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Who Will Win America: The Cynics or The Believers?
Thoughts on the Most Important Political Fault Line in American Life
“Nobody cares about what’s happening to the Uighurs, okay?” cryptobillionaire, NBA team owner, and former Facebook executive, Chamath Palihapitiya said this weekend in an interview with The All-In Podcast. “You bring it up because you really care, and I think that’s nice that you care. The rest of us don’t care. I’m telling you a very hard, ugly truth. Of all the things that I care about, yes, it is below my line.”
It’s a chilling statement, casually thrown off, by one of America’s richest titans: We just don’t care about the genocide occurring in China. And it represents a newly prominent voice in our political discourse: The American Cynic.
Last week, Rep. Warren Davidson, Republican Congressman from Ohio’s Eighth District repeatedly likened vaccine passports to efforts by the Nazis to dehumanize and degrade Jews before murdering them. And Democratic gubernatorial candidate Nikki Fried said to NPR on Friday, “I’m sorry, I’m a student of history too. I saw the rise of Hitler.” “Are you comparing [Governor Ron] DeSantis to Hitler?” her interviewer asked. “In a lot of ways, yes,” she said.
Rep. Davidson later apologized for the offense he caused to Jews by trivializing the Holocaust. But Right-wing comparisons of vaccine passports to Nuremburg laws, like the Left’s hysterical comparisons of detention centers on the border to concentration camps, or likening the country’s most popular Republican governor to Hitler—do something beyond whitewashing Nazi atrocities. They fraudulently vilify America, too. At their cynical heart lives the idea we are but an executive order away from totalitarianism—that there is no fundamental difference between America with its 233-year old constitutional order and a genocidal dictatorship led by an unaccountable Fuhrer.
On this MLK Day of 2022, the new fault line in American politics runs not between Liberals and Conservatives, who find themselves on the same side more often than in many years. It’s between Believers and Cynics: Those who possess deep faith in bedrock American principles—free speech, due process, equal protection, religious liberty—and the Cynics, who regard those liberties as ornamental, insufficient to stop the necrosis of a society in an advanced state of decay. Cynics on the Left and Right disagree about whether America was ever great—but they agree that it’s far from great now—little better than the worst despotisms on earth, and certainly in no position to oppose them.
Cynics on the Left and Right disagree about whether America was ever great—but they agree that it’s far from great now.
America has always had her Cynics, but in the last decade, they have risen to power through Big Tech, which glorifies all disruption, and President Donald Trump, who often evinced as much “move fast and break things” contempt for our institutions as Silicon Valley titans. Politicians have always operated cynically, but the trendy “America is over” nihilism on Left and Right surpasses the occasional instrumental hyperbole exercised in order to pass a bill or win an election. On the Left, the Cynics accuse vast swaths of America of white supremacy or treason. They make no effort to forge common ground because you don’t invite Lucifer to lunch.
Big Tech Cynics stash their money in the neocurrencies of the blockchain, breezily submit to China’s demands for censorship, and yawn at the notion that they are encouraging an epidemic of depression and self-harm among our kids. Cynics of the Right create fantasy islands in Red States and flirt with national divorce as if there were something cute about secession. They care nothing about our democratic allies internationally. If China terrorizes Taiwan, Russia invades Ukraine, or Gaza showers Israel with rockets, they shrug. The notion that America ought to stand up for other democracies strikes them as quaint or naïve, if not part of some corrupt 2002-era neocon fantasy.
The Cynics lack any real commitment to America’s bedrock values or the American political system, which they are always clamoring to overhaul. Left-wing Cynics claim to care about LGBTQ rights, but never express a peep of disapproval over the execution of gays in the Islamic world. They can barely muster a note of concern about suppression for speech whenever the other team’s speech is suppressed.
In fact, Cynics have only the shallowest attachment to the American Creed at all. They find themselves unmoved by the fact that Ruth Bader Ginsburg, perhaps the greatest progressive legal icon of her generation, and Antonin Scalia, arguably the greatest conservative icon of his—were good friends. If anything, it tarnishes RBG’s legacy in their minds. They care only for their narrow slice of a political party and behave as if the raison d'être of America is to advance their political Tribe—and not the other way around.
As for the Believers—Liberals and Conservatives—they disagree fervidly among themselves about how hard we ought to clamp down on guns, abortions, illegal immigration, and carbon emissions. Whether the death penalty or the death tax is more morally offensive. Whether Scalia or RBG had the better idea of what a justice of the Supreme Court ought do with her pen. These are profound differences, not to be trivialized. But Believers agree that our bedrock constitutional liberties embody American greatness—and that they are the ticket to saving an America that remains, as Lincoln put it, “the last best hope of earth.”
Believers agree that our bedrock constitutional liberties embody American greatness—and that they are the ticket to saving an America that remains, as Lincoln put it, “the last best hope of earth.”
This new fault line in American politics is the reason so many Liberals—alienated by the Cynical Left’s war on civil liberties—describe themselves as “politically homeless.” If it weren’t for a few wedge issues like abortion—exploited and catastrophized by both sides to increase division—Liberals and Conservatives would be in danger of finding too much common cause. Certainly, they’d be companionably drawn together by strong opposition to racial essentialism, Wokeism in schools, Gender Ideology, and locking down the young. Believers strongly tend towards keeping women’s sports for women, keeping police departments funded, and opposing the myriad ways Big Tech seduces and then brutalizes young minds.
Liberals and Conservatives face different immediate threats. Liberals’ greatest threat is the Woke, who have taken over their institutions and corrupted their Party. The Woke threaten conservatives too, but it is once-liberal institutions they now commandeer—the ACLU, the New York Times, Yale University—institutions conservatives long ago wrote off. The Woke political agenda is broadly unpopular, and – if it gains unchecked control of the Democratic Party – Liberal electoral hopes will collapse. Some Conservatives cheer when Liberal institutions are ruined by the Woke, which is disastrously short-sighted.
Conservatives’ biggest threat is Big Tech, which often censors political speech on behalf of Liberal political agendas. It kicks Republicans and heterodox voices off of its platforms for reasons alternatively vague and indefensible. Liberals’ views are generally permitted to live on social media, unmolested. Some Liberals cheer when Conservatives are censored by these platforms, which is disastrously short-sighted.
Some Conservatives cheer when Liberal institutions are ruined by the Woke, which is disastrously short-sighted. Some Liberals cheer when Conservatives are censored by Big Tech, which is disastrously short-sighted.
But between Liberals and Conservatives today there is broad agreement: that America is fundamentally good. Imperfect, obviously. Currently imperiled, for certain. But full, coast-to-coast, with optimistic, generous, and industrious people. Our Constitution represents an astonishing achievement, the key to helping us out of whatever mess we’re in. We are all still Americans, after all.
Believer doesn’t mean milquetoast, although Believers are too often overmatched by the venom of the Cynics. As James Baldwin once observed, “The most dangerous creation of any society is the man who has nothing to lose.”
But Martin Luther King, Jr., Ronald Reagan, and Lyndon Johnson were all Believers—they played to win and won. Amy Klobuchar and Tom Cotton, Elena Kagan and Sam Alito proceed this way too: the politicians among them may attack the other side relentlessly (this is part of the job, after all). But listen to their arguments: they believe in the First Amendment, Due Process, and Equal Protection. They understand that American ideals require defense; they represent not only the best hope for America—but the best hope for humanity. They think the American people are something special. They hold the righteousness of the Declaration’s promise deep in their bones.
It’s no secret to anyone that America has seen better days or that the national mood is low. The question is whether to kick her while she’s down, to give up on her entirely—and then, to replace her with what, exactly?
As for the Cynics, The Believers must fend them off with everything we’ve got. “Do not succumb to the disease of cynicism for it will justify all of your worst instincts,” Dr. King once warned. Believe him.