CAN WE BE TOO CYNICAL THESE DAYS?
It has been a few weeks since I sat in the synagogue on Yom Kippur, reading a list of items for which “we” must atone (Jews atone in the first person plural, not the first person singular). When I got to the word “cynicism,” I did a double take. “That sure applies to me, “ I said to myself. I can’t believe how cynical I have become as of late when it comes to government and politics.
As I closed my eyes and atoned for that cynicism, I was jolted by the memory of an incident from the previous week. A friend had commented about my recent increase in cynicism, but oddly enough, he was paying me a compliment. According to this friend, my uptick in cynicism toward politics and government was merely a reflection that I was finally opening my eyes to reality.
Is that really true? Is cynicism just a higher stage of wisdom? Or, if you prefer the question asked this way, is it possible, given the present state of the American political marketplace, to be overly cynical – or is our political mess worse than we could possibly imagine? This much you can’t deny – cynicism has become as American as apple pie. The New York Times reported that, according to a nationwide telephone poll of 1,600 adults that was conducted from October 19th-24th, “89 percent of Americans say they distrust government to do the right thing, ... 74 percent say the country is on the wrong track and 84 percent disapprove of Congress.” My only question is why those numbers weren’t 100, 100 and 100, respectively.
Seriously, I have to laugh when I hear Democratic cheerleaders get on TV and rave about how “we progressives” just adore the tough talk that has lately emerged from Obama’s lips. I’m reminded of the old joke about the time when the Lone Ranger and Tonto were surrounded by a group of angry Indians and the Lone Ranger asks his buddy, “What do we do now?” Tonto’s response is the same as my response to the Administration’s cheerleaders: “What do you mean ‘WE’”?
When I look at the President that I and millions of other progressives worked so hard to elect, I see a consummate campaigner but hardly a committed progressive ... let alone an effective leader. His promises in 2008 were full of red meat for liberals. Yet as President, he showed little willingness to take on the ever growing inequalities of wealth when he presided for a full year over a Congress with 60 Democrats in the Senate and a large majority in the House, another year with 59 Democrats in the Senate and a large majority in the House, and 2/3 of a year with a split Congress. So now that the Republicans have essentially said that they will fight him on any meaningful legislative effort involving core economic issues, Obama has entered campaign mode, and we can expect him to remain there until early November of 2012.
Why should I give a damn whether his political calculus is to campaign as a moderate or a progressive? Didn’t these past three years show that what he says on the campaign trail and what he fights for as President may have little to do with each other?
So now that I have basically said that whatever statements the President has to make about economics are mere words that need not be taken seriously, I do have to acknowledge that at least his “mere words” seem to make a lot more sense than those of his adversaries. Call me a masochist, but I watch the Republican debates religiously – I even TiVo them when I’m not home. And I find them as ridiculous as a Three Stooges festival. It almost seems pointless to mock the debates, for the participants do such a good job of that themselves.
It’s probably fitting that the current poll leader among the Republican candidates, Herman Cain, is a guy who wants to introduce a 9 percent federal sales tax at a time when the nation needs to encourage consumer spending. Not to be outdone, Rick Perry came out with his own tax plan that would lower taxes for the rich, maintain the taxes for the middle class, and send many others scrambling through tax form after tax form to find out which of those categories they fit into. Generally speaking, the Republican tax proposals have two things in common – they would add to the deficit, and they would redistribute money in favor of those who need it the least. Keep in mind that this is a time when deficits and income inequalities have famously shot through the roof. So why would we want them to increase even more?
It’s as if some Einstein was asked to propose a plan to address an epidemic of obesity and came up with the idea of lowering the price of beer and fries. I can see why the idea might catch on, don’t get me wrong. But its creator belongs more on Comedy Central than on CNN, that’s all I’m saying.
Leave it to the loveable lunkheads like Cain, Perry, Paul and Bachman to make Mitt Romney look good. Hell, they’re even making Newt look good. But most importantly, they’re making Obama look good. Despite all the cynicism reflected in the above poll, and despite the current state of our economy, the new numbers indicate that as many people approve of the job Obama is doing as disapprove. And that says more about his opponents than it says about him.
Perhaps the relatively positive view of Obama is, paradoxically, the most profound statement of our current level of cynicism. Our view of government has become so negative that as long as you don’t leave your ex-wife when she has cancer (Newt), strap your dog to the hood of your car during a family road trip (Mitt), say you are pro-choice one day and pro-life the next (Cain), conduct yourself during debates like you’re drunk and then threaten to skip the debates altogether (Perry), or support dismantling the EPA (Bachman) or everything beyond a truly minimalist government (Paul) ... I guess the American public will be happy enough with your performance.
That probably explains why year after year, decade after decade, the vast majority of incumbents who run for Congressional seats come out victorious. That also explains why as badly as he did as President, George W. Bush came out victorious when he ran for re-election. To a cynic, hope starts to give rise to fear, and the next thing you know, you find yourself voting based on the idea that “the devil you know is better than the devil you don’t.”
Of course, Barack Obama campaigned on a platform of hope, not fear. But with each feckless step that he took as President, that “hopey, changey” stuff gave rise to an even greater layer of national cynicism. It might end up cementing his victory next November, but what do you bet that when he does get re-elected, he’ll be selected as the lesser of two evils. And he’ll preside over a powerless Government.
When it comes to cynicism, we in America have come a long, long way since the last inauguration. Then again, at this point, the only direction we can go is up. If there is a silver lining here, I guess it’s that. Oh yeah – that, and the fact that we political junkies have in store for us a whole year of really, really good comedy.