Politics & Policy

Just Say Yes to Cynicism

(Alex Wong/Getty Images)
Young people are right to be skeptical of government.

During a Q-and-A session on Tumblr last week, President Obama complained to young people about young people. “You guys,” he said, “are fed a lot of cynicism every single day about how nothing works and big institutions stink and government is broken, and so you channel a lot of your passion and energy into various private endeavors.” This, apparently, is a bad thing, because it suggests that young people are insufficiently naïve about their politicians. That they are aware of the government’s failures makes it much, much harder to con them. As Obama sees it, the blame lies not with the government for failing but with the cynics who point out its failures.

Obama’s anti-cynicism is one of his signature themes. When running for president in 2007, he said his rival was “not other candidates” but “cynicism” itself. The rivalry is intensifying. Because his policies have failed so demonstrably, Obama, unable to persuade via argument, is resorting to his favorite non-argument: being against people who are against things.

Speaking to Democratic donors in Maryland last month, Obama said the GOP has been “captured by ideologues whose core premise is ‘no’ — who fundamentally believe that the problem is government.” Not only have they said no to Obamacare, but “they’ve said no to helping kids afford college,” Obama said at another fundraiser several weeks earlier. You do recall the “Just Say No to College” plank in the GOP platform, don’t you?

In his speech last month, Obama tried to sound a bipartisan note by praising three Republicans, all of them dead: Abraham Lincoln, who, Obama said, “thought infrastructure was a pretty good idea”; Theodore Roosevelt, who “thought conservation was a pretty smart thing”; and Dwight Eisenhower, who “thought it made sense for us [i.e., the federal government] to invest in science and education” (never mind that Eisenhower warned against “a scientific-technological elite”).

The implication was that today’s Republicans are somehow “against” infrastructure, the environment, science, and education. But the debate is not about whether roads, trees, and schools are worth having but about what the federal government can and should do about them. Its track record does not inspire.

Consider the federal government’s largest undertaking in the last half-century: the war on poverty. Proclaimed 50 years ago, it is still going on, with no end in sight. Forty-four years after Lyndon Johnson declared an “unconditional war on poverty in America,” then–presidential candidate Hillary Clinton said that, if elected, she would appoint “a cabinet-level position that will be solely and fully devoted to ending poverty as we know it in America.” She should have listened to Jimmy Carter, who in 1978 proclaimed before Congress, “Government cannot eliminate poverty.” For once, Carter was right.

But what is realism to most is cynicism to Obama. In his view, cynicism about the government, not the government itself, is the real problem.

At the Democratic National Convention two years ago, Obama said that Republicans believe the government “should do almost nothing.” If this were true, which it isn’t, it would put Republicans in the same ideological camp as the dead white men who wrote the Constitution. Nothing to be ashamed about.

Obama insists that voters want what the Democrats are offering. “On issue after issue,” he said, “people believe what we believe. But what they don’t really believe at this point is that government can get anything done.” Quite true, which is why trust in government is declining and why, in 2012, Americans elected a Democratic president and a Republican Congress — because, having experienced the unitary government of the Obama-Pelosi years, they wanted to stop the government from doing anything else. They voted for gridlock, and a divided government is the best way to get it.

All indications suggest that Obama believes in the two-party system, provided that both parties subscribe to the same platform — namely, his. “I actually want an effective, serious, patriotic, capable, sober-minded Republican party,” he said. Note the adjectives. Obama seems to be saying that patriotism — along with seriousness and sobriety – is attained, or at least enhanced, by agreeing with him. But the first adjective is the most asinine. According to Obama, the way for Republicans to be “effective” is to stop opposing him so effectively.

Democrats have been saying this for decades. In 1950 — at the height of Democratic hegemony — liberal historian and Kennedy sycophant Arthur Schlesinger Jr. penned an essay titled “The Need for an Intelligent Opposition,” in which he advised Republicans to be more like the Democrats. That is more or less what they did under Eisenhower, whose acceptance of the New Deal gave it bipartisan legitimacy.

Obama wants some bipartisan legitimacy for his own programs, particularly Obamacare, which passed through Congress without a single Republican vote. But rather than moderating his positions, the president is denouncing “cynicism,” as if cynicism per se were a bad thing. Obviously, it matters what one is cynical about, and whether the cynicism is warranted. When Obama says that cynicism “is always good for Republicans because it means folks don’t vote,” it’s hard not to be cynical about his anti-cynicism – and proud of the young folks who refuse to swallow what he is trying to feed them.

— Windsor Mann is the editor of The Quotable Hitchens: From Alcohol to Zionism. Follow him on Twitter @WindsorMann.


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