Becoming Cynically Realistic

For more than 200 years, the tale of George Washington and the cherry tree has symbolized the virtue of America’s first president and, by his example, the importance of integrity as an attribute of political leadership. Unfortunately, the cherry tree story is a myth, concocted in 1806 by an enterprising preacher, Mason L. Weems, who hoped to bolster the flagging sales of his rather shallow biography of Washington. While it may seem ironic that an anecdote designed to highlight the importance of truth telling is, itself, a fabrication, this irony is precisely the significance of the story. Parson Weems’ fable helps to illustrate the duplicity and hypocrisy so often at the heart of the political process

Critics who insist on pointing out the regular discrepancies between politicians’ claims and their true purposes are inevitably accused of fostering public cynicism. The news media, in particular, are regularly charged with promoting cynicism through their negative coverage of politicians and government officials. This charge is made so often that even many journalists have come to believe it. Nearly 40 percent of the journalists responding to a recent survey agreed that journalists were too cynical. Some analysts assert that public doubts about the government and politicians diminish popular participation and undermine political institutions. Harvard political scientist Joseph Nye has said that cynicism about the political process tends to reduce the “quality” of American democracy. Several scholars have recently proposed that the government and private institutions should work to develop educational programs and other initiatives to promote popular political trust. A number of states, as noted above, have already launched civic education campaigns designed to combat political cynicism among young people. And, even as they regularly present rather unflattering accounts of the governmental and political processes, members of the national news media frequently urge Americans to eschew cynicism. “Cynicism can destroy our nation as readily as enemy bombs,” wrote one columnist who apparently loves hyperbole as much as he abhors cynicism.

These condemnations of cynicism, though, seem rather misguided. Perhaps members of the nation’s political class have reason to be concerned about cynicism. After all, cynical citizens hardly make enthusiastic subjects or reliable followers. Yet, popular cynicism is hardly an aberration or malady to be cured through the dissemination of more effective propaganda materials. Instead, cynicism should be understood as a reasonable, if mainly intuitive, popular response to the realities of politics. Millions of Americans see over and over again that politicians and government officials routinely deceive, mislead and misinform them, offering pretexts while masking their true plans and purposes.

“I have previously stated and I repeat now that the United States plans no military intervention in Cuba.” said President John F.Kennedy in 1961 as he planned military action in Cuba. “As president, it is my duty to the American people to report that renewed hostile actions against United States ships on the high seas in the Gulf of Tonkin have today required me to order the military forces of the United States to take action in reply,” said President Lyndon Johnson in 1964 as he fabricated an incident to justify expansion of American involvement in Viet Nam. “We did not, I repeat, did not-trade weapons or anything else [to Iran] for hostages, nor will we.” said President Ronald Reagan in November,1986, four months before admitting that U.S arms had been traded to Iran in exchange for Americans being held hostage there. “Simply stated, there is no doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction,” said Vice President Dick Cheney in 2002. When it turned out that these weapons did not exist, Assistant Defense Secretary, Paul Wolfowitz, explained, “For bureaucratic reasons, we settled on one issue, weapons of mass destruction (as justification for invading Iraq) because it was the one reason everyone could agree on.” “First if all, if you’ve got health insurance, you like your doctor, you like your plan–you can keep your doctor, you can keep your plan. Nobody is talking about taking that away from you,” said President Obama as he prepared to launch a program that would compel many Americans to change their physicians and health plans.

In the 2016 presidential campaign, Hillary Clinton continued to insist that she had been exonerated by an FBI probe of her email practices even after the FBI director stated on national television that she had lied but not committed a crime. Her rival, Donald Trump, also showed little regard for facts claiming, for example, that he had personally witnessed Muslims in New Jersey celebrating the destruction of the Twin Towers in 2001–something that did not happen and that he could not have observed.

Since politicians and public officials are less than candid it is quite appropriate for ordinary citizens to be cynics. Ambrose Bierce defined a cynic as a, “blackguard whose faulty vision sees things as they are, not as they ought to be.” If anything, too many Americans lack a requisite sense of cynicism. About half those responding to University of Michigan surveys say the government can be trusted most of the time and nearly two-thirds disagree with the proposition that public officials don’t really care what people think. These recent percentages actually represent an increase in public trust after some decline between the 1960s and 1990s. But, shouldn’t every American be just a bit distrustful of a class of individuals whose most prominent members, contrary to all logic and evidence, claim never to have inhaled, aver that they hardly even knew that pesky Ms. Lewinsky, or suggest they reluctantly agreed to forego the opportunity to serve in Viet Nam in order to undertake the more onerous task of defending the air space over Texas. For that matter, can anyone truly believe the legions of lesser politicians who portentously declare that they are driven by an overwhelming urge to “fight” for the right of every last geezer to receive a pension check? Far from being a pathological condition, cynicism is a useful defense against such duplicity.

Yet, cynicism alone is hardly an adequate guide to the reality of politics. Political cynics often see through the lies of the political class only to fall prey to even more bizarre fantasies. Millions of Americans, for example, who don’t trust the government also believe that federal officials are hiding evidence of extraterrestrial visitors at a secret base in New Mexico. These individuals are ready to spurn official claims but, in their place, accept science fiction tales as reality. An understanding of politics requires not only a willingness to reject falsehoods, but also the ability to assess objective evidence and arrive at the truth. The Chinese call this marriage of cynicism and objectivity, “cynical realism,” connoting an effort to substitute a true and accurate picture of political life for the lies told by the authorities. Cynical realism might be a very useful commodity to import from China–unless it is banned by a Trump administration.