Optimism used to provide its own grounds for hope in elections. But not anymoreby Gaby Hinsliff / September 1, 2019 / Leave a comment
Yes, we can. Things can only get better. Wir schaffen das—or as Boris Johnson translated it from Angela Merkel’s original German, “we can do this.”
What all these political slogans have in common is that they’re optimistic, positively brimming with confident, can-do spirit. They may sound suspiciously vague, but voters buy into such expressions of self-belief, if only because it beats being told that one’s country is sinking into a decline that nobody quite knows how to reverse. Even when the prognosis is the same, doctors with cheerily optimistic bedside manners tend to reassure patients more than doom-laden ones. Research has suggested optimists may find it easier than pessimists to get a job, and get promoted faster, perhaps because their belief that problems can be overcome encourages them to find solutions, or simply because they’re cheering to have around. So it’s not surprising that optimists also tend to win elections too—or perhaps more accurately, they used to.
In choosing Johnson as their leader, Conservatives bet the House on the feelgood power of optimism after years of gloomy austerity messages and humiliating compromises over Brexit. Where Theresa May stirred voters’ pity, struggling dutifully to achieve the impossible, her sucessor oozes joy at having the job he always wanted, plus breezy confidence about what he’ll be able to get done. Even his willingness to spend money, something voters instinctively associate with boom years, sends a subconscious message that things must be better than they look. Johnson’s audacious move to prorogue parliament for five weeks—effectively daring Remainers to bring an early vote of no confidence and election for which they’re seemingly not ready—looks equally designed to convey the illusion of boundless confidence. It disguises the fact that the fundamentals which defeated his predecessor have barely changed. But the cliché that hope triumphs electorally over fear now carries hefty caveats.
Belief in the political power of optimism rests heavily on a now iconic study by the American psychologists Harold Zullow and Martin Seligman, which found that the presidential candidate who had the more upbeat acceptance speech to their party convention went on to win the vast majority of US elections between 1900 and 1984. Tellingly, however, three out of the four exceptions to the rule fell during the…