One of the great myths of modern life is the power of optimism. Optimism, so the argument goes, can get you far. It can make you a winner, change individual life circumstances, make people rich or help them battle out of poverty.
In the world of politics and campaigning, optimism is seen by many as the key, particularly in American presidential elections – such as Ronald Reagan in 1984 (“It’s morning again in America”), and Barack Obama in 2008 (“Yes We Can”) – both portrayed at the time as transformational messages (irrespective of what happened afterwards with the politics).
The SNP believe they won in 2007 and 2011 because they campaigned on a positive message and were the embodiment of optimism. They were also aided, they acknowledge, by the unremitting, unattractive nature of Labour negativity.
This is now the mantra of “Yes Scotland”, with its chief strategist, Stephen Noon, writing that “one of the most powerful lessons” he has understood is that “positive campaigning will beat negative campaigning”.
Yet the potency of optimism argument ignores the power of negative campaigning. Think of George Bush senior’s victory over Michael Dukakis in 1988 (the case of Willie Horton), or the Conservatives’ victory over Neil Kinnock in 1992 (“Labour’s Double Whammy”).
Both had deeper dynamics – such as major doubts about the state of the Democrats and Labour to govern – which aided the forces of the right and their successful scare-mongering. This shows that a politics of optimism doesn’t always work if the case for change hasn’t already been made, and that negative messaging can amplify and give legitimacy to existing doubts.
An even more common and deep-seated confusion, and one which occurs all the time in the independence debate, is between optimism and hope. These are continually used inter-changeably, often in the same sentence or argument, when they are actually very different and conflicting ideas.
Optimism, in the words of Barbara Ehrenreich, has become in America little short of an “ideology” – a fixed mindset and conformity which people feel they must embrace or pretend they believe in.
It has become the language of everyday capitalism, endlessly inviting us to be consumers, to believe in our own power as sovereign individuals, and to buy into the gospel of materialism, judging ourselves and others by such criteria.
Optimism is inherent in capitalism’s ebbs and flows and its booms and busts. There is an institutional optimism found in governments, businesses and banks, which leads to economic forecasting having a built-in bias to exaggeration and inflated predictions.
This is combined with the rationale of linear optimism and the belief that the only version of tomorrow possible is a bigger, better version of today. When this is taken with the power and authority given to measuring the world through numbers and percentages – growth, profits and losses – alongside the ubiquitous use of mediated data as “analysis”, you have a propensity to project exponentially what we know today into the future.
Hence, pre-2008 crash the banker projections of endless growth and the coming crises in Greece, Spain and Portugal were missed by everyone. Or, to take a more recent example, the ridiculous predictions of the Centre for Economics and Business Research (CEBR) for the world economy in 2028 which projected Britain moving ahead of Germany and becoming Europe’s top economy.
Hope is a very different idea. Optimism usually makes the claim that everything will be all right and work out irrespective of the challenges and obstacles. Hope starts from an engagement and understanding of the real world.
Barbara Ehrenreich believes that “hope is an emotion”. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks states that “optimism is a passive virtue, hope an active one” and that it only needs a naivety to be an optimist, but “a great deal of courage to have hope”.
We can see the power of conformist optimism all around us, but in the States it is big business – used not only in advertising and politics, but the world of counselling and psychoanalysis.
Martin Seligman, American motivational guru and self-proclaimed father of “positive psychology”, has advocated the power of “learned optimism”. The premise of this is that any individual can be who they want to be, structural barriers can be overcome, and that the negativity of “learned helplessness” is only what we choose to hardwire our brains to, with the simple solution being to reprogramme ourselves.
Seligman was embraced by some in Scotland, including the SNP, in the run-up to the 2007 elections. He was one among several influences which aided them switching their message from talking about what Scotland lacks, and what was wrong, to the potential of a self-governing nation. Alex Salmond has previously spoken of how he changed his “mindset change”.
More recently, this transatlantic connection went cold after Seligman was implicated in “the war on terror”, advising the CIA not on how to overcome “learned helplessness”, but induce it in detainees they were interviewing.
Optimism has become one-dimensional, used to reinforce power dynamics, to make us feel a little smaller, and even utilised in interrogation and torture techniques. Hope, on the other hand, is something intrinsic to the human condition, and while it can be used for all sorts of purposes, it is profoundly emotional, about change and not settling for the status quo.
Many of the great campaigns of humanity have been defined by hope. Think of the campaigns against slavery, for the welfare state and against the hardships and degradations of Dickensian Britain, of Martin Luther King and the American civil rights movement, the anti-war movements on Vietnam and Iraq, and the anti-apartheid movement.
These were all voices of hope and change that overcame negativity and scare-mongering. The future contours of British and Scottish politics will be shaped in the next year and beyond by whoever can most effectively weld these two forces together and be the embodiment and articulation of a culture, politics and mindset of hope. And in these difficult, testing times that isn’t about keeping to an official script of optimism.