Cynicism may now represent one of the greatest threats to democracy, according to a research project at the London School of Economics.
Findings indicate that people are more cynical about politics than anything else, and that cynicism is a more important factor than distrust when it comes to whether people vote. Those who think politicians are liars will probably continue to vote, whereas those who are contemptuous of them are less likely to do so.
But what if politicians could measure the impact that their buzz words were having on the cynicism levels of different groups? The Syntony Research Team at the LSE is trying to develop a 'Cyndex' - a cynicism index. It would measure the emotional responses of cynics according to their age, race, religion, gender and socio-economic backgrounds - from mild frustration to violent anger.
'All the evidence shows people are getting more cynical with the messages we get from government, from businesses, from the media,' said Charles Liasides of Syntony, who is a senior research fellow at the Institute of Social Psychology. 'People are deserting some TV stations because they are becoming cynical about reality TV insulting their intelligence; they turn off from some adverts because they are patronising; and all those wonderful gaffes we have had with the government recently - the U-turns, the backfiring policies - are having an effect. But is it good for democracy?'
In a pilot survey linked to the Royal Society of Arts (involving questionnaires completed by 1,100 fellows), Syntony's conclusion is that cynicism is infecting the very fabric of our society. Top of the list was politics, for which the average level of cynicism registered was 51 per cent, compared with 31 per cent for general cynicism of life, 30 per cent for business cynicism and 37 per cent for media cynicism.
Men were more cynical about their fellow human beings than women (32 per cent compared with 27 per cent). 'It seems women are more idealistic,' said Dr Alain Samson of the Syntony team.
Those who regularly read newspapers were significantly less cynical about the media (34 per cent against 40 per cent).
'But our most important finding suggested that people who did not vote were more likely to be cynical about the government than distrusting,' said Samson. 'Usually, people focus on distrust, or lack of confidence, as the most important factor when it comes to disengagement. But in fact, it is cynicism.'
Samson said the indications were that this was because politicians have a public face, making them more prone to criticism than faceless businessmen. The consequences of such cynicism are vast, the team believes. It can result in people disengaging from politics, turning away from major media, or boycotting products. It could also prompt people to join pressure groups or, in more extreme cases, to resort to direct action or violence. 'This has wide implications in the cohesiveness of society,' said Liasides.
The team is planning a nationwide sample to create the Cyndex, which it intends to develop commercially. 'We believe it will be valuable for all communicators to help them be more credible with the public,' said Liasides.
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The Nazis, Fascists and Communists were political parties before they became enemies of liberty and mass murderers.