How I became an optimist

One built-in limitation to human psychology is our hardwired inability to imagine new things in the future. Risk aversion is probably an evolutionary advantage, so this makes sense. Offered an uncertain choice, most people’s imaginations immediately leap to what could go wrong, what they could stand to lose, etc. After all, the positive future is defined by things that don’t even exist yet, while the negative future is defined by the lack of that which I already have here in front of me.

There are any number of examples of this. Doomsday predictions – financial, political, environmental, social, etc. – are reliably popular, while more optimistic ones are trashed. You observe this all the time. Pessimistic predictions are frequently given weighty consideration, and the predictors gain a penumbra of wise skepticism; while optimistic ones are dismissed as unrealistic, pollyannaish whimsy. So grounds for optimism are often ignored. Who, in 1990, predicted that global poverty would be cut by more than half in 25 years? How many predicted that the iPhone would be such a transformational product? You can find tons of examples of the same.

Recognizing this limitation of human psychology and correcting for it can be a huge “hack.” It gives you a greater sense of control over your own life and can make you a lot happier.

Nevertheless, I think about this a lot when hearing people complain that, to become more successful, this political party or that one needs to invent a new “positive message for the future.” Do people really believe in, let alone vote for, optimism? I’m not so sure. I think people vote for personalities and brands and the feelings they represent (and, often, which people project onto them). “Make America Great Again” resonated with a lot of people because it appealed to nostalgia, however misplaced; Trump also ran against a historically weak opponent, plus Russia, etc etc.¹ But the Trump campaign was also markedly negative in its outlook on America. Obama in 2008, Clinton in 1992 or Reagan in 1980 are often referred to as campaigns of “optimism,” but each, gifted and charismatic communicators all, also ran against weak opponents who misread the electorate. No one remembers all the block-and-tackling of those campaigns – just the warm and fuzzies of “Morning in America” and “Don’t Stop Thinking About Tomorrow.” “Optimistic” is simply what we wind up calling most campaigns that win.

So I guess this is to say that I don’t believe all the hand-wringing about how Democrats need to invent some new, positive spin to win back [insert your pet constituency here]. Likeable, charismatic candidates, smart comms strategy, campaign organizing fundamentals, media and tech savvy and electorate trends are where victory lies, no matter your party.


¹ – This isn’t a partisan post per se, but it’s worth noting that Trump lost the popular vote by a convincing margin, so his “win” here is meant in the technical sense. Clinton’s campaign was not a fundamentally “optimistic” one either, though.


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