Everybody is cynical and few people are changing their minds. That’s the takeaway from the House’s impeachment hearings. (Well, that and Steve Castor’s unconventional taste in briefcases.) It’s the sort of national attitude that you might suspect would inspire political apathy. If you think all politicians are crooked do-nothings, you might care less what they do.
But a half-century of research — and an even longer slide into pessimism among the American electorate — suggests that any cynicism following the impeachment hearing isn’t likely to make voters stay home in 2020. That was the old theory, born in the post-Watergate days when trust in politics was as low and heavy as a funk bassline, said Jack Citrin, professor of political science at the University of California, Berkeley. But it never bore out. Instead, Citrin and other experts say cynicism actually seems to be a political motivator, increasing both activism and voter turnout. But while we often broadly think of those as Good Things for Democracy, they don’t necessarily portend a shiny, hopeful political future.
Americans are definitely cynical about politics. The American National Election Studies survey, which has tracked American opinion since 1958, includes a “trust index” combining the results of four questions about voters perceptions of government and politicians into a single score.<a class="espn-footnote-link" data-footnote-id="1" href="https://fivethirtyeight.com/features/in-american-politics-everyones-a-cynic/#fn-1" data-footnote-content="
The questions that make up the trust index are:
- “How much of the time do you think you can trust the government in Washington to do what is right — just about always, most of the time or only some of the time?”
- “Would you say the government is pretty much run by a few big interests looking out for themselves or that it is run for the benefit of all the people?”
- “Do you think that people in the government waste a lot of money we pay in taxes, waste some of it, or don’t waste very much of it?”
- “Do you think that quite a few of the people running the government are crooked, not very many are, or do you think hardly any of them are crooked?”
The average trust score in 2016 was 17, the lowest ever recorded. Although these questions are about trust, they serve as a proxy for understanding cynicism because political scientists think of those two things as opposites. Cynicism goes up as trust goes down, or vice versa.
Now, we weren’t always this dark. Scrub away the black eyeliner and you’ll find a country that once got an average score of 61, back in 1966. Same survey. Same questions. And you see the same trend line in other measures of trust, such as Pew data that tracks the percentage of Americans who agree that the federal government will “do what is right.” Half a century ago, 77 percent of us had high hopes for our elected officials. Since then, things have been on a downward slide, with two clear exceptions.
One came during the early Reagan years, ending about the time the Iran-Contra Affair became public. The other happened over the course of the latter Clinton years, peaking after 9/11, then rapidly falling again. Today, trust in the government is so low that one expert I spoke to — a Berkeley political scientist named Laura Stoker — said she had a hard time imagining how it could actually fall further. “We’re pretty much at the floor,” she said. “It’s pretty darn low.”
And, yet, voter participation has not followed a similar trend. “I’d say cynics generally aren’t apathetic,” said Sanne Rijkhoff, a professor of political science at Texas A&M, Corpus Cristi. “If you really don’t like something, that implies a certain level of passion about it.” Despite our historically low levels of political trust, Americans join in political movements and activism at staggeringly high rates. Back in 2008, Pew found that 63 percent of Americans had joined in some kind of political or civic activism. A similar survey by the same organization in 2012 found that 72 percent of us were out there, doing something to shape a political system we mostly hate. And Logan Dancey, a professor of government at Wesleyan University, even found evidence that the more cynical people are, the more likely they are to take a political scandal seriously, see wrongdoing, and want politicians to be held accountable.
So does that mean cynicism serves the public good? Or, alternately, if you’re the Democrats, does that mean you want the public more cynical after the impeachment hearings because they might be more likely to want impeachment to happen?
Errrr, not exactly, Citrin said. Some cynicism is good, he said. Think of it as skepticism, in that case. You probably don’t want a public that is happy to just smile and approve of everything their elected representatives do.
But, he told me, there is a point where the downsides of cynicism swamp the benefits. And we probably hit that point back in the days of bell bottoms and bad moustaches. Growth in cynicism is associated with increased support for outsider and extremist candidates willing to break political taboos. It’s associated with decreased support for incumbents. It’s associated with growing distrust between politicians, themselves, which makes them less likely to work together to solve problems. Voters may get more active as they get cynical, but their politicians become less active, which just contributes to a cycle that drives even more cynicism, Stoker said.
Unsurprisingly cynicism is also associated with decreased support for large-scale government programs, such as healthcare reform, public education, or climate change adaptation. That’s not a good sign for any Democrats trying to use 2020 to usher in a new New Deal.
In fact, cynicism is a highly partisan thing, in and of itself. The American public may be able to join hands and sing together in the spirit of disillusionment and doubt, but that doesn’t mean we’re united by it. If you break people down by their party affiliation, you see an increase in trust when their party of choice is in power, a decrease when that party loses power, and vice versa. “That lessened trust among those who don’t hold power, that’s fueling the aggregate decline [in trust],” Stoker told me.
It’s no coincidence that the lowest levels of trust come from independents — who never get to enjoy being the party in power. Stoker thinks the growth in independent-identified voters is actually one of the trends fueling the growth of cynicism.
What’s more, the political scientists I spoke with have no idea how you fix this. The initial plummet in trust looks like an Olympic ski jump preceding Watergate that heads far down the mountain after. Early on, experts thought it would rebound once the government was able to demonstrate it could “do the right thing” — essentially show it could be trusted, after all. “But what do you mean by doing the right thing?” Rijkhoff said. The interactions between growing partisan rancor and the effects of cynicism, itself, have combined to make reversing extreme cynicism damn near impossible.
On the plus side, though, maybe that means the recent impeachment hearings won’t make things any worse. “Watergate was a shock to the nation,” Stoker said. “But I don’t think this will have any consequences on trust in government whatsoever.”
How Faith Shapes My Politics – The New York Times
Over the past few decades, whenever a Republican president puts up an important judicial nominee — especially a Catholic one — we go through the same routine. Some Democrat accuses the nominee of imposing her religious views on the law.
“The dogma lives loudly within you,” Senator Dianne Feinstein notoriously told Amy Coney Barrett in a 2017 confirmation hearing. Then Republicans accuse Democrats of being religious bigots. Then the nominee testifies that her personal opinions or religious faith will have absolutely no bearing on her legal judgments.
This unconvincing routine gets us no closer to understanding two important questions: How does faith influence a person’s political views? How should we look at religiously devout people in public life?
To the extent that I have answers to these questions it’s through my own unusual experience. I came to faith in middle age after I’d been in public life for a while. I would say that coming to faith changed everything and yet didn’t alter my political opinions all that much. That’s because assenting to a religion is not like choosing to be a Republican or a Democrat. It happens on a different level of consciousness.
When I was a kid, I was raised, like most people in our culture, on certain stories: Moses leading the Israelites out of oppression, little David slaying Goliath, Ruth swearing loyalty to Naomi.
During my decades as an atheist, I thought the stories were false but the values they implied were true. These values — welcome the stranger, humility against pride — became the moral framework I applied to think through my opinions, to support various causes. Like a lot of atheists, I found the theology of Reinhold Niebuhr very helpful.
About seven years ago I realized that my secular understanding was not adequate to the amplitude of life as I experienced it. There were extremes of joy and pain, spiritual fullness and spiritual emptiness that were outside the normal material explanations of things.
I was gripped by the conviction that the people I encountered were not skin bags of DNA, but had souls; had essences with no size or shape, but that gave them infinite value and dignity. The conviction that people have souls led to the possibility that there was some spirit who breathed souls into them.
What finally did the trick was glimpses of infinite goodness. Secular religions are really good at identifying some evils, like oppression, and building a moral system against them. Divine religions are primarily oriented to an image of pure goodness, pure loving kindness, holiness. In periodic glimpses of radical goodness — in other people, in sensations of the transcendent — I felt, as Wendell Berry put it, “knowledge crawl over my skin.” The biblical stories from Genesis all the way through Luke and John became living presences in my life.
These realizations transformed my spiritual life: awareness of God’s love, participation in grace, awareness that each person is made in God’s image. Faith offered an image of a way of being, an ultimate allegiance.
But when it came to forming opinions or writing columns, I was still in the same business. Sure, my style of thinking changed a bit. I spent more time listening, trying to discern how I was being called. I began to think with my heart as much as my head. (That could just be male middle age.) But my basic moral values — derived from the biblical metaphysic — were already in place and didn’t change that much now that the biblical stories had come alive.
My point is there is no neat relationship between the spiritual consciousness and the moral and prudential consciousnesses. When it comes to thinking and acting in the public square, we believers and nonbelievers are all in the same boat — trying to apply our moral frameworks to present realities. Faith itself doesn’t make you wiser or better.
When it comes to judges, I don’t believe any operate without a moral framework, like perfect legal automatons. I don’t believe faith alone points any of them to concrete answers. Look at how judges from the same faith come out all over the map on all issues. Look at how, deep down, the anti-abortion Catholics you know are driven by intellectual and moral conviction, not by mindless submission to Rome.
And to be honest about it, our worldly connections are usually more influential than our faith commitments when it comes to our political and professional decisions. If you want to know how Amy Coney Barrett is going to rule, pay more attention to the Federalist Society than to People of Praise, her Christian community.
In a society that is growing radically more secular every day, I’d say we have more to fear from political dogmatism than religious dogmatism. We have more to fear from those who let their politics determine their faith practices and who turn their religious communities into political armies. We have more to fear from people who look to politics as a substitute for faith.
And we have most to fear from the possibility that the biblical metaphysic, which has been a coherent value system for believers and nonbelievers for centuries, will fade from our culture, the stories will go untold, and young people will grow up in a society without any coherent moral ecology at all.
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End 'Wild West' for political ads, campaigners say – BBC News
A surge in online political advertising spending during last year’s general election shows the need for greater transparency, campaigners say.
The Electoral Reform Society (ERS) estimated the three main UK-wide parties spent more than twice as much on online adverts as on 2017’s poll.
A lack of regulation was creating a “Wild West” in need of stronger oversight, it added.
The government called its efforts to reform advertising “world-leading”.
Last month, minsters published plans for a “digital imprint” on social media ads, promising “the same transparency” for voters as for election leaflets and posters.
The ERS welcomed these, but said they were “unlikely to be sufficient”.
In a report, the campaign group said providing more information to voters about political adverts online represented an “urgent challenge for democracy”.
It argued claims over their accuracy were becoming “increasingly prominent” online, where it was easier for pop-up campaigners, as well as established political parties, to influence debate.
The ERS added there had been “several high-profile examples of dishonest or misleading claims” across the political spectrum during the 2019 campaign.
It pointed out existing accuracy rules on commercial adverts did not extend to political campaigning, while donations laws provided only a “minimal” snapshot of how much parties spent online.
What did the report find?
- The study, compiled by academics Katharine Dommett and Sam Power, estimated party spending using the transparency archives of social media firms
- It found the Conservatives, Labour and Lib Dems combined spent around £6m campaigning on Facebook and just under £3m on Google
- The analysis suggested the Conservatives spent comparatively more on Google, backing claims it sought to reach voters through YouTube
- The researchers said 64 non-party groups had registered as official political campaigners for the election, with 46 registering after the poll was announced
- They calculated a total of 88 non-party campaign groups placed 13,197 adverts on Facebook, at a combined cost of £2.7m
The report made recommendations requiring political campaigners to provide more detailed spending invoices more quickly after elections to the Electoral Commission, the UK’s elections watchdog.
It also urged parties to work with regulators and the advertising industry to develop a code of practice for political adverts.
The Electoral Commission says it does not have the power or resources to monitor the truthfulness of political advertising.
But it has previously echoed calls for greater transparency, adding in its review of the 2019 election that rules needed to be updated.
Constitution Minister Chloe Smith said: “People want to engage with politics online. That’s where campaigners connect with voters, so naturally political parties across the board are increasing their digital campaigning activity.
“This government is already making political campaigning more transparent for voters, with new, world-leading measures that will require campaign content promoted online to explicitly show who is behind it.”
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