Be skeptical. Be suspicious. Be studious. But fight the urge to become cynical.
Elections are a brute. Between primaries, where candidates who share 90–99% of their values slug it out and pull at threads and salt each other’s open cuts while the defenders and detractors in the spectator seats create a kind of civil war amongst themselves, and the general, which creates an all new sense of panic, it’s exhausting.
This election season has, I think, left every person on every side a little worse for the wear—though for a lot of people, the pain is more personal; members of immigrant communities, survivors of sexual assault or domestic violence, and Black and Brown folks who hear the worst stereotypes about them not just in hushed tones but yelled from behind a lectern, a true bully pulpit, are enduring daily trauma just by being engaged.
It’s expensive and it’s caustic, causing rifts in families and between friends and generally creating one dark, dark autumn. I’ll be the first to admit that I feel bludgeoned and aged by the process but I am certainly not the only one. We’re all being banged around like tennis shoes in the dryer.
But amid all of this, I feel the need to plead with my fellow Americans: Resist the urge to become cynical.
You know what cynicism sounds like — maybe you’ve engaged in it, yourself. It’s the guy who will tell you both parties are the same, or that we’re going to be forced to choose two such terrible candidates that it truly won’t matter. The lady at the store that says it’s always like this and this is why politics is terrible and the two-party system is a failure and your vote doesn’t count and, and, and. The defeated teenager who’s only just become old enough to cast a ballot and is already sure that this is how it’s always been — as was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, amen.
At its heart, cynicism is the belief that everyone is motivated by ill intentions, and by their own self-interest. It is the failure to believe in the empathy or goodwill of those around you.
But it’s greater than that. Cynicism is a trump card. It shuts down any and all conversation. It is the absence of a solution. It is the rejection of nuance. It’s essentially giving up, and I don’t like to give up. Especially not when there will be work to be done no matter the result this cycle.
After our election night hangovers subside and we’re back around the Thanksgiving table with aunts we haven’t spoken to since before the primaries, we will need to keep moving forward, trying every day to make this country better for every citizen, win, lose, or draw. And if we are already using cynicism as a way to build up a shell, it’s going to be impossible to move forward when the armor needs to come off.
And make no mistake—cynicism is a kind of armor. However, as United States Senator Cory Booker views it, it’s one chosen by cowards. In an interview with Freakonomics, he had this to say:
I often say cynicism is a refuge for cowards. That it is a toxic spiritual state; that it so clouds our ability to see faint possibilities and hope amidst the glaring problems, that we often wipe our hands of any engagement whatsoever.
In this election, it does indeed seem to have become a cozy refuge for a great many people. And truly, I can’t blame anyone for seeking shelter from this story. It’s a retreat—often, I’ve found, for those with just enough information to be dangerous, but not enough to see the paths out which have lead to progress in the past.
In the May edition of Harper’s, Rebecca Solnit described this as “naïve cynicism,” which is used as a kind of armor against caring, against being fooled. And yet, in its extreme attempt at being foolproof, naïve cynicism is actually quite foolish. It’s simplistic and it conveniently forgets both nuance and history. It “loves itself more than the world; it defends itself in lieu of the world,” she writes.
But cynicism is, itself, damaging. It leaves those who can’t afford to be cynical in the cold and it ensures that those who are too malicious to be cynical continue to do what they will. Cynicism puts its own fear of hoping ahead of the fear that being cynical could lead to something worse.
Politics — and life, I guess — is an exercise in getting and not getting. Sometimes you win. Sometimes you don’t. And all the models in the world can’t tell you whether you will or you won’t win, or by how many points. Cynicism protects you from the fear that is innate to hope — the fear that you might not get what you’d hoped, the fear of being disappointed. To hold up your cynicism as armor against the way you might feel in the event that there are things you might not get is to equally defend yourself against the things that you might get. Cynicism deflects both joy and disappointment equally, and ensures that you are actively not chasing either.
It lets in nothing, and it lets out nothing. It is absolute and it is not permissive.
The problem with cynicism is that it is a cul-de-sac; the more cynical you become, the less you work to change things. The less you work to change things, the more your cynicism is justified. Nothing is built. Nothing is changed. And you still feel unwell.
The opposite of cynicism is hope and possibly optimism—two separate but important constructs that are often ground out of us before we even realize it’s happened; a 2013 Harvard study found that just 18% of Millennials felt that they could trust Congress to do to the right thing.
Do you remember all of those years ago when a young, fresh political leader ran on a platform of hope? When he told us that yes, we could? It’s not so long ago that we voted with both our ballots and our hope.
And then, as is always, always the case, some of what we’d hoped would happen did not happen. The ACA was imperfect. Guantanamo is still open. The TPP is a disaster. Why have we failed so spectacularly to act on climate change? Where is our higher minimum wage? Where is our sick leave? Why are our Black children still being expelled from schools, arrested, and killed by police at disproportionate rates? Where are our expanded voting rights? Why has our minimum wage remained stagnate for the better part of a decade?
It’s hard. It’s disappointing. But it’s not impossible and it isn’t a wash.
During the eight years of Obama’s presidency, we did build things—things we never could have built if we’d been spending the entire time fighting to retain ground, and things we certainly couldn’t have built if we were too cynical to try.
'Hope is an embrace of the unknown': Rebecca Solnit on living in dark times
Your opponents would love you to believe that it's hopeless, that you have no power, that there's no reason to act…
Occupy. $15 NOW. Marriage equality. Defeat after defeat of transphobic and dangerous bathroom bills. Black Lives Matter. The ongoing protest at Standing Rock.
We’ve done so much, and we have so much more to do. Can you cash in your chips and walk away from the table when so much is happening, when there’s so much to lose? Are we so cynical as to not count our winnings while also nursing our wounds?
This allowance of a state of both winning and not winning is what, Solnit writes, insulates us from cynicism.
What is the alternative to naïve cynicism? An active response to what arises, a recognition that we often don’t know what is going to happen ahead of time, and an acceptance that whatever takes place will usually be a mixture of blessings and curses. Such an attitude is bolstered by historical memory, by accounts of indirect consequences, unanticipated cataclysms and victories, cumulative effects, and long timelines…I’m interested in the people who love the world more, and in what they have to tell us, which varies from day to day, subject to subject.
This is not to say that there’s no value in skepticism—which, it must be noted, is not the same thing as cynicsm—or in pragmatism. I encourage everyone to be highly skeptical and even suspicious because, often, it leads to curious places.
In fact, learning more about a subject (and especially about the history and pageantry of politics) can be an excellent guard against cynicism. Just as there is naïve cynicism, I believe there’s naïve hope, which is grounded less in experience and information than in gut feelings about what we want to happen, reality be damned.
Naïve cynicism is the purview of those who know enough to be disillusioned but not enough to have hope; naïve hope is the purview of those who know enough to be hopeful but not enough to know what to expect.
Instead, as you feel that this the election cycle is grinding you down into a fine powder, I encourage you not to lose the ability to believe that there are good things yet to come, and that you will have a hand in bringing them about if you like.
If you ever want to have your hope renewed, seek out the many victories you may have forgotten because they’ve become such common part of your life. And if you fail to find any, consider which wins—perhaps not in your lifetime or even not in the last 100 years—laddered up to where you are now. Trace back the lines of your own activism; what had to happen to get you there?
There is where hope lives. And there are any number of places where cynicism might have stopped progress in its path.
And I’m not advocating that anyone check their lived experience; it is easy and understandable to become cynical when systemic oppression has shut doors in your face before you’ve even had a chance to reach the knob. But it is bold and it is daring to maintain hope in the face of seemingly endless defeat because, again, the defeat only feels endless. It’s not, though.
“I know that, at times, this has been a deeply dispiriting election year, and as I think back to 2008 or even 2012 and the sense of energy and hope that we felt…I think about all the incredible work that we’ve done and the promises we’ve delivered on.” — Barack Obama
If you want to the cynicism at its worst, look no further than the Trump campaign, which has preyed on the deepest fears Americans face and, rather than being a comforting force or one that serves to quell that anxiety, it stokes the anger, the outrage, and the feeling of helplessness.
That is what cynicism builds—a paper tiger and legions of people who can’t wait to see it bear its teeth. That is also what a rejection of cynicism defeats.
At an address in Ohio last week, President Barack Obama expressed a need for hope as a kind of medicine. Though the headlines focused on his comments about Trump, that was hardly the central theme of his speech; instead, he was speaking to his own legacy—one famously build on hope—and to the need for Democrats to approach the fears and concerns of American voters with true empathy, regardless of who they support in this election.
“If we keep speaking to America’s hopes instead of their fear, and if we inspire them rather than divide them—if we have concrete plans to respond to the very real challenges that folks face with the same sense of urgency that compassion and empathy that we feel in our families and our own communities, if we care about every kid the same way we want this country to care about our kids, then we’ll win in November.”
If nothing else, there is the reason to reject cynicism: It doesn’t win.
Just as I believe that misogyny and racism and xenophobia and transphobia and homophobia and classism make for poor policy, I think cynicism creates shortsightedness and prompts a lack of political creativity. In fact, it’s often cynicism which shoots good policy in the foot; one of the main opposition points from detractors of paid sick leave laws is the incorrect assumption that workers would engage in rampant abuses of their new rights.
The world is a deeply disappointing place, and politics are perhaps one of the more unpleasant reminders of that. Not a single elected official or policy or law or program or entitlement or regulation or lack of a regulation or tax or tax cut will ever do exactly what you want. Some will infuriate you and they will do it with impunity.
So too will some people; there are tens of millions of people which whom you don’t align ideologically, and it’s very easy to assume the worse about them.
I would ask you to try to avoid that temptation and find another way to self-sooth, guard yourself, or otherwise try to grit it out. Because there will be a November 9, 10, 11, and beyond, and we will have a great deal of work to do. And if we succumb to cynicism now, we’ll stop progress dead in its tracks and ensure that come New Year’s Eve, we’ll be a nation that’s impossible to put back together.