Skip to content

Cynics, True Believers, and Everyone Else


A common topic of discussion I’ve encountered is whether politicians really believe the things they say and advocate for. Are they cynical, or are they for real?

Taking this question at face value, I would argue that, in the end, it doesn’t matter. It is impossible to know what’s really in a person’s mind–what they truly believe versus what they pretend to believe for some selfish purpose. A policy supported on either basis is still just as real in terms of its effects. Perhaps the only difference is that a true believer is unlikely to change their mind, whereas a cynic will quickly move to chase the next ideological fad that will garner them support.

The problem with the cynic/fanatic dichotomy is that it’s a false one. Instead, it’s a narrative designed to discredit politicians (and thus politics) all the way around. A true believer or a fanatic doesn’t change their mind in the face of contrary evidence, while a cynic is inherently self-serving and not committed to helping anyone else. Both of these are clearly undesirable!

Fortunately, they don’t represent most politicians, either. Most cannot be so easily pigeonholed, and efforts to slot every politician into one category or the other are counterproductive. Generally speaking, people seek public office in order to help their community, their region, their country. No doubt some go down this road for selfish reasons, but it’s a pursuit that also demands much of the politician, especially the higher the office. Campaigns are often exhausting and expensive and require tremendous amounts of work from the politician.

There’s no required ideology to pursue political office, obviously. One must be committed to public service, even when it becomes thankless. Getting that work done is difficult, too, and often requires money–sometimes lots of it. Getting into office in the first place can be a financially daunting prospect. Financial back-scratching leads to stories like this one, where there is a broad perception of corruption due to the favors politicians must exchange in order to seek office.

If getting into office means taking money from wealthy interests and then, at some level, giving them something in return, that’s not necessarily corrupt, or even a bad thing. I say this as someone who is, as a general rule, very distrustful of wealthy interests. However, it is rare that these interactions take the form of a genuine _quid pro quo__, _which would be clearly illegal. Instead, once elected, the politician may push or support laws that in some way benefit the donor, and oppose laws that harm the donor. What if these actions go against the interests of the electorate? The solution here shouldn’t be complicated: if enough of the electorate is bothered by such behavior, they can vote the politician out of office. Indeed, if the politician’s behavior is egregious enough, recalls and impeachments are options, as well.

But let’s say everyone is doing this–it’s become normalized. How is anyone within that system held accountable? Does it then not matter who is kicked out office, since they’ll quickly be replaced by someone who is just the same? I don’t think so. Indeed, the very idea that most politicians are corrupt comes not from any reasonable evidence of this corruption, but from more tribal behavior. Congress’ approval rating is 11%, which is horribly low, but most Americans are happy with their own Representatives and Senators. It’s everyone else’s Representatives and Senators who are the corrupt ones.

What this means in practice is that ideology itself is very difficult to cling to, nor can one coast by easily on cynicism. Ideologues never change their behavior, while cynics change so much as to appear inconsistent and untrustworthy. Instead, the presence (or lack thereof) of ideology is almost an irrelevant concern. Most Americans are not ideological. Yes, most identify as either Democrats or Republicans, but these signal tribal affiliations–they are cultural markers more than they are guarantors of specific political beliefs.

If you don’t believe this, you need only look to the current election season in the US. Donald Trump, in his current political incarnation, does a poor job of representing what have become standard conservative political beliefs. While conservatives have long been the largest bloc of Republicans, and have dominated the party for decades, clearly there are enough Republicans who are not conservative to swing the nomination toward someone who is himself not evidently conservative.

Likewise, Bernie Sanders was able to garner a lot of support despite not being a Democrat and despite his policy platform being out of step with most Democratic politicians. Sanders and Trump both presented a variety of policies that would, as a general rule, never be presented seriously by leading candidates of a major political party here. Americans still voted for them by the millions because political ideology–and one’s sincerity about it–just doesn’t matter that much. Trump makes certain kinds of people feel good–people who crave authority and who fear the ongoing diversification of American culture. Sanders, too, had a message which resonated with people who feel left behind, alienated, and out of touch. This is not to say they’re very similar candidates, but both gained traction through populist rhetoric, not ideology. Sanders being a self-avowed socialist almost seems beside the point–it’s unlikely he received much support simply due to his ideological declaration. Rather, people liked what he was offering them.

An interesting trend that’s still developing is the vanishing swing voter in the US. This seems to be driven mainly by Republicans becoming more ideologically rigid, Democrats similarly closing ranks (but, it must be noted, not becoming extremists), and creating enough distance between the parties that few voters would conceivably swing between them from one election to the next. And as the cultural significance of one’s political identity grows, even fewer Americans will vacillate between parties. Does this mean that the parties will become more ideological? My suspicion is that Republicans will become more ideological, while Democrats will become less so. This has been consistent with existing trends.

What has likely damaged Republicans in recent years is their ideological rigidity. Most Americans, as I noted, do not hold to specific ideologies, and do not automatically accept a raft of policy positions once they begin identifying with a specific party. This places true believers and fanatics in a camp that will see diminishing importance over time–they might be able to make a lot of noise, but will be unable to control the debate. Cynics have a tough road, as well: politics is a very personal pursuit, and those who prove themselves untrustworthy and opportunistic will be left with few friends in order to accomplish anything meaningful, and politicians who don’t deliver for their constituents soon find themselves out of a job.

Perhaps, then, it’s time to put that old debate to bed: the true believers and the cynics, if they’re even real, have limited futures in American politics. Let them seal their own fates.

Photo by jvumn