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Part 1 in the Democracy in Distress series about the five key threats to American democracy and what you can do about them today.

Threat 1: Cynicism and Apathy

When I dare to be powerful, to use my strength in the service of my vision, then it becomes less and less important whether I am afraid.

Audre Lorde

As I walked up the sandy path from the beach, I stopped to read a kiosk about the Oregon coast’s marine ecosystem. I learned about how Oregon oysters are being affected by rising ocean temperatures and water acidity. After a few minutes, I felt helpless and hopeless that I could change a problem so immense. I walked away from the kiosk feeling down.

Have you ever experienced something like this? 

Being informed can be useful, but it doesn’t always invigorate us to take an active part in the solution. In fact, too much of the wrong information too often can result in lasting cynicism and apathy. These are the first of five key threats to U.S. democracy. In this article, we’ll explore why both are a present threat to American democracy and what to move to hope and engagement.

What creates cynicism

As we go through life, we expect the leaders in our communities and government to act with integrity. We have hope that institutions will use their power to create positive outcomes for workers, shareholders, and the planet. However, when these expectations are repeatedly disappointed or betrayed, we experience stress, doubt, and a loss of faith that can result in cynicism. What’s the use of trying?

The word is defined by Merriam Webster as “contemptuous distrust of human nature and motives.” While its cousin, skepticism, involves an eager questioning attitude, cynicism is a smug, pervasive negativity that lacks openness or curiosity. 

Cynicism is literally toxic

It’s not just responsible for increased stress and depression, cynicism creates poor health outcomes in human minds and bodies. A study published in the journal Neurology found that cynicism is associated with a higher risk of dementia later in life. It is also linked to a higher risk of cardiovascular disease and other chronic health conditions. 

The roots of cynicism

Two unexpected sources contribute to cynicism:

The first is excessively negative news or media that push a cynical worldview. If the media you consume focuses on the idea that the world is inherently corrupt and untrustworthy, consider finding your information elsewhere. Even the political and social change thought leaders we agree with can be a source of jaded, disempowering cynicism. 

The second source comes from living in a society that emphasizes competition, materialism, and self-interest over thriving communities. Even if we personally disagree with power structures, our daily encounters with this pervasive worldview can diminish how hopeful we feel about the future. 

The cynic’s flip side: apathy

Over the six years of leading AoCC, I’ve noticed a pattern among activists. We are under the mistaken belief that we can change social ills by sheer force of will. Many of us are accomplished people, accustomed to achievement. So when our one call to a senator or one check to a candidate fails to yield the result we want, we feel demoralized.

What I’ve noticed happening is that the more we fail and the more setbacks there are about important issues, the more I’ve heard this phrase: “I need to step away for a while.” Long-term exposure to news filled with tragic events and acts of hateful violence burn us out and emotionally exhausted, so it is important to stop the source of pain.

However, withdrawing makes us isolated and disconnected from people who can lift us up. Without new tools or strategies in our activism, re-engaging becomes less likely. This is dangerous to a democracy.

Defined as a lack of enthusiasm that leads to indifference, apathy can manifest as emotional numbness or a general lack of motivation. The source of the word is literally “without feeling”.

Apathy is pernicious

For years I’ve wondered how dictatorships could commit atrocities against humanity without resistance. In some cases, citizens were oppressed until they believed their voices held no sway. 

Apathy sneaks in, affecting our emotional and physical well-being, ultimately affecting entire communities. Its effect on reducing participation in community activities results in decreased social cohesion.

Apathy impedes collective action and grassroots initiatives, ultimately slowing down progress on important social issues. Small organizations around the country are relying on people like us to show up. When we don’t, it can lead to a breakdown of trust and cooperation, hindering collaborative efforts to address common challenges. 

Surprising ways to counter cynicism and apathy

If you recognize any cynicism or apathy in your life, consider these surprising ways to interrupt the course of these harmful attitudes. 

Whether you recognize yourself of someone you care about in these descriptions, there are specific actions you can take to overcome both

Practice empathy: Starting with yourself, set reasonable expectations and start speaking more compassionately with yourself. When you notice thoughts that are harmful, work to stop them. The antidote to cynicism is to restore one’s faith in the goodness of others, so start looking for evidence of kindness and generosity in the world. In our weekly Good News section we give you lots of examples of this, so be sure to read for a pick-me-up.

Cultivate gratitude: Keep track of things for which you feel grateful. It might sound trite, but this practice immediately gives you a dose of four amazing-feeling hormones: oxytocin, dopamine, serotonin, and endorphins. Whether you write them down, ponder, or share with a friend, practicing gratitude each day gradually shifts our focus from the negative to the positive.

Limit exposure to harmful media: We’ll explore this topic in more depth next month, but limiting exposure to distressing visuals and echo chambers can significantly reduce cynicism. Instead, seek out sources that provide balanced and positive perspective on current events.

Continuous learning and growth: Seek out activities that expand your knowledge, skills, and perspectives to foster intellectual curiosity and a growth-oriented mindset. As a person of conscience, think about where you’d like to apply these skills to benefit your community and areas of concern. This step re-engages us after we’ve taken time off.

Limit the scope of your engagement: If the number of causes you’re engaged with seems overwhelming, cut back. Allowing yourself to specialize in fewer issues means you have more energy at the end of the day. 

Find community: Being connected to caring people and committed groups help us remember that social change happens through collective effort, not individuals. Reconnecting with community fosters a positive and hopeful outlook, support us in many ways, and restores hope.

Cultivating sustainable civic engagement

If you’re like me, your intention is to do good in the world. What’s important is that your efforts become sustainable long-term. By incorporating these practices into daily life, we gradually counter our own cynicism and apathy, and become able to assist others who struggle with the same.

With concerning political trends eroding democracy and civil rights, we need as many Americans engaged as possible at this time in our nation’s story.

We’re a community of Americans of conscience saving democracy, one action at a time. We’re Americans of every political party who believe we can create a kind and thriving nation by working together. If you’d like to join our effort, sign up for our twice-monthly Checklist of pro-democracy, pro-equality, pro-planet actions.