"Throw the rascals out" is not the cry of a cynical electorate, but of people who assume that change is possible.
I am cynical about the "new cynicism." I don't think it's very new or, for that matter, especially cynical either. In case you don't know, the "new cynicism" is the term that has lately come into use to describe the attitude of the 1990s voter. It is argued that the defeat in this year's primaries of a number of seemingly invincible individuals and political organizations by relative newcomers and anti-establishment types reflects an increasingly cynical electorate. This electorate is said to be hellbent on a throw-the-rascals-out policy, having become totally disenchanted with politics as usual.
How, I ask myself, can such an attitude of disenchantment possibly be called "new" in American society? It came over with the colonists, for starters, and has flourished in this country ever since. It may even, in fact, be considered the defining characteristic of our politics. Vast numbers of Americans have always been suspicious to the point of paranoia and irreverent to the point of slander about the reigning political order, whatever it was. Tom Paine, Mark Twain, Will Rogers, Mr. Dooley and just about everyone I have ever known outside the Beltway has to some extent shared in this same basic feeling: They're no damn good, there's not an honest one among them, throw the whole pack out. Yes, it is unfair; and yes, exceptions are always made for this one and that one among the condemned class of politicians. But by and large the premise is all but universally held: these characters are not to be trusted. Political enthusiasts almost always portray their own candidate as an exception to the dreary political rule.
So much for the "new." What about the "cynicism"? Those of you who managed to stay alert through Philosophy 101a will no doubt remember what Cynicism actually is (it is something philosophical). For the rest of us, and especially in its current political meaning, I think the word connotes merely simple disillusion with what we have already been told and distrust of what we are currently being told by politicians, all this adding up to a kind of overall disenchantment. But I wouldn't say that people who feel this way are being cynical so much as they are being practical and realistic. They are expressing disgust of a kind with what they see, with what exists. Indeed, far from hiding the techniques by which they try to manipulate the voters and play shamelessly on their passions, politicians nowadays often actually boast of their accomplishments in this vein. Your average tuned-in voter, I suspect, is likely to hear more about brilliant political technique than he is to hear about the substance of politics.
This is at least in part because, like just about every other human activity this side of chewing straws and playing Go Fish, political manipulation has lately been pronounced a discipline of the most abstruse kind that requires schooling and accreditation and which boasts its own impenetrable technical jargon and mathematical formulas that have all those funny little square-root-type signs in them. Truly. So it's not that people are suspecting that they are being fiddled with: they are being told they are. The news bursts with analyses of deceptive political ads, some critical, but almost as much boastfully put out by the perpetrators. We seem to have an insatiable appetite for post-election accounts of how this crooked ad and that misleading argument "played." And even in normal, nonelection times, we are forever being instructed as to which officials are being most clever in their posturings on taxes and pornography and other vexed subjects.
Why wouldn't a lot of people react by taking their first opportunity to elect someone who railed against all this, who was not part of the suspect system? I should say about here that I have my own doubts as to the sweepingness of the phenomenon that has been called to public attention as the "new cynicism." I figure, first, that by general-election time in November the trend won't seem so powerful, and, second, that some of what has happened is not related. For instance, the situation in Washington that led to the primary victory of Sharon Pratt Dixon over four other would-be successors to Mayor Marion Barry is as particular, not to say peculiar, as the situation in Massachusetts, where John Silber won the chance to become the Democratic successor to Gov. Michael Dukakis. Still, they are part of a core of cases where the electorate in recent days has pitched out the old and established order and chosen the new, the unestablished.
But is it not possible to argue that, far from being cynical, this is actually a kind of opposite reaction? Cynical despairs; it accuses and complains but does little; it chuckles and smirks and rolls its eyes toward heaven; cynical would not think of investing its time and energy and hope in a reformist candidate -- cynical in fact does not even have hope; it gives up and says, "What did I tell you?"
So to me, to the degree that people even as unlike as Sharon Pratt Dixon and John Silber have been elected as a message of voter displeasure with entrenchment and the hallowed political way of doing things, their victories speak of an almost touching faith that change is possible, that new people can do things new ways. I am a fan of Mrs. Dixon's and no fan of Mr. Silber, but I do think this same impulse was probably present in both situations -- the utterly uncynical belief in the possibility of political redemption and renewal through politics. These election results are the handiwork of believers, not disbelievers.
There is, of course, some sense in which the voting public itself is a guilty party to the more crooked proceedings of American politics. We are not innocents in all the maneuvering to feed our less noble instincts to get our vote. We have all done more than a little over the years to reward those who pandered to us most disgustingly, who assured us that we were each the most put-upon victim class in American politics, while those in the next block or the next state or the next class (up or down) were getting all the unfair advantages. But even we have our limits. The self-satisfied and shameless promoters of mousetalk politics, of don't-say-what-you-mean and don't-mean-anything-if-you-can-help-it, have gone too far. That's what people are reacting to, not cynically, I'd say, but with a kind of optimism that there is a cure. Hope springs eternal. Reprinted by permission; all rights reserved.