Political cynicism is recognized as an important political sentiment. However, there is little agreement about the nature, measurement, and consequences of political cynicism. Webster’s Dictionary defines a cynic as “one who believes that human conduct is motivated wholly by self-interest. A person who expects nothing but the worst of human conduct and motives.” Cappella and Jamieson (1997, 166) defined political cynicism as “mistrust generalized from particular leaders or political groups to the political process as a whole – a process perceived to corrupt the persons who participate in it and that draws corrupt persons as participants.” Cynicism has been defined as oppositional to political efficacy (e.g., Niemi et al. 1991) and as inversely related to trust in different social, economic, and political institutions.
Political cynicism has different dimensions and can be considered in relation to various objects. Cynicism as absence of trust has been treated at the level of the institutions of government and the regime as a whole (e.g., Miller 1974). It has also been conceptualized as negativism and disapproval at the level of candidates and incumbent political leaders (e.g., Citrin 1974). Erber and Lau (1990) also stress a distinction between political cynicism directed toward persons on the one hand and toward issues and institutions on the other. An additional dimension of political cynicism can be seen as directed toward a specific context such as a campaign (De Vreese & Semetko 2002).
Political cynicism has been linked directly to news coverage of politics. Most notably, the link has been demonstrated between cynicism and exposure to strategic news – that is, news covering politics as a strategic arena, focusing on politicians’ motivations and concern with public opinion rather than their policies. This relationship was investigated in a seminal series of experiments conducted by Joseph Cappella and Kathleen Hall Jamieson (1997). First, they found that participants exposed to strategic news remembered more strategy-based information about candidates compared with those who were exposed to issue-based news. Second, they found that strategic news enhanced political cynicism.
The studies by Cappella and Jamieson (1997) and others compellingly linked exposure to strategic news coverage to political cynicism in experimental studies in the US. Outside the US, several studies have also tested the relationship between strategic news reporting and political cynicism. Kleinnijenhuis and colleagues (2006) demonstrated that negative news media coverage discourages trust in political leaders. De Vreese (2004) tested the effects of repeated exposure to strategic news and found that when participants were not subsequently exposed to strategically framed news, the effect on cynicism that was established in the immediate post-test vanished. This implies that repeated exposure is a necessary condition for a longer-lasting effect. De Vreese and Semetko (2002) found that exposure to strategic news media reporting about a national political issue contributed to citizens’ levels of cynicism, even when controlling for the initial level of cynicism in the campaign. De Vreese (2005) further specified this dynamic by demonstrating, using two-wave panel surveys and media content data from two countries, that the relationship requires a certain level of strategic reporting in order to affect political cynicism.
The consequences of political cynicism are important. While news coverage of politics is a relevant antecedent for understanding change in political cynicism, the consequences and implications of cynicism and distrust have also been considered. Cynicism (mediainduced or not) has been used to explain declining turnout in established democracies, most notably in the US (Cappella & Jamieson 1997; Patterson 2002). Indeed, cynicism has also been suggested as the cause for citizen apathy and general dislike of public administration and government (Nye et al. 1997).
The direct consequences of cynicism have, however, not often been subjected to empirical analyses. Other studies have provided evidence of the contrary, namely that there is no relationship between cynicism and voter apathy (De Vreese & Semetko 2002). In fact, some studies have yielded positive connections between cynicism and political sophistication, thereby suggesting that political cynicism is perhaps little more than a healthy expression of critical reflections about the political system and politicians (De Vreese 2004, 2005).
Our understanding of political cynicism in communication and politics is work in progress. Future work should be aimed at getting a more detailed understanding of the different dimensions of political cynicism, the conditional relationship with news exposure as a function of news content and audience characteristics, and the different consequences of cynicism, e.g., for public engagement in politics.
- Cappella, J. N., & Jamieson, K. H. (1997). Spiral of cynicism: The press and the public good. New York: Oxford University Press.
- Citrin, J. (1974). The political relevance of trust in government. American Political Science Review, 68, 973–987.
- De Vreese, C. H. (2004). The effects of strategic news on political cynicism, issue evaluations and policy support: A two-wave experiment. Mass Communication and Society, 7(2), 191–215.
- De Vreese, C. H. (2005). The spiral of cynicism reconsidered. European Journal of Communication, 20(3), 283–301.
- De Vreese, C. H., & Semetko, H. A. (2002). Cynical and engaged: Strategic campaign coverage, public opinion, and mobilization in a referendum. Communication Research, 29(6), 615–641.
- Erber, R., & Lau, R. R. (1990). Political cynicism revisited: An information-processing reconciliation of policy-based and incumbency-based interpretations of changes in trust in government. American Journal of Political Science Review, 34(1), 236–253.
- Kleinnijenhuis, J., van Hoof, A. M. J., & Oegema, D. (2006). Negative news and the sleeper effect of distrust. Harvard International Journal of Press/Politics, 11(2), 86–104.
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- Miller, A. H. (1974). Political issues and trust in government: 1946–1970. American Political Science Review, 68, 951–972.
- Niemi, R. G., Craig, S. C., & Mattei, F. (1991). Measuring internal political efficacy in the 1988 National Election Study. American Political Science Review, 85, 1407–1413.
- Nye, J. S., Jr., Zelikow, P. D., & King, D. C. (eds.) (1997). Why people don’t trust government. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
- Patterson, T. E. (2002). The vanishing voter: Public involvement in an age of uncertainty. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.