Op-Ed | The Year of the Cynic
It’s nearly October, and I’m grateful. Why? Because this merciless slog of a campaign season, the most dreary and depressing that I can remember, is almost over.
This is a change for me, since I usually love election season, but ever since the beginning of the year I’ve just wanted it to be finished.
Idealism, or whatever passions pass for it these days, has run aground. In my July 29, 2011 CTNewsjunkie.com column I called 2011 the “Year of the Radicals,” thanks to increasing radicalism around the world and here at home. This, at the time, was signified by the waning but still real power of the Tea Party and the shocking brinksmanship of the debt ceiling fight on the right, and by Occupy and a momentarily resurgent labor union movement on the left. The message seemed clear: there’s power in ideas, and mass action and inspired stands can and will shake the world. Like the 2008 election, 2011’s sometimes infuriating, sometimes awe-inspiring radicalism was at its heart an expression of idealism.
All of that is gone this year, leaving us exhausted and bitterly cynical about the power of mass movement, partisan politics or personal action to change anything at all. Passions are muted. Hopes are surprisingly dim. Only the truest believers seem to have the stomach for ideological warfare, and political conversation these days is far more likely to be snarky and sarcastic instead of sincere and hopeful.
The candidates themselves aren’t helping. In Connecticut’s Senate race, Chris Murphy and Linda McMahon spent most of September lobbing personal attacks instead of talking about what they’d do over the next six years. Elizabeth Esty bashed Andrew Roraback in her first ad for being a “Hartford politician,” even though she herself served in the state legislature for a term before being defeated. At the top, there’s even more fog. Obama ran in 2008 as someone who could inspire us out of crisis, but now he struggles keep his head above the murk. Does anyone have any idea what a second Obama term would really be like? How about a Romney presidency? Will either man be able to put a dent in Washington’s partisan gridlock?
For a lot of people, the answer is that no matter what happens in November, very little will actually change. We’ve tried, after all, and neither voting for change nor demanding it in the streets has managed to budge the needle very much. The debt is still huge. Wall Street is still far too powerful. The federal government still barely functions. If 2011 was the Year of the Radicals, with all of their passion, danger, and destructive capacity, then 2012 is the Year of the Cynic.
So what does this mean for what happens next? One thing I’m sure of is that the sharp, bitter partisanship of the past decade isn’t likely to evaporate, no matter which party comes out on top. But there are days when, after wading through a sea of political cynicism, I want to feel like things could get better. Here’s what I hope will happen: after everyone limps across the finish line in November, everyone takes a step back from the edge. Every election since 2004 has been increasingly bitter and contentious, so maybe this passion-less campaign season will birth something different. Besides, expectations are so low that it’ll be hard to be disappointed, and the little victories will seem that much better. It could happen. Maybe everything won’t have to be filtered through the same old partisan lens. Maybe the Senate will wake up and reform its undemocratic rules. Maybe the House will stop letting the fire-breathers run the show. If that happens, something could actually get done.
The cynic in me is pretty sure that it won’t happen, and we’ll still be stuck in the same rut we’re in now. Hope’s been hard to hang on to these past years, after all, but there’s reason to think things are starting to get better. Consumer confidence is ticking up again, as is the number of people who believe the county’s on the right track. Neither number is all that great, sadly, and Europe’s troubles may pour cold water on these dim little embers of optimism before the year is out, but the possibility of a better year to come is enticing.
That’s a good lesson to remember. Election seasons end, presidents and members of Congress come and go, and political moods shift with the wind. Maybe after the Year of the Cynic we’ll have something new at last: a year of real, genuine recovery.
Susan Bigelow is an award-winning columnist and the founder of CTLocalPolitics. She lives in Enfield with her wife and their cats.