The United States has always been characterized by optimism and progress, embedded in our unalienable rights to Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. Unfortunately, negativity has been slowly taking over the American political spectrum and can have devastating effects on our democracy if it continues to grow. An article from The Economist titled “Democracies Enemy from Within” highlights the negative ramifications of the extreme cynicism seen in western democracies recently. The public distrust of politicians has led their legitimacy to be tested, which has allowed for populist leaders to take advantage of and degrade our democracies. The article calls for citizens to end this distrust in our governments and to advocate for more worthy politicians. It is a cautionary tale for the United States, warning us not to feed further into the cynicism like Hungary, or else our democracy will degrade in the same way. However, it is important for us to explore the root of this negative outlook in America, before we can understand how to change it.
There is no doubt that cynicism is a great threat to democracy because it begins with the people. It is a slow feedback loop where both the citizens and the ruling elites contribute and degrade the system. In these instances, the people elect leaders with populist tendencies, out of a distrust in the current administration. However, these leaders begin to take advantage of the people’s already negative perspective of government. The Economist exemplifies this argument through Hungary and the rising power of Viktor Orban and the Fidesz party. This administration began to manipulate laws to their own benefit, which allowed them to maintain power. While this party is still contested, the opposition also feeds into the cynicism and negativity, which continues to define the politics of Hungary.
Hungary is not an isolated case and the first roots that characterized its degradation are beginning to take place in the United States. The article cites President Trump as a someone who belittles his opponents and attacks their morals. They also reference how cynical politicians in the U.S. House and Senate are often known to gerrymander and suppress voters. Judicial appointments are also controversial for becoming highly politicized in recent years. With all branches of our government so entangled in cynical politics, it’s easy for this cycle to continue, which could lead us down a dangerous path of democratic backsliding.
While we know that the United States has seen a rise in cynical populist leaders, we must understand why these leaders appealed to the public in the first place. How did they got elected into this cynical feedback system? The Economist claims that it stems from a distrust in previous government administration, but this distrust comes as a part of a deeper story in the American voter. In Arlie Hochschild’s book, Strangers in their Own Land, she studies voters in rural Lousiana and their motivations for supporting leaders like President Trump. At the surface level, they seemed to be uneducated voters, being manipulated by candidates. Upon closer investigation, it was discovered that their main motivation to vote for Trump was because he defended them against “elitist Democrats” who saw them as simpletons. These Democrats also supported minorities who they saw as the “line-cutters”, or the people who were given priority in the eyes of government support. These populist leaders were elected by Americans who felt ignored and looked down upon by the D.C. elites. The cynicism in American politics began before populism took shape, however, cynicism is the perfect fuel for a populist leader.
While Trump has not been in power long enough to affect the extreme erosion seen in other democracies, his actions are indicative of this trend. Pippa Norris and Ronald Inglehart cite examples of Trump’s populist actions that have been evoking a cultural backlash in the American voter, which can be seen as another form of cynicism. Trump was able to capitalize on the economic hardships seen in the Obama administration to rally support from voters and used intimidating rhetoric to demean the past administration. In response to these types of attacks on Obama and other D.C. elites, extremist groups like white nationalists began to align themselves with Trump. The backlash has led to semblances of democratic erosion in the United States, by intentionally excluding groups and trying to work outside of our current political system.
Now that we know the roots of this cynicism in the American voter, how can we reverse this negative outlook and resist the backsliding that is emerging in the U.S.? The article from the Economist advocates for us to be appreciative of democracy, and to protect it at all costs. While extreme action isn’t needed yet in the U.S., we must start with a change of mindset in the average American voter, including those in Louisiana. These voters must resist the blatant lies being promoted by populists. While it may seem like they are fighting for the people, they are using it as a guise so they can rise to power and manipulate the system to their advantage. As voters, the main way to avoid the cynicism promoted by populist leaders is to always seek out the truth. Cynicism may be the enemy of democracy, but the truth is the enemy of cynicism.