Sunny Side Up?

Rethinking our political fixation on the bright side of life

In February, George W. Bush's campaign manager, Ken Mehlman, previewed the President's re-election strategy. "We're now moving into a phase," he told The New York Times, "where we will begin contrasting the President's positive, optimistic vision with the alternative." That alternative would be John Kerry's grave demeanor, which is thought to be his Achilles' heel. The columnist Joe Klein observed in Time that Kerry's message "isn't as positive or optimistic as it might be." Thus Bush's strategy of emphasizing the contrast.

Optimism as a political strategy is not confined to incumbents, like Bush, who need to convince voters that things are improving. Nobody donned the mantle of optimism like the Democratic runner-up John Edwards, to whom the word "optimist" clung in nearly every media account, and who went so far as to deliver a speech last year titled "In Defense of Optimism." And Bush, when he ran in 2000, ritually declared, "I'm an optimist." Every four years candidates strive to out-Pollyanna one another, laboring to maintain their smiles, never allowing a sobering thought to cloud their gaze. All this reflects the curious but widely held conviction among those who practice and cover American politics that optimism is a prerequisite for any Oval Office aspirant—almost a matter of patriotism. Americans are thought to be an optimistic people, drawn to soaring ideals and lofty goals. Thus we demand that our Presidents reflect this spirit. As Time recently declared, "The more optimistic candidate nearly always wins."

One might immediately notice a causality problem here. Perhaps candidates are winning because they're optimistic—or perhaps they're optimistic because they're winning. Conversely, it's obvious why losers would lack optimism. Imagine that you've spent month upon month trudging to factory gates in the predawn hours, hoping that a few workers will make eye contact with you, or at least won't insult you, as they shuffle past; the evening news reports night after night that the American public sees you as an effete, out-of-touch snob, or a criminal-coddler, or a tool of special interests, or perhaps all these things; and, despite your valiant attempts to communicate your message of hope and change, campaign reporters ask only about your sagging poll numbers.

The best-known empirical basis for the claim that optimists win elections is a study conducted by Martin Seligman, a professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, with his graduate student Harold Zullow. Seligman helped create a system—called "content analysis of verbatim explanations," or CAVE—to measure the level of optimism in written or spoken statements. In 1987 he and Zullow applied CAVE to every nomination acceptance speech by a major-party candidate since 1948, masking whether the winning or the losing candidate had uttered it. The researchers found that the more optimistic candidate had won every election but one. (The exception was in 1968, when the "Happy Warrior" Hubert H. Humphrey came roaring from behind, only to lose narrowly to Richard Nixon.) They later examined the stump speeches of the 1988 primary candidates and correctly predicted that George Bush and Michael Dukakis would win their parties' nominations.

This research attracted the attention of The New York Times, which asked Seligman and Zullow to predict the winner of the general election. Analyzing the two acceptance speeches, they predicted that Dukakis would win, by six or seven percentage points. Oh, well. (In their own defense, Seligman later wrote in his book Learned Optimism that Dukakis had grown substantially more pessimistic throughout the fall, and in October they had predicted that he would lose by nine points.)

So deeply ingrained is this belief in the power of optimism that the press corps takes it upon itself to act as a kind of national pep squad, praising the most hopeful presidential hopefuls and scolding those who fail to evince the requisite perkiness. As USA Today reported last November, "[Howard] Dean is continuing to feed the perception among some voters, campaign strategists and academics that he is angry, edgy and—a cardinal sin in politics—not cheerful." What makes the game particularly tricky is that the concept has no agreed-on definition. One might think that Dean, with his preposterous insistence that an obscure ex-governor of a tiny hippie state could win the presidency primarily by luring body-pierced youngsters and aging peaceniks to his Web site, would qualify as optimistic bordering on delusional. But journalists and political professionals concurred that Dean would lose on account of his pessimism, which they defined as anger. In contrast, Edwards's "optimism" derived from his good looks and reluctance to criticize his opponents.

If a candidate's personality is not sufficiently sunny or inspiring to cause the media to dub him an optimist, his best recourse is simply to dub himself one. Bush is not the first office-seeker to include the line "I'm an optimist" in his stump speech. The Republican candidates Bob Dole and Steve Forbes repeated that formulation endlessly—Dole in his growl, Forbes pressing his sonorous monotone through pursed lips. Republicans are especially eager to embrace the term, because it has a particular meaning within the conservative subculture: it signals fealty to Reaganism—not just the Gipper's sunny outlook but his ideology as well, particularly supply-side economics. The former Wall Street Journal editor and devout supply-sider Robert Bartley described himself as an optimist, and when he died the many tributes to him invariably echoed the description. To an outsider, this would seem curious, because Bartley was a hysteric, famously given to printing black-bordered editorials with headlines like "THE DEATH OF REASON" (in response to the imposition of a windfall-profits tax), or predicting that the Clinton economic plan would bring utter ruin. But to his fellow believers, this ideological code word made perfect sense. For people like Bartley and Forbes, "optimism" means believing pseudo-economic hokum—principally the notion that enormous tax cuts won't produce budget deficits.

Perhaps the more interesting assumption is that there's something inherently virtuous about optimism. The idea of an optimistic President conjures up all sorts of positive images—Franklin Roosevelt offering hope during the Depression, John F. Kennedy exhorting his countrymen to put a man on the moon, Ronald Reagan urging Mikhail Gorbachev to tear down the Berlin Wall. Edwards offered the most explicit moral rationale for optimism when he argued, "Cynics didn't build this country. Optimists built this country." As a matter of fact, the Founding Fathers had a deeply pessimistic view of both the public and its prospective leaders, which is why they constructed an elaborate system to prevent not only traditional tyranny but popular tyranny as well. If the people could be trusted to elect saints, we wouldn't need checks and balances, judicial review, bicameral legislatures, and so on.

From Atlantic Unbound:

Flashbacks: "Money Into the Void" (March 3, 2004)
Is the exorbitant expense of space exploration worth it? Articles from 1895 to the present consider the merits.

True, some of our most revered leaders have been optimists. But optimism has also brought us many of history's monsters. The Crusades, Mao's ruinous Great Leap Forward, Napoleon's disastrous invasion of Russia—these could have been prevented by a bit less optimism. Last January, when President Bush proposed a mind-bogglingly expensive, scientifically dubious moon station and a trip to Mars, Newt Gingrich admonished critics thus: "Those who jump up and down and say, 'Don't go to the moon, don't go to Mars' have a hard argument, because they are up against 250 years of optimism in American history." I had never really thought of American destiny as a succession of crackpot schemes foisted on the populace for partisan expediency. But then, maybe I'm just an optimist.