Cynicism in American politics
Even in my relatively short lifetime, I struggle to remember a more pronounced period of American political pessimism than 2011. It’s a year that will no doubt be remembered for its several political catastrophes and near-catastrophes: the protracted standoff over raising the debt ceiling in August, the needless debate over extending the payroll tax cut in December, three near-government shutdowns. It’s no coincidence that 2011 will also be remembered as a year of revolutions and protests. While their intentions (and outcomes) were different, both the Arab Spring and the Occupy Wall Street movements posed similar questions and raised consciousness about the nature of power, corruption and inequality. In 2012, when we talk about the one percent or the 99 percent, all of us understand (at least on a superficial level) what those numbers signify. We also understand that when only 13 percent of Americans approve of the way Congress does its job (and these numbers represent an all-time low in Gallup Poll history), political frustration and cynicism in this country have reached new heights.
I can reluctantly count myself as one of the cynics. Like a lot of you, I was born in 1990 and spent most of my childhood and adolescence in the Clinton and Lil’ Bush eras. Accordingly, my impressions of politics growing up have been overwhelmingly linked with failure. I only have two clear memories of the Clinton administration: Peter Jennings covering Clinton’s impeachment trial and Monica Lewinsky making a surprise cameo on Saturday Night Live.
Growing up in Massachusetts, my memories of the Bush Era are inevitably going to be tainted by the political climate of Boston, i.e. the outspoken liberalism of my friends, their parents, teachers, and various state representatives and congressmen (this was the pre-Scott Brown era). I also grew up in a politically-mixed household (Dad’s a Republican, Mom’s a Democrat, my sisters hate politics)—and yet I still remember the years 2001-2008 as a series of colossal political screw-ups, strangled civil liberties and foreign policy blunders. Still, I don’t quite remember the overwhelming political cynicism that I now see in myself and in so many others. Bush so consistently (and at times, deliberately) played up his persona as the idiot that it was incredibly easy to disagree with his politics, make fun of him and hope for the future. By the end of his presidency, Bush’s public approval rating—which hovered around 19 to 24 percent in his final months—was at a level comparable to our current approval rating of Congress. Crucially, however, we had something in 2008 that we don’t have in 2012: a candidate.
So much has been written about the various ways that Barack Obama has frustrated the people who voted for him in ’08. And perhaps we –and by “we” I don’t mean Democrats or Republicans but more specifically people who are repulsed by the pervasive corruption and indecision of Washington–were wrong to think that we were voting for a reformer. A recent article by Ryan Lizza in The New Yorker seems to thinks so. Maybe we should have known what we were bargaining for: a candidate who aimed not so much for “change” but for consensus and bi-partisan cooperation. To be sure, bipartisanship is a noble goal—albeit an impractical one in a Washington culture of division, selfishness, and brinksmanship. And to call these times “trying” would be a huge understatement—very few of us could have predicted the scope and endurance of the housing crisis, the crisis in the Eurozone and this level of Congressional gridlock. And no one doubts that the President is an affable, well-spoken guy.
But I also remember being 18 and seeing that Shephard Fairey poster—the retro-WPA one with Obama’s face, impossibly composed and thoughtful, perched above the word “Hope.” And I remember going down to the Waterville Town Hall, getting my ballot and desperately wanting him to be our president. I remember the deep enthusiasm so many of us had for a candidate—and how odd that was in a late 20th and early 21st century American culture, which kept young voters at home instead of at the ballot box. I struggle to remember that version of myself as much as I struggle to remember that candidate. All I can say is that for anybody who has just turned 18—I envy you. Not because you have a good set of candidates to choose from (although Romney, in rare moments, can seem remarkably life-like), but because you will understand, from the get-go, that this is a no-sum game. In other words, you have something to look forward to—some candidate, years down the line, who will excite you and invigorate you and make you question all of your cynicism and skepticism about politics in this country. You’re not 22—prematurely jaded and deeply suspicious of the whole political process. In other words, you’re not a Democrat.