There’s too much cynicism in American politics, and populist politicians are exacerbating the problem. That’s the opinion of NY Times op-ed contributor Greg Weiner. Claims that the American political system is rigged (Elizabeth Warren) or corrupt (Bernie Sanders) or a swamp in need of draining (Donald Trump) make reasoned political discourse harder because they tend to demonize policies and politicians you don’t like. The populists want you to think that the system is rotten and anybody who’s not against it like them is part of the rot.
I want to talk about cynicism and politics, but first let’s take down Weiner’s scurrilous conflation of Warren and Sanders with Trump. You can call Sanders and Warren populists, and you may or may not think they have good, realistic ideas, but you cannot deny that their policy proposals are genuinely aimed at changing the distribution of economic benefits and even political power in our country. On the other hand, Trump’s promise to “drain the swamp” was completely empty—a catchphrase without any policy content. If Washington is a swamp, Trump has done nothing to drain it; if anything, he has filled it with more alligators. The Trump administration is a veritable feeding trough for corporate special interests (often called “rent seekers” in social science jargon), from Bettsy Devos’s favored for-profit colleges to the fossil fuel industries sheltered from action against global warming.
About political cynicism: a month or two ago I was walking up Broadway in Manhattan’s Upper West Side and a guy passed me while talking on his cellphone. I could hear him sternly say something like “…I’m not giving you a dime because I think all politicians are crooks.” This is cynicism. It’s what I call naïve cynicism because it’s completely undiscriminating. All politicians are crooks? Equally? This guy may well think of himself as a tough minded realist on the subject of American politics, but if we are to take him at his word (i.e., if he wasn’t just trying to blow off a request for a donation) he is a political naif. Naïve cynicism is unfortunate. It rationalizes passivity when political action might actually make a difference. (Maybe the politician scorned by our cellphone friend was actually worth helping.) And/or it can be conducive to the appeals of “anti-political” demagogues like Donald Trump.
But is all political cynicism bad? It just happens that much of the cynicism so many Americans display—naïve or otherwise—does roughly correspond to our political realities. Political corruption in the classical sense of politicians taking bribes for favors is rare, but it is entirely reasonable to talk about systemic corruption, given the outsized role that money has come to play in our politics. When members of Congress and other political aspirants must spend an inordinate percentage of their time on fund-raising, as so many of them do, it takes an act of faith to believe that their views aren’t influenced by the interests of the donor class. And it would certainly be naïve to assume that donors are completely un-self-interested, or that they don’t try to use their influence to ensure that their interests are reflected in policy. Of course, donors don’t constitute a unified bloc, but clearly they enjoy more political influence on average than non-donors. And, in fact, there is a substantial body of political science research that finds that those with money do enjoy disproportionate influence in our political system.
So, of course it’s an oversimplification, but it’s not a gross overstatement to say that the system is rigged. On the contrary, it needs to be said.
So, let’s give one cheer for the cynicism that pervades our body politic: much of it is undoubtedly ill-informed and naïve, but it still happens to be largely on target.