This essay was originally posted on July 31 2019.
“I believe the single most pressing challenge facing American society today is widespread public cynicism.” With these words, I opened my book The Cynical Society, published in 1991. I was deeply concerned by the interaction between the cynicism of politicians, on the one hand, and the cynicism of the media and commentators, including social scientists and critical theorists, on the other. The cynicism of politicians was damaging, I maintained, but more troubling was the confusion of criticism with cynicism, undermining democratic accomplishments and overlooking democratic promise. America was both a cynical society and an actually existing democratic society, in my understanding. My fear was that the cynicism was threatening to undermine the democracy.
Today, I believe, matters are much worse. Cynicism may destroy democracy: this as a result of the speech and action of “the cynic in chief,” and his peers around the world, but also treasonously by their facilitators who clearly should know better, and even by some of their opponents. If I were to write a revised edition of The Cynical Society about the American “Politics of Culture and Culture of Politics,” (my earlier subtitle) the leading characters would include Trump, McConnell, Pelosi and company, and the people who report on, analyze, oppose and support them.
“It’s not what you know, it’s who you know.” “They are all in it for the power and the money.” These core vernacular propositions animate our cynicism. They guide popular accounts of the workings of the economy and politics, as well as policy formulations, and pragmatic and critical theories. I see such cynicism everywhere I look these days.
Trump is cynical at his core. Maximize advantage. Diminish opposition. Be on top. This is “the art of the deal.” Those who get it are admired, tough guys who play to win: commercial competitors in his previous life, murderous dictators now. Those who don’t get it are fools, patsies, even pansies, to be dominated. He has no principles, no core beliefs, other than impulsive xenophobia, racism and sexism.
The Republican Party, “the Grand Old Party,” the G.O.P., is grand no longer. It’s now the Trump Party, a motley crew of cynical players. Its ties to the ideals of the party of Lincoln, T. Roosevelt, Taft, Eisenhower and Reagan, Bush I, and even Nixon and Bush II have been torn asunder. Since 1968 and Nixon’s southern strategy, the leaders of the party have used a cynical racism to prevail, to be sure, but there were principles of limited government, respect for past customs and habits, and the traditions of religion and morality, and the defense of liberty at home and abroad. Now the core principles have been abandoned to achieve economic benefit and power, supporting the no longer veiled racism. The moral majority, the religious right, now rationalizes a profoundly immoral person; his cruelty, vindictiveness, licentiousness, and sexual abominations, including rape, are all ignored. Fiscal conservatives, “tea party patriots,” free market conservatives and budget balancers, accept ballooning budget deficits, tariffs and executive interventions that reward personal friends and punish political enemies. Champions of the global battle for liberal democracy, steadfast anti-communists with long pedigree, now support a man who doesn’t know the difference between liberals on the west coast of the United States and the western liberal democracy, as he opposes both. Prominent Republican politicians in pursuit of narrow and self interests publicly pretend they don’t see what has become of America, and its position in global politics.
In 1991, I argued that when you look carefully at the cynical politics of the day, you could still discern the principled bases of American politics, and see how the political contests of those times were still at stake in local, state and federal elections, concerning the role of the state in the economy, international relations, the support of a social safety net, and much else. Though these differences persist to a certain degree, they are now overshadowed by the fundamental question concerning the very existence of American democracy as an incomplete project. The ever-ready cynical abandonment of all principles by Republican politicians has led to this.
As Trump excuses mass atrocity and white supremacy, pals around with dictators, attacks a free press, accuses his opponents of treason, demonizes asylum seekers, creates concentration camps (while he and his facilitators vilify those who name them for what they clearly are), he turns the celebration of national independence into a partisan celebration of himself. Republican abandonment of principles is destroying democracy in America and far beyond. Republicans are not only acquiescing to his transgression of democratic norms and practices; they are imitating his ways. Republican cynicism has turned American politics into a contest for the republic and democracy against a deepening cynical authoritarianism, a form of governance in which leader declares only he can fix it and his base cheer wildly, and Republican politicians look the other way, at best advising to watch what he and they do, not what he says.
And then there is the opposition. I think the Democratic Party presents the last, best hope for democracy in America. I see no alternative. It must unify and unite with forces outside the party to present a consequential alternative to Trump and Trumpism. But I am not confident this will happen. The Party is seriously divided, and too closed to extra-party alliances. Cynicism is a danger here too, along with ideology.
The divisions are serious, involving conflicting principles and interests, and generational and institutional conflicts. Jeffrey C. Isaac has described them well here in his posts on the perils of Pelosi, his opposition to Biden, and what he sees as the imperative of impeaching Donald Trump.
Party moderates, led by Biden and Pelosi, believe that the key to party victory and defeat of Donald Trump is to appeal to the broad center of American public opinion, to address the bread and butter concerns of the middle and working classes, to return to the sensible domestic and foreign policies of the Obama years, and work to extend them. They don’t view corporations as the enemy, and the word “socialism” frightens them.
Party progressives are not so easily frightened, indeed many of them identify with the ideals of democratic socialism. They believe that the key to success is to fully engage those who have been marginalized and systematically disadvantaged by the existing order of things, which very much predates Trump. They attack Wall Street and corporate interests. Their proposed programs, specifically on the Green New Deal and Medicare for All, are directed against those interests, and combine concern with healthcare and care for the environment with the pursuit of social justice.
These are real differences. In the face of Trump, Isaac, speaking as a progressive, calls for agonistic respect, oppose but don’t demonize Biden and other moderates as well. I agree and, of course, I also believe that moderates should oppose their progressive opponents in the same spirit. Yet, I am deeply concerned that moderate cynicism, along with the progressives ideology, challenge this democratic spirit. The way “the democratic debate turned ferocious over healthcare in the first primary debate” and subsequent debates demonstrates my concerns.
Moderate cynicism is based on a straightforward and reasonable political judgment: the key to defeating Trump is to appeal to the vital center of American politics, to appeal to those who are turned off by and fear Trump’s obnoxious personality and who have been hurt by his policies. The moderates believe that Trump, along with his ever more reactionary supporters and facilitators, will be defeated by appealing swing voters. Along with their progressive colleagues, they, in their self-understanding, want to improve the healthcare system, to address the immense challenges of of climate change and the escalating problems of economic inequality and persistent problems of race, gender, and class injustices, and defend the viability of liberal democracy. But they differ in the way they seek to go about achieving all this. Incremental as opposed to radical change, they judge, is both the more likely and more desirable path to significant change. They believe that progressives may lead to the re-election of Trump. Reasonable judgment shifts to cynical calculation when moderates highlight their position by denigrating those who are more ambitious in their policy goals, less patient in achieving and less willing to compromise them. Thus, the performances of Delaney, Bullock and Hickenpooper in the first debate, Nancy Pelosi’s attack on Alexandria Orasio-Cortez and the squad earlier this year, and in the not so distant past, Joe Biden’s attack on busing decades ago and Bill Clinton’s infamous Sista Souljah attack and the continuing celebrations of his “moderate” gesture. The moderates act against the base seeking centrist support in and out of the party, knowing that progressives have no place else to go. I think we should recognize that this is the stuff of normal politics, but in the face of the unique challenges of our times such normality skirts with disaster.
It can and does result in critical progressive response, and I believe it should. It challenges the political solidarity among democrats that is required to put an end to our too long national nightmare. Seasoned moderate politicians and the commentators that support them, such as Thomas Freidman, are critically overlooking the vital insight of the wisdom of youth, as I described it in my essay “Two Cheers for Ageism.”
Progressives pose a different problem. With their critical understanding that fundamental change is necessary and in their response to the prevailing cynicism, they are tempted by ideology focusing on political litmus tests concerning: “Medicare for All,” or “The Green New Deal,” past support of the crime bill, overzealous prosecution, and the like. Although these are legitimate issues for debate, all or nothing appraisal threatens to impede an effective opposition to Trump and Trumpism.
Although I am with the progressives on these issues, I am concerned by the way the debate is proceeding.
We progressives have a capacity to turn victory into defeat. Our positions on climate change, healthcare, inequality, incarceration and much else, have become the prevailing position in the party, and have the potential to reinvent American political culture, but instead of consolidating our positions and pushing them forward, and most significantly working steadfastly to defeat Trump and Trumpism, too often we draw lines in the sand, insisting on purity.
The cynicism of Trump and his supporters and cynical facilitators are a direct threat to democracy in America and far beyond. The cynicism of Democratic moderates, encouraged and ineffectively opposed by ideological progressives, heightens the threat. But there is an alternative: an alliance of principled, politically creative democratic moderates and progressives. I will explore this alternative, which I very much believe is the realistic basis for hope and progressive change, in a future essay. Hint: my working title, “For Democracy, Creativity, and The Politics of Small Things.”
Jeffrey C. Goldfarb, the Michael E. Gellert Professor of Sociology at