The tri­umph of cyn­i­cism

Cecil Whig - - OPINION - Michael Ger­son

— “The most amaz­ing thing about the 2016 elec­tions,” Roger Porter of Har­vard’s Kennedy School of Gov­ern­ment told me, “is that we are likely to elect some­one who close to two-thirds of the coun­try does not trust.”

The choice of­fered to Amer­i­cans this Novem­ber is the largest fail­ure of the two-party sys­tem since (at least) the de­moc­ra­ti­za­tion of the pri­mary process in 1968. Re­cent events have re­vealed a Demo­cratic can­di­date who was dan­ger­ously care­less in the con­duct of her pub­lic du­ties, de­cep­tive in her own de­fense and se­cure in the (cor­rect) as­sump­tion of im­punity.

The Re­pub­li­can can­di­date is one of the few politi­cians in Amer­ica ca­pa­ble of mak­ing Hil­lary Clin­ton ap­pear sym­pa­thetic on the worst day of her cam­paign. Don­ald Trump — again fall­ing off the teleprompter wagon — ac­cused the at­tor­ney gen­eral of bribery, ob­ses­sively de­fended an anti-Semitic meme and praised the late Sad­dam Hus­sein for be­ing “re­ally good at killing ter­ror­ists.” On the ev­i­dence of Hal­abja, Hus­sein was also re­ally good at killing women and chil­dren with mus­tard gas, sarin, tabun and VX. “Sad­dam Hus­sein throws a lit­tle gas,” Trump mocked in De­cem­ber, “ev­ery­one goes crazy, ‘Oh, he’s us­ing gas!’”

Just to be clear: Any leader who makes light of the largest chem­i­cal weapons at­tack on civil­ians in his­tory — which, among other hor­rors, sent chil­dren into con­vul­sions and res­pi­ra­tory fail­ure — has a moral screw loose, a sick­ness of the soul. Paul Ryan and Reince Priebus, meet the man you have en­dorsed.

So th­ese are the op­tions of­fered by the main par­ties — two of the least pop­u­lar, least trusted politi­cians our coun­try has re­cently produced. Isn’t this the ex­act op­po­site of what po­lit­i­cal par­ties — de­signed, pre­sum­ably, to win elec­tions — are sup­posed to do?

Is this, per­haps, a fail­ure of the sys­tem we use to se­lect can­di­dates? The 2016 nom­i­na­tion process was a con­trolled ex­per­i­ment that un­der­mined this hy­poth­e­sis. In the Re­pub­li­can Party, the es­tab­lish­ment lost. In the Demo­cratic Party, the es­tab­lish­ment won. Both or­ga­ni­za­tions still failed at their pri­mary mis­sion — pick­ing a can­di­date of strong char­ac­ter and broad ex­pe­ri­ence with an in­formed and com­pelling vi­sion of the com­mon good.

If it is not the sys­tem that is at fault, it must be a trait or tem­per of mind found in the elec­torate. Ev­ery

WASHINGTON

po­lit­i­cal com­men­ta­tor has be­come an am­a­teur so­ci­ol­o­gist, try­ing to ex­plain how rapid eco­nomic, so­cial and cul­tural change has re­sulted in a pop­ulist backlash against elites. Pro­fes­sor Porter — who is a re­spected pro­fes­sional in such mat­ters — cites a lack of sus­tained eco­nomic growth, the dis­lo­ca­tions of glob­al­iza­tion, in­creas­ing in­equal­ity of wealth and the fright­en­ing messi­ness of for­eign af­fairs.

The over­all re­sult, Porter says, is a “rise in cyn­i­cism and re­sent­ment.” The re­sent­ment is natural, and is likely over time to change the pol­icy pro­file of both par­ties. But cyn­i­cism is not al­ways tied to re­sent­ment. Wil­liam Jen­nings Bryan em­bod­ied an ide­al­is­tic pop­ulism. Fol­low­ing the Water­gate scan­dal, vot­ers turned to the squeaky clean Jimmy Carter.

Cyn­i­cism is more dan­ger­ous to democ­racy than out­rage. Cyn­i­cism pre­tends to a kind of so­phis­ti­cated, in­sider knowl­edge of in­sti­tu­tional cor­rup­tion. It says: I can see, even if you can’t, how the whole ball of wax — pol­i­tics, eco­nom­ics, re­li­gion — is rigged in fa­vor of cap­i­tal­ist eco­nomic elites, or lib­eral so­cial elites, or both. “We have a crooked sys­tem,” Trump has said, “we have a rigged sys­tem.” Since no one wants to ap­pear the fool, cyn­i­cism is in­fec­tious. Many Amer­i­cans feel ex­ploited but be­lieve that politi­cians who of­fer ide­al­is­tic an­swers are frauds.

This per­spec­tive dra­mat­i­cally re­duces the as­pi­ra­tions of pol­i­tics — set­ting the eth­i­cal bar lower than we would for al­most any other pro­fes­sion. Democrats know their can­di­date is not trusted, but at least she is a fighter who un­der­stands the vast con­spir­acy set against her. Repub­li­cans know their can­di­date is a world-class cynic, but at least he can get down in the dirt with the Clin­tons, lie for lie, threat for threat.

But there are other ef­fects as the toxic cloud of cyn­i­cism set­tles over Amer­i­can pol­i­tics. No mat­ter who wins, the other side will view the vic­tor as il­le­git­i­mate — an unin­dicted crim­i­nal or a loopy bigot. The win­ner will find that a cyn­i­cal pub­lic co­heres like dry sand. It will be ac­cord­ingly dif­fi­cult to rally the whole coun­try around hard or dan­ger­ous na­tional goals. And a great coun­try will con­tinue to be crip­pled by its pol­i­tics.

The worst hell of de­spair is be­liev­ing that hope it­self is a racket.

Michael Ger­son is a syn­di­cated colum­nist. Con­tact him at michael­ger­son@wash­post.com.

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