Memorial Day Thoughts on Cynicism and the Republic

Jessica Preece has a PhD in political science from UCLA.  Her research is on political party candidate selection procedures, with an emphasis on why there are so few women in politics.  She is a professor of political science at BYU, though these thoughts are her own and don’t necessarily represent the institution.

It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

—Abraham Lincoln, Gettysburg Address (1863)

Lately a lot of people have asked me if America is going to be okay.  Honestly, I don’t know whether the Republic will fully weather the storms we have faced in recent months and years. I am a political scientist—I study patterns in politics.  The patterns I see are, as they say, deeply concerning.

But I choose to have faith that it will.  I choose faith, not because I am ignorant of the problems, but because I see them clearly.

Each semester, I do an activity with my students.  I ask them for synonyms for faith—belief, conviction, trust, fidelity.  I ask them for synonyms for hope—optimism, expectancy, anticipation, confidence.  I ask them for synonyms for charity—love, kindness, generosity, selflessness.  We talk about how faith in the Lord Jesus Christ leads to hope, which opens space in our hearts for charity.

Then, I ask them for antonyms of faith—fear, disbelief, distrust, doubt.  I ask them for antonyms of hope—despair, pessimism, gloom, discouragement.  I ask them for antonyms for charity—selfishness, hate, apathy, enmity.  We talk about how fear makes us insecure, and that leads us to pessimism and selfishness as defense mechanisms.

So often when it comes to politics, we opt out of the pathway that begins with faith.  We call it “being realistic.”  Perhaps that’s because even in the healthiest democracies, politics is frequently messy, contentious, slow, disappointing, and cruel.  Perhaps that’s because we know politics isn’t, ultimately, what will save us.

I don’t think that’s a good excuse to abandon faith, optimism, and generosity, though.  Politics is a tool, and whoever uses that tool helps to determine what is built.  Because we live in a democracy, there are two choices each of us will make: 1) Will I try to use the tool of politics?  2) If so, what will I attempt to build?  I believe we will be held accountable for these choices, whether we make them consciously or not.

There are all sorts of real considerations and barriers that people face as they make decisions about political involvement.  But there are also stupid ones.  One of those is the glorification of cynicism.  On this Memorial Day and in honor of those who have given that “last full measure of devotion,” I would like to call out cynicism for what it is: lazy, selfish, and dangerous.  If we are going to be a people of faith, hope, and charity we must reject cynicism because it is a direct pathway to apathy and enmity.

First, cynicism is the lazy way out.  Most cynics flatter themselves that they are being savvy and smart.  But in my experience, what is actually most seductive about cynicism is that it excuses the cynic from actually having to do anything.  It allows the cynic to feel justified in disengaging from the pain and suffering in the world.  If people are a lost cause and the world is going to hell in a handbasket no matter what, then I might as well just go Netflix and chill.  Apathy.

Second, when cynics do get involved, they have a hard time building good things.  Again, most cynics flatter themselves that they are being savvier and smarter than the silly rubes who try so hard.  That is pride.  That is condescension.  That is also a profound misuse of whatever blessings and privileges a person has that protect him or her from having no choice but to try hard.  So when cynics engage in politics, are they likely to do so with true charity?  No.  Why?  Even if they intellectually understand charity, they are not practiced in the humility, kindness, and generosity necessary for it.  They are, instead, practiced in enmity.

How do we fight against the temptation of cynicism?  As someone who has had to fight this battle her whole life, I have developed two strategies; your mileage may vary.  First, I try to discipline myself to remember that I have committed to be a person of faith.  That means I don’t get to indulge in certain thought processes.  People sometimes characterize this strategy as putting one’s head in the sand.  But, I see the bad very clearly—I study sexism for a living.  I have just chosen to approach it as a challenge that is worth the effort of trying to solve.  I can (and must) be wise in my efforts, but I can’t abandon them.

Second, and more importantly, I try to remember that cynicism is a defense mechanism.  It’s rooted in the reality that failure is a likely outcome, and failure is very painful.  The only antidote I have found for this is to acknowledge my fear and try to remember that God will take care of me.  If I truly have faith that the Savior’s atonement can fix everything, I can have hope that I’ll be okay no matter my embarrassments.  That relieves enough insecurity that I can focus on approaching the world with hope and generosity.

Oh, and T. Roosevelt’s “Man in the Arena” pep talk also helps.

We often say that “faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.”  As I’ve had to consciously choose each day whether to stay engaged in the fight for the ideals I care about, I think I understand this better.  True faith leads to substantial action in the direction of the good things we hope for.  As we act, we make the unseen things we hope for much more likely to appear.  Occasionally this happens through reason-defying miracles that come as answers to prayers, but more often it happens through hard work that is inspired, magnified, and sanctified by God.

In other words, if we want God to bless America in these difficult times, we must first bless it with our faithful acts of devotion.  That is how we weather the storm and, God willing, come out of it stronger.

Comments

  1. For the last five years I have been anxiously engaged in political action. Most of my actions revolve around elections rather than issues, and it’s been more losses than. I’m in the deep south, and a liberal, so most of the losses are to be expected. US Senate – loss. But in 2015 we had a win for the governor’s office, and that gave me what turned out to be false hope. This 2016 presidential results were horrifying, and even though I have responsibilities in the area I have largely retreated. I’ve been trying to figure out how to stay engaged and not give in to despair.
    Thank you for this article. I’m going to share it. I think it will help others.

  2. Sorry for the sloppy prose.

  3. I don’t know that it’s cynicism, exactly, in my case, so much as it is weariness. I shocked my home teacher the other night by telling him that I was having trouble finding reasons to be proud of my country. The immediate context for that was the Texas governor’s signing of another bill to make even more guns available to even more people in even more places under even more circumstances, and his celebratory “joke” about killing journalists. Can we weather such a storm? Should we expect God to bless America?

    The next day brought the attack on the Portland train … but instead of making me more weary, more cynical, I was rejuvenated. Multiple people stepping up to protect the vulnerable! Passengers chasing down the murderer, although they had just seen what he could do! People swamping GoFundMe to contribute hundreds of thousands of dollars to the needs of the victims and their families! People everywhere taking the time to learn the faces of the brave men who stepped up, and to speak their names and praise them! *That* is an America I can be proud of.

    So maybe part of the answer is to watch for the good, even when, or especially when, it comes as a result of the worst. Despite all else, we are not a lost cause, we are not too guilty to seek God’s blessing, as long as we have heroes among us, and millions who recognize their heroism and recommit to emulating them.

  4. Aussie Mormon says:

    Ardis has touched on what I was going to say.

    If you separate thinking of your country as a group of people, and thinking of your country as politically sovereign entity, it becomes easier to see the good.

    Look at the Book of Mormon, I think it was Jacob that said that the Lamanite people were following the commandments better, and were behaving better. Yet at the same time, the Lamanite political nation was trying to wipe out the Nephites.

  5. Jacques Lusseryan was a blind, French resistance leader, who was eventually captured and imprisoned by the Vichy. He survived the experience, he believes because of his indefatigable ability to find good in each experience and each person. In the end he would call it true love. It sounds to me like you are inviting us to do the same thing.

    I think the part that makes the present climate discouraging for me rests with the idea that if we lose this “democratic republic” it will be because of our choices. We will have let it happen. Problem is as a nation we are divided on what are the most important choices. Eventually you run out of steam even for conversation let alone actions.

  6. Steve Smith says:

    Thanks for this. This is great. Cynicism is definitely not the way to go. Let’s keep working toward political and social ideals in the face of opposition and dark political days that hang over us. I have hope that we’ll get someone better in 2020.

  7. Jefferson was concerned that financial interests linked to the monarchy in England (ie the global economic and military superpower at the time…ie the USA equivalent today) destined the federal government to concentrate power and replace a true federal republican style government with a monarchist style one.

    It would seem Jefferson was only half right. Early political concerns were affected by the hegemony of the crown’s purse, but once that subsided and the USA become the economic powerhouse, the nation was no longer influenced by the affairs of a distant king, but rather begin concentration of central authority under our own elected king.

    From the beginning those most acquainted with our government recognized the pervasiveness of financial interests, and how easily business, credit, collection of taxes, etc. can heavily influence the outcome.

    But really, when it comes to the republic, the thought should be what’s the ultimate aim for a population? Freedom? Financial Prosperity? Long Life? Moral (and civic) virtue? Technological Progress? Safety from within and abroad?

    Almost all of these conflict in one way or another, but it’s hard to decide what kind of government we should have when any given policy or action yields to the detriment one of the above moral goods.

  8. Naismith says:

    It would be helpful to have a definition of cynicism provided. Without that, it comes across as somewhat condescending, that we are all supposed to know what the author means.

    I have thought of cynicism as expecting the worst from others. Perhaps I am wrong.

    But if so, I don’t think that attitude is antithetical to meaningful political participation. I have been involved with League of Women Voters for decades, served on our local board for five years. We spent a great deal of time and money shaping the electoral maps of our state. First collecting signatures to get a constitutional amendment on the ballot that would require districts that respect county/city lines, etc. Then campaigning for passage, which we fully expected would not happen until after the second try.

    And we knew even then that even after passage, our recalcitrant legislature was unlikely to carry out the new mandates, so plans were already being made to file a lawsuit a few years later–we reached out to other groups with common goals.

    And after the lawsuit proved to be successful and our maps were adopted while the legislature-produced maps were rejected by courts as not following the constitution, our state league was left with staggering legal costs. We sued for some financial relief since our maps were used by the state. Although other states had authorized such payments, we always thought our state would not. And we were right.

    We cynically expected the worst throughout the process, but it did not stop us from fighting the battle.

  9. Hedgehog says:

    Got to say I’m with Naismith on the meaning of cynicism here. Possibly because I am pretty cynical a lot of the time. It doesn’t actually stop me moving forwards, though I frequently question motives etc….

  10. Thank you Jessica. Thank you Ardis. And the rest of you. You’ve made a contribution to a Relief Society lesson in England. As our resident Yank, I often find myself with a foot either side of the Atlantic, often off balance in both. But overcoming cynicism is a choice I have to make daily.

  11. Amen.

  12. Kruiser says:

    Did the most recent form of cynicism start with Ronald Reagen when he said that government is the problem not the solution. Now I know that government has always been problematic, but does that statement go too far? It seems like has influenced several generations since his time to have a negative view of government.

  13. Let’s make one thing clear. It is not cynicism to identify horrible political ideas and fight them, or to recognize incompetence and oppose it. It is cynicism to say, “Well, Trump will be Trump. Let’s just get out of his way and hope that he doesn’t destroy the country before 2020.”

    Perhaps the most cynical attitude I have seen in recent years is the Republican insistence that government is evil and that we need to get it out of the way of business. Government is our tool to make the world a better place, especially for the disadvantaged and the weak among us. This cynical attitude among Republicans is actually anti-American. Our businesses, large and small, are primarily authoritarian institutions that have one central motive, to make profit, and if not curbed, they will follow that motive without any regard to the effect their actions have on individuals. Trump’s easing of pollution regulations, his efforts to remove financial regulations, his desire to give massive tax cuts to the wealthy and to corporations while stealing health care from millions is as cynical as anything we’ve seen in decades. Government is not perfect, but it is our tool, our democratic tool, to stand up to unaccountable power. If there is any good that will come from the Trump victory, it is the widespread opposition that it has awakened among people who really to care about their country and are willing to stand against rising tyranny. It is for this reason that I have great hopes for the next generation. My generation has screwed things up royally. Hopefully our children have learned from our selfishness, our short-sightedness, and our woeful ignorance about the effects of our political ideas.

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