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The Age of Cynical Voters

Voters who support populist parties and leaders are making political choices that they know to be risky because they feel as though they have nothing to lose. As behavioral economists would predict, people become less risk-averse when the perceived choice is between “bad” and “worse.”

WARSAW – 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 Conservatives 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 Žižek 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.”

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