the press, the impact has grown as the power of government and other major institutions has had an ever-increasing impact on our lives.
The surest way to reduce cynicism in America is to rely less on major institutions to do for us what we can and should do for ourselves. We also need to build civic institutions and media outlets that foster honest debate and explore the weakness but not the motives of opposing points of view. Like the quality of government, we in this country will get the level of cynicism we deserve. It is up to us to realize that no political or business leader acts with single motivation. The polarizing radio talk-show host likely believes what he is saying and is also trying to build a audience. Newspapers are trying to inform the public and sell ads. The businessman is trying to make a profit and provide jobs and improve the community. And the majority of our political leaders know how to get media attention, fire up their bases and raise campaign contributions. We just need to demand they don't fan the flames of cynicism and undermine our vital political institutions in the process.
Peter Bell is chairman of the Metropolitan Council and is involved in numerous other civic activities.
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