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  • The Twilight of the Political? A Contribution to the Democratic Critique of Cynicism
  • Alan Keenan (bio)

On the pages of America’s newspapers and magazines, on its radio airwaves, and on the screens of its televisions, Americans’ growing “cynicism” about politics and the state of American democracy is a topic of near constant discussion. 1 In most instances, “cynicism” is used to refer to a rather loosely defined set of attitudes and behaviors, ranging across a variety of forms of political disenchantment. The most frequently mentioned signs of its existence include the declining rates of participation in national and local elections, 2 growing displeasure with the negativity and “incivility” of American political discourse, especially during election campaigns, anger at the broken promises and undeserved “perks” of professional politicians, lack of faith in the efficiency and effectiveness of the federal government, and high levels of economic insecurity that feed widespread doubts that the nation’s social problems can be solved or mitigated anytime soon. In a particularly lengthy and serious treatment published in the Washington Post in early 1996, all of the above attitudes were analyzed in detail, based on the results of extensive public surveys done in 1995. 3 While the week-long series of articles, entitled “Reality Check: The Politics of Mistrust,” failed to present a coherent interpretation of Americans’ political disenchantment, it did offer evidence that levels of mistrust, alienation, anger, ignorance and pessimism with respect to the country’s governing political institutions had reached unprecedented levels. 4

The question of why there would be such widespread political disenchantment is in some ways not a difficult one to answer. Reasons for unhappiness with the present state of American democracy are not hard to find, from the deep, though mostly legal, corruption in the way political campaigns are financed, the conflicts of interest and gross disparities in degrees of political influence that such financing brings with it, and the continued growth in inequalities of wealth, income and opportunity between different classes of Americans, to the general disempowerment of people in most spheres of their lives, the regular instances of injustice, insecurity and suffering characteristic of market society, and a host of related social problems—poverty, lack of affordable housing, drug addiction, unprecedented percentages of people in prisons and jails, continued ecological destruction—which the political system seems incapable of responding to effectively. Then there is long list of now-public abuses of political power and privilege in the recent U.S. past, ranging from Watergate, Vietnam, and CIA covert actions and FBI harassment of political critics in the 60’s and 70’s, to the Savings and Loan fraud of the 80’s and White water in the 90’s—as well as the multiple “scandals” concerning politicians’ private behavior, of which the Clinton-Lewinsky saga is only the most recent and explosive. 5 The more difficult and interesting question might instead be why there isn’t deeper political disenchantment and anger than there seems to be. 6

Indeed, the most important aspect of today’s popular discourse on Americans’ political cynicism and disenchantment is the way in which it focuses attention, however crudely and unintentionally at times, on the question of why the democratic deficiencies in the nation’s governing institutions generate such broad levels of political alienation and resignation, rather than increased political action with a view toward democratic reforms. The real, if not always articulated, concern of much of the discussion of “cynicism” is with the apparent loss of faith not just in the particular politicians in office today, or even in the particular institutions of American representative democracy, but in the very activity of democratic politics itself, understood as a mode of popular self-governance and improvement. Part of the answer to this question no doubt lies in the specific character of the problems that face democratic politics in the U.S. today. The most obvious of these would be the profound self-enclosure of the American political system, whereby the power of huge and financially well-equipped institutions to set the terms of public debate, assisted by the dominance of TV over grassroots organizations—and even political parties—as the primary source of political...

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