What’s Left: Public Cynicism

Elton Steinberg

Today, cynicism is prevalent in all aspects of society. On Sunday, February 2, Phillip Seymour Hoffman – who mastered the art of reflecting unpalatable aspects of human nature – passed away at the age of 46. Arguably the most talented actor of our time, he was able to portray complex characters that were deeply cynical. His depictions of Truman Capote and Lancaster Dodd forfeit integrity in pursuit of personal gain. They are both deeply cynical about religion, friendship and society. Despite the inner contradictions and external malfeasance of the characters he portrayed, Hoffman was able to evoke sympathy from an audience in which such cynicism is endemic. He reflected the cynicism of American society.

The public cynicism about politics is the most pertinent example of the deep-rooted cynicism in our society. Cynicism about politics is found everywhere. Many are cynical about the ability for our democratic government to effectively govern. Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, cynicism exists even at the highest levels of government.

Last week, President Obama delivered the State of the Union Address, in which he outlined policy objectives for the remainder of his presidency. In contrast with the rhetoric of his 2008 campaign, his public speaking now reflects the realities of a bitterly divided political system. Given the failure of Congress to cooperate and redress a wide variety of societal ills, President Obama suggested that he would resort to personally “take steps without legislation to expand opportunity for more American families.” He pledged to address growing income inequality by raising the Federal Minimum Wage, along with a variety of other measures that do not require engaging members of Congress. Although he expressed confidence in the spirit of the American people, President Obama also expressed disdain about the ability of Congress to compromise and introduce effective policy.

President Obama’s speech elicited a wide variety of responses. There were the predictable responses from members of the Republican Party, who continued to express unwillingness to negotiate on economic policy or healthcare reform. Responses from the public were often less targeted. Instead, they reflected a deep cynicism about the political system and expressed a general sentiment that the U.S. government is becoming a so-called lost cause. Fringe groups espoused radical beliefs that President Obama was becoming a dictator and that our democratic system was eroding. Although they were not often articulate points about the reality of the state of politics, they demonstrate a deep sense of cynicism about politics in our society.

One can ask, why care about cynicism? Cynicism has the potential to poison the roots of our democracy. Democracy requires a faith in the capacity of other citizens to make sound judgments; it requires a belief that those who hold opposing views are rational humans who deserve to be heard.

If people are not listening to one another because they are cynical about the capacity of those with opposing views to hold rational beliefs, democracy will not prevail. Moreover, if people are cynical about public institutions and believe that these institutions do not reflect their interests, American democracy may lose its public legitimacy. This has immense implications for the future of our country.

Contact Elton Steinberg at [email protected]