The Republican Weapon of Mass Cynicism

privatzing social securityAccording to the latest ABC New/Washington Post poll, 77 percent of Americans say they “feel things have gotten pretty seriously off on the wrong track” in this country. That’s the highest percentage since January, 2009.

No surprise. The economy is almost as rotten now as it was two years ago. And, yes, this poses a huge risk to President Obama’s reelection, as it does to congressional Democrats.

But the truly remarkable thing is how little faith Americans have in government to set things right. This cynicism poses an even bigger challenge to Obama and the Democrats – and perhaps to all of us.

When I worked in Robert Kennedy’s senate office in the summer of 1967, America also seemed off track. Our inner cities were burning. The Vietnam War was escalating.

Yet most Americans still held government in high regard. A whopping 66 percent of the public told pollsters that year that they trusted government to do the right thing all or most of the time.

Now 30 percent of Americans say they trust government to do the right thing.

What’s responsible for this erosion? Not the Great Recession or the government’s response to it. Most of the decline in public trust occurred years before.

While 66 percent trusted government in 1967, by 1973 that percent had eroded to only 52 percent. By 1976, barely 32 percent of Americans said they trusted government to do the right thing. By 1992, 28 percent. Trust bounced up during the Clinton administration (I’m happy to report) but cratered again during the George W. Bush’s presidency, ending at 30 percent, and hasn’t recovered since.

Call it the Republican Weapon of Mass Cynicism.

That weapon is now reaching full-throated fury in the form of Texas Governor Rick Perry. (It’s echoed by Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann, but Perry has emerged as the major spokesperson.)

Republicans didn’t accomplish this alone, of course. They had plenty of help from a Democratic Party too often insensitive to the importance of building public trust. But look at the history of the past four decades and you can’t help conclude that the overall decline in trust and concomitant rise in cynicism about government has been a Republican masterwork.

Decades of Republican rhetorical scorn – Reagan’s repeated admonition, for example, that government is the problem rather than the solution – have contributed. But the most powerful sources of cynicism have been actions rather than words.

One has been the misuse of public authority. Consider Nixon’s Watergate, the Reagan White House’s secret sale of arms to Iran while it was subject to an arms embargo and illegal slush fund for the Nicaraguan Contras, Tom DeLay’s extensive system of bribery, and the Republican House’s audacious impeachment of Bill Clinton. To the extent these abuses generated public scandal and outrage, so much the better for the Weapon. The scandals fueled even more public cynicism.

Another source has been a flood of money pouring into government from big corporations, Wall Street, and the super rich – in return for public subsidies, bailouts, tax breaks, and a steady lowering of tax rates. Democrats aren’t innocent, but Republicans have been in the forefront. (As governor, Rick Perry has raised more money than any politician in Texas history, rewarding his major funders with generous grants, contracts, and appointments.)

The GOP has pioneered new ways to circumvent campaign finance laws, blocked all attempts at reform, and appointed and confirmed Supreme Court justices who believe corporations have First Amendment rights to spend whatever they want to corrupt our politics.

A third source has been regulatory agencies staffed by industry cronies more interested in protecting their industries than the public. Here again Republican administrations have led the way: the failure of financial regulators to prevent the Savings & Loans implosion; corporate looting at Enron, WorldCom, Adelphia other big companies; and then the biggest speculative bubble since 1929, bursting in ways that hurt almost everyone except the financiers who created it. A Mineral’s Management Service that turned a blind eye to disastrous oil spills from the Exxon-Valdez to BP; mine Safety regulators whose nonfeasance lead to the Massey mine disaster; an FDA that allowed in tainted meds from China.

Democrats have had their share of political hacks and cronies, but Republicans have made an art of cashing in on government service through sweetheart deals for their former companies (think of Dick Cheney’s stock options with Halliburton), and cushy jobs and lobbying gigs when they leave office. And the GOP has taken the lead in resisting all attempts to prevent such conflicts of interest.

The cynicism has been fueled, finally, by repeated Republican threats to bring the whole government to a grinding halt – from Newt Gingrich and fellow House Republicans’ shutdowns in the 1990s to John Boehner and companies’ near assault on the full faith and credit of the United States government months ago. When the whole process of governing becomes bitterly partisan and rancorous – when common ground is unreachable because one side won’t budge – government looks like a cruel game.

By mid-August, 2011, the public’s view of Congress had reached an all-time low of barely 13 percent, and disapproval at an historic high of 84 percent. Viewed in narrow terms, this is bad news for all incumbents, Republican as well as Democrat. But viewed more broadly in terms of the larger Republican strategy of mass cynicism, it advances the right-wing agenda.

Back to that summer more than four decades ago when I worked in Robert Kennedy’s senate office. There was no doubt in my mind I’d devote part of my adult life to public service. It wasn’t so much that I trusted government – the Vietnam War had already tapped a cynical vein – as that I looked to government as the major instrument of positive social change in America.

I was not alone. The Civil Rights and Voting Rights acts, Medicare, an American landing on the moon – and before that an interstate highway system, expansion of higher education, GI Bill – and before that, The New Deal and World War II – all had engraved in the public’s mind the sense that government was something to be proud of, an entity that we could rely on when times got tough.

robert reichTimes are tough again, but the Weapon of Mass Cynicism has convinced most Americans they can’t rely on government to help them out now. The nation is even entertaining the possibility of cutting Medicare and Medicaid, college aid, food stamps, Head Start. Perry calls Social Security a Ponzi scheme, and many are ready to believe him.

But if we can’t trust government at a time like this, whom can we trust? Corporations? Wall Street? Bill Gates and Warren Buffett?

Or is each of us now simply on our own?

Robert Reich
Robert Reich’s Blog


  1. says

    It all sounds very bad. We should be spending billions on rebuilding our cities instead of roads and thinking we are in foreign countries to show them how to govern. We spend a million a year per soldier think of how many domestic unemployed that would employ. We are competing against the right for federal dollars .Its a very serious battle that we need to identify. Between the wars ,the surveilance state and the prison complex we are draining too much money on pet right wing big government.Fear American style is the real enemy.
    You also are very likely to move up within the Democrats unless you are fairly whimpy.

  2. MyLeftMind says

    Consider Nixon’s Watergate, the Reagan White House’s secret sale of arms to Iran while it was subject to an arms embargo and illegal slush fund for the Nicaraguan Contras, Tom DeLay’s extensive system of bribery, and the Republican House’s audacious impeachment of Bill Clinton.

    Those big, bad Repubs had the audacity to try to impeach our juvenile Democratic president who used the oval office as his personal sex arena? Huh. I wish they had succeeded in kicking Clinton out of office. He screwed our Democratic Party much worse than he did his little intern.

    You present a well reasoned argument, Mr. Reich, but when we can’t see the problems with our own side, our opinions are easily dismissed by right wingers and independents who consider us naïve and blind to our own failings. Bill Clinton was a disgrace. Really, is it too much to ask that the most powerful man in the world, the US President, not disgrace the Oval Office by using it for sex with a lowly intern? C’mon, let’s have some basic standards and expectations for our own side, so when we catch republicans cheating and being dishonest, we have a leg to stand on.

    Today’s economic problems go far deeper than just the Republicans’ rhetoric about government. We believe that we can’t trust government because we really can’t trust them. Power corrupts, and we have not established systems that prevent the abuse of power. Both sides of the political spectrum have been bought out. Bush was probably a pawn of OPEC and the Saudis who needed to eliminate their nemesis, Saddam Hussein. But Obama is apparently a stealth Republican doing the bidding of his billionaire cronies on Wall Street and in the insurance, medical and pharmaceutical industries. In fact, our Democratic leadership is more dangerous because the left is unwilling to confront them on their abuses, as shown by your eagerness to give Bill Clinton a pass for his transgressions.

    Because of our naïve support, our Democratic leaders have jumped on the bandwagon and are actively destroying the middle class via wealth redistribution to both the super rich and the deliberately poor. Just like Clinton’s NAFTA, Obama’s policies are making the rich richer at the expense of the common American. Obama bailed out the Banksters instead of providing homeowner support, he expanded war profiteering opportunities, he snuck through the “Insurance Industry Profit Protection and Enhancement Act” that forces Americans to support his industry cronies and likely will prevent true Universal Health Care from being enacted for another 20-30 years, and the Bush tax breaks for the rich are now the Obama tax breaks for the super rich. Obama is even willing to destroy Social Security so the government can redirect whatever retirement savings the middle class can come up with to Wall Street instead.

    That is what is making people lose confidence in our government. We voted in the guy that we thought was on our side, and he screwed us. ObamaCare is a failure because our president lied about his support for the public option, nixing it last minute before the bill was passed, as per his promise made to the insurance industry almost a year before he killed it. He led us on for months, pretending to support the public option before sneakily killing it just before the big rush to get the bill passed. When will the left get wise to this guy? Obama apologists explain away every right wing policy Obama has snuck through, saying silly things like, “He had no choice, the Republicans MADE him do it.” Obama‘s redistributing wealth from the common American to the billionaires who will fund his 2012 campaign, and most left wing voters will cluelessly vote for him again, in spite of clear evidence that he’s lying by telling us he’s on our side while marching to the tune of the billionaires who literally own our government.

    The masters of the universe have found a more clever way to destroy the middle class – by getting us to elect a President who is actually on their side, but who the left is reticent to criticize. No doubt Obama will campaign again on his fake “we’re going to rescue our country” mantra, but now we know exactly who he’s beholden to – and it ain’t us little guys.

  3. Michael says

    For me, my cynicism is courtesy of the FOIA. In 1967 the people didn’t have access to the volumes of now declassified documents we have today, documents that show at every step we were wrong to trust the government. From inventing LSD, controlling and running the drug trade in SE Asia, to the stated goals of MKULTRA, even the Fluoride related documents showing that what we were told about people working the the fluoride plants (for nuclear weapons) having fewer cavities than average the actual documents show it’s because most of them didn’t have any teeth left due to fluoridation (studies also show it lowers IQ and makes people more ‘docile’).
    Even the great Clinton, supporter of the unions, brought us NAFTA: a back-door to circumvent union protesters. Got a picket line of employees? Move that factory to Mexico!
    And since 2001 the mainstream news has had it’s own LSD flashback, the story is the same and when Al Queda (a group originally created, trained and funded by the CIA) is not the big bad, replace the old communism with socialism and spread that propaganda.

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