Sunday, May 29, 2005

RX: Optimism

The recent Pew Research Center For The People & The Press 2005 Political Typology, “Beyond Red vs. Blue” offers plenty for the politically active to consider. I am especially fascinated by the impact optimism has in our political system. In the Typology are profiles of various segments of the voting (and non-voting) public. “Pro-Government Conservatives” and “Disadvantaged Democrats” turn out to be similar in many ways. They are the lowest-income, mostly younger and female and often unable-to-pay-their-bills categories of Republican and Democratic voters, respectively. They differ markedly in one respect, however – the degree to which they believe that hard work and determination guarantee success for most people. PGC’s score high on optimism, but DD’s score high on pessimism, as do the predominantly Independent and Republican- leaning ten percent of registered voters classified by Pew as “Disaffected.”

Martin E. P. Seligman, president of the American Psychological Association, wrote about optimism and politics in his 1990 best seller “Learned Optimism.” The pessimist tends to explain events in terms that are personal, pervasive and permanent according to Seligman. His research team developed a systematic way to analyze public utterances, CAVE, for “Content Analysis of Verbatim Explanations” that quantifies the speaker’s degree of pessimism and tendency to ruminate. They predicted with impressive accuracy the outcomes of party primaries, the presidential election and senate races of 1988 using the CAVE method. The model predicts that the candidate with the more pessimistic outlook will 1) be more passive and so make fewer campaign appearances and respond less readily to attacks, 2) be generally less well-liked by voters, 3) fail to communicate a sense of hope to voters, and 4) most likely lose the election. In races where there were large differences in the candidates' pessimism scores, the more optimistic won by large margins. In races where there was little difference in their pessimism scores, the results were very close.

One of the things that made the Dean campaign so attractive was the personal optimism of the candidate and the collective optimism of the grass roots movement in support of him. The challenge we face as a party is not just reframing the debate using the language of values to activate progressive tendencies in voters, but to speak and write in ways that foster hope among those too disadvantaged, cynical or discouraged to vote. We start to do this by staying away from explanations that imply bad events and circumstances are permanent, strictly a matter of personal responsibility, or so pervasive as to be overwhelming.


At 8:56 PM, Blogger Sue said...

Thank you Sue B!! This is profound.

At 5:50 PM, Blogger Dem-X said...

I think optimism is essential in a candidate, but it's not everything. Stenholm was very optimistic.




At 1:06 PM, Blogger Synthesis said...

I was encouraged by the fact that "liberals" are the fastest growing voting segment of the population, and we are now the largest.

We still need to work hard on pumping up our turn-out. We could account for 25% of the votes by 2008.

At 7:34 PM, Blogger Sue said...

Have you guys seen the movie "What the Bleep Do We Know"? In there they talk about optimism and pessimism, referring to them as positive and negative. At one point, a man scribes a big sphere with his hands and says something like: "a lot of positive people have only a veneer of positive and a core (all the rest) negative." I think Charlie Stenholm was like that during his late campaign, at his core negative. I think he tried to be optimistic but I don't think he made it. What do you think?

At 10:14 PM, Blogger johnnie said...

Optimism is key. But it has to be heartfelt. I believe that Americans still want politicians to be leaders. Leaders should have a vision of a better future, and should be able to inspire others to see that vision. I think that is optimism.

I'm too young to remember JFK promising to put someone on the moon by the end of the 60s, but remember my father telling me that changed the country. Not going to the moon, just believing that we would.

At 11:29 AM, Blogger Synthesis said...

I heard "What the BLEEP do we know" was made by a cult.

It supposedly has some disturbing ending where the viewer is asked to release the god inside of us, or something equally new-agey.

Supposedly, they weren't speaking metaphorically.

At 12:12 PM, Blogger Sue said...

About What the Bleep: I hadn't heard the cult attribution. If so, it's a small cult. I watched the commentary on the DVD. There seem to be three principals and a lot of money from one internet millionaire. It's a very interesting movie. New agey? Gee, I don't know.


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