Sources of Political Cynicism in Democratic Society

43 Pages Posted: 13 Aug 2009 Last revised: 4 Sep 2010

Date Written: 2009


My project uncovers and explores the democratic sources of political cynicism. Against prevailing opinion, I argue that the contemporary contempt of politics follows primarily from neither the discontents of our liberal political system, nor from life in "market society." Instead, extending Tocqueville’s work on democracy, I argue that the anti-political prejudice so apparent today is inscribed in democracy itself - that is, in the principle of "democratic openness," the freedom that becomes imaginable only with the collapse of hierarchy and the rise of equality. In its openness democratic society is imagined as a sort of social state of nature, before and beyond the political practice of democracy - paradoxically both wholly determined by base economic forces and the material equations of power and wholly undetermined, free and open. In the former, the distinction between persuasion and force collapses; arguments are taken as just so much powerless talk or as force by means of deception and manipulation. In the latter, defined by a sense of limitless, revolutionary/creative possibility and indefinite perfectibility, the need for a politics of argument and persuasion signifies only the sad distance between us and our transcendent aspirations. Within this dialectic of cynicism and idealism, we consider ourselves both unable to participate in and in need of nothing from politics. Democratic man, as it were, does not consider himself a political animal.

Keywords: Tocqueville, democracy, political cynicism

Suggested Citation

Bilakovics, Steven, Sources of Political Cynicism in Democratic Society (2009). APSA 2009 Toronto Meeting Paper, Available at SSRN:

Steven Bilakovics (Contact Author)

Yale University ( email )

New Haven, CT 06520
United States


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