Scholars define political cynicism as political distrust giving rise to negative beliefs about politicians, political processes, and political institutions. This “strong distrust in the reliability and competence of politicians” is paired with a lack of trust and confidence in the political system itself ( Andriaansen, van Praag, and de Vreese 2010, 435 ). Political cynicism and political trust occur at opposite ends of the same spectrum, yet political cynicism represents more than a mere lack of trust.
Political distrust is not necessarily a bad thing. According to Garry Wills ( 1999 ), the United States of America was founded on a healthy distrust of government, and that is why the Founders established a system of limited government with checks and balances.
As Russel Dalton observes in his 2004 book, political cynicism is a rising trend. Among the American public, as opinion polls show, cynicism is expressed as a decline in trust of political institutions such as the Congress and the federal government, as well as politicians.
Trust is a key motivating factor of citizen engagement. According to Peter Levine ( 2013 ) trust allows people to work on a common goal and overcome competing interests and build civic relationships that will enable them to accomplish important civic work. Thus, lack of trust threatens citizens' ability to work collectively toward public good.
Exposure to “strategic” reporting (as opposed to substantive coverage) may induce political cynicism, as Joseph Cappella and Kathleen Jamieson ( 1997 ) observe, and depress citizen engagement. Strategic reporting, which refers to “coverage of political gains and losses, the power struggle between political actors, their performance and the public perception of their performance” ( Adriaansen et al. 2012, 155 ), presents politicians as self-interested actors whose behaviors are unaffected by citizens' actions, such as voting. Cappella and Jamieson ( 1997 ) further argue that cynicism dampens political participation, possibly because citizens feel that their voices have no effect on the way politicians behave.
However, studies that explore the relationship between strategic reporting and cynicism have yielded mixed findings, suggesting that not all citizens exposed to such coverage become cynical, and not all cynical people are disengaged. Many factors, such as voters' prior knowledge, the level of strategy in the news, and the age of the individual determine the level of cynicism. Strategic reporting can have short-term effects or no effect. Factors that increase cynicism include uncivil or negative coverage and a lack of awareness of the election campaign. According to Ethlyn Williams, Rajnandini Pillai, and Bryan Deptula and colleagues ( 2012 ), factors that predict a lower level of cynicism include forming impressions of a politician as authentic and value congruence between the politician's message and the audience's general values.
The relationship between cynicism and political efficacy and engagement is also complex. Higher levels of political cynicism are not always associated with less political involvement. In fact, some studies, such as the study by Claes de Vreese and Holli Semetko ( 2002 ), have found a positive association between political cynicism and political efficacy; moreover, political cynicism has been shown by Hanlong Fu, Yi Mou, Michael J. Miller, and Gerard Jalette ( 2011 ) to prompt political information seeking among younger voters. A notable observation, made by Priscilla Southwell and Kevin Pirch ( 2003 ), is that black voters who experience political cynicism and distrust of the system are more likely to vote, whereas white voters with high level of cynicism are less likely to vote.
A common belief in the past was that young and presumably inexperienced voters are especially vulnerable to the negative effects of strategic news coverage and political cynicism because they tend to have less sophisticated political knowledge and show more volatile political alliances. Research since the 1990s has challenged this assertion. First, politically efficacious young people are no more vulnerable to political disaffection by negative news than older adults, as Matthijs Elenbaas and Claes de Vreese ( 2008 ) demonstrate. Second, cynicism has both a negative and a positive effect on political efficacy and voting intent while having no effect on apathy. Scholars such as Fu and colleagues theorize that at least for young people, cynicism can act as a motivating factor, leading to a sense of duty to choose the lesser of two evils, or, as de Vreese ( 2005 ) notes, to a recognition that it is important to participate in the political process despite their negative view of politicians.
Political cynicism, which has been steadily increasing since the late twentieth century, is of significant interest to political scientists because it affects political participation. Many factors affect political cynicism, and the relationship between factors such as strategic news coverage, uncivil news, and leader characteristics and cynicism is moderated by numerous variables. Furthermore, research shows that, although cynicism is generally correlated to depressed political efficacy, cynicism may actually mobilize young and inexperienced voters.
Future research may elucidate how the changing news environment and increasing variety in the ways in which people access news and political advertising influence the cycle of cynicism. For instance, young people tend to get news from the Internet, social networking sites, and entertainment-style political news. Lauren Guggenheim, Nojin Kwak, and Scott Campbell ( 2011 ) note that alternative news shows have different effects on voter apathy than do traditional news shows.
SEE ALSO Alienation ; Apathy ; Public Trust .
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Adriaansen, Maud L., Philip van Praag, and Claes H. de Vreese. “A Mixed Report: The Effects of Strategic and Substantive News Content on Political Cynicism and Voting.” Communications: The European Journal of Communication 37, no. 2 (2012): 153–72.
Cappella, Joseph N., and Kathleen H. Jamieson. Spiral of Cynicism: The Press and the Public Good. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.
de Vreese, Claes H. “The Effects of Strategic News on Political Cynicism, Issue Evaluations, and Policy Support: A Two-Wave Experiment.” Mass Communication and Society 7, no. 2 (2004): 191–214.
de Vreese, Claes, and Holli A. Semetko. “Cynical and Engaged: Strategic Campaign Coverage, Public Opinion, and Mobilization in a Referendum.” Communications Research 29, no. 6 (2002): 615–41.
Dalton, Russel J. Democratic Challenges, Democratic Choices: The Erosion of Political Support in Advanced Industrial Democracies. Oxford, UK, and New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.
Elenbaas, Matthijs, and Claes H. de Vreese. “The Effects of Strategic News on Political Cynicism and Vote Choice among Young Voters.” Journal of Communication 58, no. 3 (2008): 550–67.
Fu, Hanlong, Yi Mou, Michael J. Miller, and Gerard Jalette. “Reconsidering Political Cynicism and Political Involvement: A Test of Antecedents.” American Communication Journal 13, no. 2 (2011): 44–61.
Guggenheim, Lauren, Nojin Kwak, and Scott W. Campbell. “Nontraditional News Negativity: The Relationship of Entertaining Political News Use to Political Cynicism and Mistrust.” International Journal of Public Opinion Research 23, no. 3 (2011): 287–314.
Levine, Peter. We Are the Ones We Have Been Waiting For: The Promise of Civic Renewal in America. New York: Oxford University Press, 2013.
Pinkleton, Bruce E., and Erica W. Austin. “Media Perceptions and Public Affairs Apathy in the Politically Inexperienced.” Mass Communication and Society 7 (2004): 319–37.
Southwell, Priscilla L., and Kevin D. Pirch. “Political Cynicism and the Mobilization of Black Voters.” Social Science 84, no. 4 (2003): 906–17.
Williams, Ethlyn A., Rajnandini Pillai, Bryan Deptula, et al. “The Effects of Crisis, Cynicism about Change, and Value Congruence on Perceptions of Authentic Leadership and
Attributed Charisma in the 2008 Presidential Election.” Leadership Quarterly 23, no. 3 (2012): 324–41.
Wills, Garry. A Necessary Evil: A History of American Distrust of Government. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1999.
The Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning & Engagement (CIRCLE) Tufts University