It is the era of the cynic.
Six years ago, the national conversation was overwhelmed by talk of hope and change. I think almost everyone—even the people who doubted that it would ever really happen—was curious to see if it could.
Internationally, the further codification of human rights law and the adoption of the Responsibility to Protect doctrine, which declared that the world would not stand by as human rights were grossly violated, gave the future promise.
On television, the West Wing had just ended. The show was a weekly lesson in optimism. For seven seasons, it argued, as Communications Director Toby Ziegler did to President Bartlet, that “government, no matter what its failures in the past—and in times to come for that matter— government can be a place where people come together and where no one gets left behind. No one gets left behind. An instrument of good.”
The show was full of wildly diverse characters—people who were selfish and incompetent and genius and capable and kind and Democrat and Republican. But they all shared exactly one trait--a fiery idealism that motivated their every action.
But, over the course of the past six years, that idealism has crashed and burned.
Despite a record that is in many ways very impressive, the lofty goals outlined by the President two elections ago were so aspirational, reality could not live up. “How’s that Hopey Changey stuff workin out for ya?” Sarah Palin mocked. After two years of inefficient legislative battles that too often lead nowhere, the idea of coming together for sweeping reform that will better life for everyone seems laughable.
Internationally, the Syrian government explicitly broke international law by using chemical weapons to slaughter its citizens, and the Russian government explicitly broke international law by waging aggressive war and violating the sovereignty of another territory. Yet the international community has largely stood by, making the promise of a day in which the world would not allow such atrocities no matter where they occurred seem foolish.
And now, on television, the civic-responsibility-fueled daily grind of the West Wing has been replaced by shows like House of Cards and Scandal, where the idea of acting in the service of the people is laughable. Scandal’s President Grant spends months in a drunken stupor after his extramarital affair does not go as he hoped, Frank Underwood would no sooner sacrifice a political position so that the greater good might be benefited than he would leave the political world behind to become a masseuse in Costa Rica. These shows would have you believe that the only thing surer than the President being a murderer is that he cares nothing for the actual job he is supposed to do.
Comedies like Parks and Recreation and Veep satirize idealism, painting a picture of a political world not of nefarious motives but of total and complete incompetence and inability to move forward.
It can’t really be argued—these days, cynicism is the way of the world.
You probably won’t be surprised to hear how much I hate this.
Ten years ago, President Obama’s national political career was launched by a speech called the Audacity of Hope. The phrase is captivating because it encapsulates an idea, implicitly declaring that hope is and should be bold, almost impudent. It insists that cynicism is the natural–even logical—mindset to fall into but that it must be stubbornly fought against.
Cynicism is like gravity. The evidence supporting it is everywhere—it is the way of the world that people disappoint you and things don’t work out. It is the way of the world that expectations are not fulfilled, that people are not as good as they seem. You can jump all you want, but gravity will soon pull you back down. And that is evidence enough that gravity will win out, that those who don’t believe so simply haven’t yet come back down to Earth.
But, when enough people audacious enough to hope that gravity can be overcome unite in their foolish determination and crazy luck, gravity can be overcome. Every day, all around the world, planes fly through the air. Every day, satellites orbit the Earth.
Some two hundred years ago, people came together and, despite the fact that no representative democracy had yet worked, despite the fact that they argued endlessly, despite the fact that a first attempt at a constitution failed miserably—they fueled their audacious hope for a society forever ruled by itself into the society we still live in today.
I am tired of rhetoric asking people to lower their expectations, of legislation not even attempted due to anticipated gridlock. I am tired of a party that argues that government doesn’t work well, allowing it to have both incompetence and the ability to say, “I told you so.” I am tired of television shows that identify the worst in us and try to sell it off as the inevitable way of the world.
When Toby Ziegler makes the speech about government’s potential to President Bartlet, he does so because they are debating adding the line “the era of big government is over” to the State of the Union. The line scores points with voters, who resonate with the sentiment after a term that has been filled with modest successes and major disappointments.
“I have no trouble understanding why the line tested well,” Toby says. “But I don't think that means we should say it. I think that means we should change it."
Ellie Schaack is a Trinity junior. This is her final column of the semester.