Commentary

We Need Cynics

By Will Wilkinson
This article appeared in The Week on January 29, 2009

By late September of 2001, George W. Bush was the most popular president of modern times. The tragic shock of 9/11 awakened a sense of patriotism, common purpose, and deference to government entirely new to Americans who came of age after Nixon. The President displayed comforting steel in the wake of the terrifying attack. He was a uniter, not a divider. And never in recent memory have Americans been so united. Congress trembled in the face of Bush’s mighty approval ratings. Nor was the media eager to gainsay the national mood.

And so it was that America gave Bush most of what he asked for. In return we got Iraq, crushing budget deficits, waterboarding, the ire of the world, and, finally, collapsing financial markets. It’s not what we had in mind.

Maybe it would have been better had we been less united, had we been more skeptical of grand plans, had more of us pushed back when so many of us pushed forward in the same direction.

In his inaugural address, Barack Obama scorned “cynics” who fail to grasp that “the old arguments do not apply” now, in a time of crisis. Obama’s presidency is living proof of hard-won progress in the struggle for racial equality, and his is a truly fresh voice in American politics. Yet it was politics as usual when the new President urged Americans to set aside cynicism, transcend their tired oppositions, and pull together behind his leadership.

“Trash the cynic” is a stock tactic of popular politicians, used to weaken remaining resistance to their agenda. The admiring public gets a warm sense of cohesive uplift while the loyal opposition is cast in an unflattering light: outmoded, small-spirited, irrelevant. Those who would argue are made to look petty—whether or not they have a good point. Obama is a master of this game. And George W. Bush was no slouch when he, too, had a gale of popular opinion at his back and a mandate to “do something” in a season of crisis.

“There are some who question the scale of our ambitions, who suggest that our system cannot tolerate too many big plans,” President Obama observed in his address. “Their memories are short,” he said, “for they have forgotten what this country has already done, what free men and women can achieve when imagination is joined to common purpose and necessity to courage.”

How can we not question the scale of our leaders’ ambitions? How short would our memories have to be?”

This is a tediously familiar and dangerous message. Can you recall the scale of our recent ambitions? The United States would invade Iraq, refashion it as a democracy and forever transform the Middle East. Remember when President Bush committed the United States to “the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world”? That is ambitious scale.

Not only have some of us forgotten “what this country has already done … when imagination is joined to a common purpose,” it’s as if some of us are trying to erase the memory of our complicity in the last eight years—to forget that in the face of a crisis we did transcend our stale differences and cut the president a blank check that paid for disaster. How can we not question the scale of our leaders’ ambitions? How short would our memories have to be?

One needn’t be a “cynic” to be wary of surging popular passions or unchecked executive power. This caution is built into our Constitution. The American system of government was designed to moderate ambition and thwart big plans. Checks and balances do embody skepticism of unregulated power, but that skepticism is the soul of good government, not its nemesis. Yes, the bottlenecks in the system aggravate crusading popular presidents, which is why so many have chipped away at their constraints. That’s why the system no longer checks nor balances as it should. That’s why Obama entered the Oval Office with unprecedented executive power.

Yet in his first days in office, President Obama began signing some of his power away, rolling back Bush administration policy. Why not use that power for good? To further grand ambitions? What held Obama back? Was it cynicism? Or maybe in narrowing the scope of executive privilege, Obama expressed his conviction about the limits of a president’s legitimate power.

Obama’s convictions clash with Bush’s. They disagree. And many Americans disagree with Obama and stand in the way of his big plans. There is no cynicism in pressing the argument. Lively public debate annoys the partisan fixed on the main chance. But in a crisis like this, the last thing we need is another blank check. We need balance. We need those who will push back. Call them cynics, if you must.

Will Wilkinson is a research fellow at the Cato Institute and editor of Cato Unbound.