The age of cynical voters

We all know that politicians are cunning and cynical, but could the same now be said for the electorate?

Many of those who voted for US President Donald Trump did so knowing that he is a habitual liar with suspicious ties to Russia, just as the rank and file of the Conservative Party in the United Kingdom know that Boris Johnson has lied and cheated his way to the top. In Poland, it is no secret that the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party is packing governing institutions with its lackeys, misusing public media, rewarding cronies and undermining the independence of the courts. Nonetheless, PiS trounced Poland’s opposition parties in the European Parliament election in May.

The fact that Poles, Britons and Americans have all ushered in morally bankrupt governments is symptomatic of what German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk described in the early 1980s as ‘cynical reason’. Sloterdijk argued that, in the absence of widely shared narratives of progress, the Western elites had absorbed the lessons of the Enlightenment, but applied them in the service of narrow self-interest rather than the common good. Social problems such as slavery, poverty and inequality were no longer attributable solely to human ignorance, and yet enlightened people lacked the determination to solve them. As Slavoj Zizek has put it, the operation of ideology today is not ‘they do not know it, but they are doing it’, it is ‘they know it, but they are doing it anyway’.

In Sloterdijk’s view, this cynicism began with the elite. Now we all behave like enlightened egotists. Although we know how to fight inequalities, they are still increasing. Authoritarianism (whether Russian or Chinese) deals more efficiently with poverty than democracy does. Rich societies are little moved by wars or refugee crises.

The great ideas promising significant social change, whether social democracy or Christian democracy, are only finding resonance among the older generation. Voters who don’t care that populists such as Trump and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban change their stated positions from one day to the next are not blind admirers of power. They are simply advocates of their own particular interests. If reducing greenhouse-gas emissions means closing down coal mines and coal-fired power plants, those with an interest in the coal sector will not support climate policies, just as those in wealthier areas don’t care much about laid-off coal miners.

In Europe, the emerging division between Greens and populists seems to reflect a new post-ideological axis. On both sides of the divide, voters now behave like political operatives, highlighting certain topics while studiously avoiding others. They have internalised the party line (often a patchwork of former left and right policies), which they then repeat in focus groups, on social media and around the dinner table. Political parties no longer represent voters; rather, voters represent parties, sometimes even before they emerge, as was shown by the yellow-vest protests in France.

The Trump presidency, the UK’s Brexit debacle and the rise of PiS and Orban suggest a widespread loss of faith in progress. The Eastern European vision of progress was long synonymous with the transition from communism to capitalism, but three decades of belt-tightening and waiting for a better tomorrow have taken a heavy toll on people’s confidence in liberal democracy. Populism appeals to voters with its promise of a kind of Copernican revolution, reversing the belt-tightening as well as the prevailing assumptions of the past.

Shortly after PiS’s victory in the European Parliament election, in which it captured 45.5% of the vote, the online news service asked Poles, ‘Does the current PiS government pursue its party interest more than earlier PO–PSL (Civic Platform–Polish People’s Party) governments?’ Altogether 68% of respondents answered yes and only 24% said that PiS is less self-interested than its predecessors. Even among PiS voters, 38% acknowledged that the state apparatus is more politicised now than it was under PO and PSL. When asked whether the current PiS government does more for the personal financial gain of its officials than earlier PO–PSL governments, 58% deemed PO and PSL more honest.

Nonetheless, in focus groups of Polish voters, one consistently hears things like, ‘I know that PiS is not particularly honest, but they look out for the people; they steal and they spin, but at least they share.’ In other words, these voters support PiS despite its obvious flaws, because they do not believe they can afford to vote out the party that has been funnelling cash and other social transfers their way.

Prospect theory, the behavioural-economics model pioneered by Nobel laureates Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, predicts that people will become less risk-averse if presented with only bad options. Our calculus depends not merely on what we can win or lose in absolute terms, but by our current situation and expectations. When someone who is anticipating a high payout receives less than expected, they will feel disappointment, rather than satisfaction at having gained anything at all.

Such heuristics show how voters can become attached to politicians such as Trump or PiS leader Jarosław Kaczynski. Polish, British and American voters have made political choices that they know to be risky because they feel as though they have nothing to lose and their options are between ‘bad’ and ‘worse’. Upholding lofty ideals such as liberal democracy, constitutional order and press freedom feels like an unaffordable luxury. They are not willing to sacrifice material benefits for abstract principles.

Who can blame them? Western multinational corporations that do business in Russia, China and elsewhere have for years been sacrificing liberal ideals in the name of profit. As Sloterdijk observed almost 40 years ago, cynical reason trickles down. If only the same were true of wealth, history might have turned out quite differently.