Cynicism and the Struggle to Save Democracy

12 mins read

Part I: Trump’s Executive Privilege Lawsuit

This week, Trump’s lawyers faced an uphill battle trying to persuade a federal judge to block the House from obtaining White House records pertaining to the Capitol attack. Obtaining a preliminary injunction requires, among other things, the plaintiff (former President Donald Trump) to present clear evidence that he would be irreparably harmed if the documents are released. He claimed no personal harm. Instead, he argued that the executive branch would be irreparably harmed. The judge seemed skeptical, for reasons I laid out in my NBC piece this week. If Trump loses here, I’ve seen people online worrying that he’ll appeal and stall all the way to the Supreme Court. That’s certainly possible, and the judge in his injunction case could always surprise us. But any appeal will be complicated and difficult to win and is unlikely to stop Congress from getting the documents while the appeal advances.

You can read my NBC THINK piece on their website.

Part II: Cynics and Cynicism

What follows started as a video. You can see it here

The ideas I present here build on two previous blog posts, Why Democrats Should Not Fight Like Republicans and Criminal Punishment and the Threat of Right-Wing Extremism. You might want to start with those, but you don’t have to. This one stands alone.

First, a definition of cynicism:

I’ll start by talking about the kind of cynicism we often see on the right-wing, which I’ll do by talking about fairness v. hierarchy people.

Fairness people believe fairness is possible. When fairness leaders go to work, they try to figure out how to make life better for people, like getting rid of the lead in the drinking water pipes, or making the Internet available to people in rural areas, or finding ways to make health care available to everyone.

Hierarchical people believe that nature forms a hierarchy with some people naturally at the top. They don’t believe that equality is possible because they don’t think people are equal.

Hierarchical people see democratic government as giving handouts to those who don’t deserve it and taking away from the people at the top, who have “earned” their right to be at the top.

When hierarchical leaders go to work, they think about how to maintain the hierarchy—with themselves at the top.

When people lower on the hierarchy say, “We want equal rights” or “We want equal opportunity,” the right-wing cynic thinks, “They want to replace me at the top of the hierarchy.”

This is why these kinds of cynics embrace replacement theory. (This is the theory often expressed by people like Tucker Carlson that says nonwhites and immigrants want to “replace” whites Christians).

Cynics believe everyone cheats (or acts from self-interest), so the winner is the person who cheats the best. This leads some people to say Democrats need to fight like Republicans. (If you missed it, see my blog post on Why Democrats Should Not Fight like Republicans.)

I believe one source of cynicism on the left is this: If your brand is predicting doom (“I warned everyone that it would be this bad!”) then the moment you acknowledge that the Democrats have a victory, you tarnish your brand. So you can’t. The Democrats must always be failing. Outrage needs a target.

Some people are just paranoid. They can’t see anything good in what anyone does so they see only failure. They see cheating literally everywhere. If someone doesn’t do exactly what they think that person should do (exactly when they think that person should do it), they assume the person is corrupt. In their eyes, there can be no other reason. When they look they see evidence of corruption, even where it doesn’t exist.

One way to see our history is that liberals (fairness people) have been trying to push for more fairness by doing things like ending slavery, ending racial segregation, offering safety nets, and making sure that pipes in lower-income areas don’t contain lead.

Meanwhile, “conservatives” (who like things the “old-fashioned way”) try to maintain the hierarchy.

Nineteenth-century America was a strict hierarchy with White men at the top and Black women at the bottom. One way to see our history is: “We’ve come a long way and we still have further to go.”

Another way is: “We still don’t have fairness. So it’s all hopeless.”

Here is how one person interpreted the bipartisan infrastructure bill recently passed by Congress:

He sees failure, rather than the good that the bill will do — which includes providing Internet to rural areas and getting lead out of the water pipes.

Remember in my last few videos I talked about how some people were having meltdowns, believing that because some witnesses were refusing to cooperate with the select committee, the entire committee would fail. I pointed out on Twitter this week that a person inside the Trump White House (Alyssa Farah) was cooperating with the select committee. She was disgusted with the insurrection. My point was (1) you have to expect people with criminal liability to try to avoid testifying and (2) as long as a few people cooperate and spill everything, the committee can get what it needs.

Then people came along and said, “She’s just trying to rehabilitate her image after supporting Trump’s authoritarianism. Nobody should believe a word she says.”

One value in a witness like Alyssa Farah is that she can turn over documents like contemporaneous notes and emails. In addition, the only eyewitnesses who can provide evidence about Trump’s state of mind will be people in his inner circle. How smart is it to try to discredit the only eyewitnesses we can get? You can be sure Trump will try to discredit her. Wanna help Trump out?

I agree with this statement paraphrased from Michiko Kakutani: “Outrage leads to fatigue, which leads to cynicism, which causes people to give up on democratic processes.”

Many on the right-wing make statements intended to trigger outrage on the left. This creates a loop: The left gets outraged, and then the sight of the outraged left thrills the right-wing. Throw in left-wing outrage merchants, and you have a constant, exhausting storm that will wear everyone out.

If the people who want democracy are worn out, who is going to do the work to save democracy?

This person asked:

Yes, I think outrage thrills the right-wing authoritarians (RWAs) and wears out the rest of us. Here’s why: For the RWAs, it’s all about the fight. Politics is about who wins. If you think that everyone cheats and that fairness isn’t possible, what matters is who can seize power. It’s all about fighting the other side for dominance. That’s why Jason Stanley subtitled his book about fascism The Politics of Us and Them.

For the rest of us, politics is about finding a way to make the world better. So outrage wears us out and discourages us. See how many advantages they have? This also explains why Trump’s base doesn’t mind if he cheats and breaks laws. If you think everyone cheats, the winner is the one who cheats the best. That’s why they don’t mind if Trump cheats and breaks laws. They think, “He’s a cheater but he’s OUR cheater!”

If you want fairness and if you read everything as a failure and you think all people are inherently corrupt, what’s the point? This is how cynicism leads to nihilism.

This person said:

This comment probably comes from a dislike of the process of compromise and give and take, which is necessary for democracy. (“My way or the highway” is obviously not democracy, it’s autocracy.) But this kind of statement is also so disconnected from reality (and history) that I hardly know how to respond. Does anyone actually think democracy has gone 20 miles backward since January 20? Have we gone 20 miles backward since 1953, when racial segregation was legal? Have we gone 20 miles backward from the 1920s, when we had no social security, no worker protection laws, when it was legal to fix prices and manipulate markets, and when we had no laws against sexual harassment?

Here’s the thing about fairness: There can never be complete fairness – at least not on earth where people are imperfect. All we can do is to keep trying to push the needle closer.

The people who push the needle toward fairness don’t run around spreading doom and cynicism.

Did MLK, Jr., have a NIGHTMARE? Well, maybe he had a few, but he told us he had a DREAM.

If you are thinking, “Yeah but what about … [fill in the blank with what has made you feel cynical],” I refer you back to my two previous blog posts, which may answer your questions: Why Democrats Should Not Fight Like Republicans and Criminal Punishment and the Threat of Right-Wing Extremism.

This is from CCJ, and I think I’ll conclude on this note:

Originally published in Teri Kanefield’s Blog here.


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Teri has written novels, short stories, nonfiction for both young readers and adults, and lots of legal briefs. She is currently working on a book on disinformation to be published by Macmillan Publishers. Her political commentary has appeared on the NBC Think Blog and CNN.com. Her articles and essays have appeared in publications as diverse as Education Week, Slate Magazine, and Scope Magazine. Her short fiction has appeared in the American Literary View, The Iowa Review, and others. For twelve years she maintained a private appellate law practice limited to representing indigents on appeal from adverse rulings. She believes with the ACLU that when the rights of society's most vulnerable members are denied, everybody's rights are imperiled. She also believe with John Updike that the purpose of literature is to expand our sympathies. Teri lives with her family on the beautiful central coast in California.

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