Beyond Cynicism about Government

Let’s face it: speaking up in defense of government in today’s society is not very cool. What is cool is being totally cynical about government. Making fun of government and politicians has become part of our political culture. Everybody does it – Republicans, Democrats, and independents alike. Many comedians, like Lewis Black, have made entire careers out of lampooning the absurd behaviors presidents and members of Congress. He simply has to point out that one of the leading members of Congress working to target sexual predators turned out to be – surprise, surprise – a sexual predator that preyed on Congressional pages. One of the most popular news shows on television is The Daily Show with Jon Stewart with its bitingly satiric take on current events. Many Americans feel they often get more of the truth about what is happening in Washington from this show than from “straight” new broadcasts offered by the networks – and I count myself among them.

It actually makes a lot of sense to have a certain amount of cynicism about government. Some politicians are idiots, others lie to us, and yet others are on the take from special interests. Some administrations are blinded by ideology and pursue policies that are absurd and damaging to the public interest. You should not trust these people or take what they say at face value. However, while some politicians and some administrations are worthy of scorn – the enterprise of democratic government itself is not. And that is the problem with political cynicism in America today: it has gone too far. We have become too cynical about government as a political enterprise and this makes us unable to see just how valuable this institution really is. We focus on our disappointments with particular politicians and policies and turn a blind eye to the broader accomplishments of government. The institution of government – as is shown in the articles on this website – is actually playing a number of crucial roles in our society and is a powerful force for good. It is through government that we address most of the serious economic, social, and environmental problems that we face as a nation. Government is also one of the main ways that we alleviate human suffering. It is government that allows us to right wrongs and create a more just society. Democratic government, when it is working right, can be a reflection of our most humane and noble selves.

But if you try to defend government as a force for good in society, you can expose yourself to ridicule. If you are not completely cynical about this institution, you are likely to be seen as naïve by some people. Your friends may think you are gullible or uniformed – or both. So it takes a certain amount of courage to say anything positive or hopeful about government these days. To speak well of government means you have to risk being uncool.

Being cynical about government may seem like a bold and daring stance to take – you are, after all, taking on the powers that be. But in reality, this kind of cynicism is actually playing it safe. If you are completely jaded about government, you will never be disappointed when it doesn’t live up to your expectations. If you are totally pessimistic about government, there is no danger of your friends making fun of you for being naïve. So to be cynical about government is really just to go along with the crowd and to risk nothing.

In today’s world, what is daring is to not be so cynical about politics and government – to believe that working through government can actually make the world a better place. This is the truly risky stance to take. It opens you up to disappointment, and makes you vulnerable to the ridicule by your friends.

But defending the value of government is worth the risk. The problem with being too cynical about our public institutions is that it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you insist on believing that government is irredeemably terrible – it will be. Cynicism can all too easily lead to apathy and an unwillingness to participate in politics and government. Why bother to take part in a process you know is basically screwed up? Also, if you believe that all politicians are corrupt, you won’t work to elect those good candidates who are truly dedicated to public service – which only makes it easier for the bad candidates to win office. If you don’t work to make government more democratic and responsive to the public, it will remain in the hands of moneyed interests. And if you don’t support government as a force for good in society, you actually weaken it. In fact, you inadvertently play into the hands of those who are trying to tear down this valuable institution.

In the end, coming to the defense of government is not as quixotic as it might first appear. Many Americans have come to realize how unfair and damaging the attacks on government have become – they are tired of their firefighters being laid off and their public schools not having enough textbooks. And most people know, on some level, that government is playing a very positive role in their lives – they just need to be reminded. When a poll asked people whether government does a better job than it is given credit for, forty percent of Americans said “Yes.” There is actually a receptive audience out there for those who have the gumption to stand up and defend the importance of government. So next time someone is bad-mouthing government for no good reason, you should stick up for it. Go ahead – dare to be uncynical.