RECENT polls in the US suggest that Americans are becoming increasingly cynical about their politics and politicians. To one like myself, who for more than half a century has observed events abroad, including revolutions, such attitudes are disturbing. Cynicism can destroy societies.
Take Iraq. I served there in the early 1950s. To Western governments at that time, Iraq represented a model developing country. The revenues from its extensive oil reserves were being used for a massive program of internal development, planned and supervised by two distinguished foreign engineers. A royal government provided a moderate degree of freedom. Yet a deep public cynicism prevailed, particularly among intellectuals.
Three attitudes symbolized the views then common in Iraq - and can be seen today in other countries, including the US:
* We're helpless. The public's belief that their fate is in the hands of others who manipulate the power structure leads them to conspiracy explanations for nearly every event. In pre-revolution Iraq, the British and Americans were the perceived villains. In other countries today, the presumed manipulators may be multinational corporations, ethnic or language groups, bureaucrats, neighboring countries, or Western neoimperialists. In the US some see a ''hidden hand'' in the CIA, the banks, or the Washington establishment.
* If you can't say something bad about a person, don't say anything at all. The denigration of individual achievement is a strong component of the cynical society. The origins of such denigration may lie in jealousy, communal rivalry, or the conviction that achievement comes only through favoritism or corruption. Whatever the causes, this attitude inhibits progress. Talented people are often hesitant to gain prominence because they fear criticism, ridicule, or something worse.
* Don't bother me with facts; my mind is made up: The government is bad. An Iraqi journalist in the '50s ceaselessly insisted the development plan was a cover for preparations for the return of British troops and resisted invitations to visit projects. He said, ''I don't care what the facts are; my task is to embarrass the government.''
Countering cynicism isn't easy. Suspicions may have bases in fact. Individuals do rise through nepotism and corruption. External influences do play roles in policies. Officials, obsessed with power, do throw their weight around. Corrupt authoritarian governments such as Nigeria's breed public resentment. The weakness of Boris Yeltsin's presidency in the face of the influence of criminal elements in Moscow erodes confidence in Russian politics.
But suspicions that breed cynicism can be unfounded. The royal regime in Libya, overthrown by Col. Muammar Qadhaffi in 1969, was undermined by rumors of hidden wealth. After the revolution, officials of the former regime were tried, but even a court friendly to the new leadership could not, in most cases, prove corruption.
Cynicism in an authoritarian regime is understandable. Doubts about the independence or honesty of a government in a democracy, however, threaten the viability of the system. Constant attacks on public servants turn off public-participation in voting, office-seeking, and discourse. Citizens become comfortable only with like-minded people who won't challenge their views.
The US stands as the prime example of democracy in the world. Both newly established democracies and older ones watch this country closely. Negative political campaigning, low voter turnouts, and frequent reports of public cynicism toward Washington make them wonder about their own experiments in political freedom. The US is certainly not Iraq of the 1950s, but the attitudes that mark cynics are not far below the surface.