On page A21 of this morning's The New York Times (though mysteriously missing online) appears a tantalizing tidbit by Benedict Carey under the headline, "Handicapping With Optimism." It seems that, according to a University of Pennsylvania psychologist, Martin Seligman, and co-researchers Andrew Rosenthal and Prateek Sharma, the presidential candidate who gives the most optimistic stump speeches, characterizing problems as "temporary and manageable" rather than "chronic and global," has won "more than 80 percent of the presidential elections since 1900." (Roll over, Michael Dukakis, who won the 1988 stump test but...stuff must have happened.)
This year, the "clear front-runner" on this scale is Hillary Rodham Clinton. The loser is Rudy Giuliani. (The article doesn't explain which candidates' stump speeches have been inspected going back to 1900, but for now, never mind.)
Optimists, explains Dr. Seligman, "tend to try harder under adversity, and that is a very important quality" for leaders. Americans may well think so, at any rate. As a people, at least in the ideal we uphold for ourselves and expect in our standard-bearers, we are the can-doers, the stop-at-nothings, the smiley-facers, the little engines that can. We don't want to be reminded of failure, death, and other bummers. "Americans," in the words of the sage Ronald Reagan, "live in the future."
Meanwhile, two pages on (though behind a TimesSelect turnstile), the Times runs a characteristically on-point column by the best surgeon-writer in America, Atul Gawande, beginning, "We Americans believe instinctively in the power of positive thinking" but arguing for "the power of negative thinking."
It's fine that the news editors aren't taking their cues from the Op-Ed page. My point is that, if both the positive-minded psychologists and Dr. Gawande are right, Americans like their politicians to be blue-sky bringers of cheer even though people in institutions like military hospitals who are mindful of serious problems are more likely to notice and solve them. "In running schools or businesses, in planning war, in caring for the sick and injured," Gawande concludes, "negative thinking may be exactly what we need."
Sometimes the public taste for uplifting promises brings us FDR. Sometimes it brings us fantasists of global democracy via Humvee, economic growth via tax cuts for billionaires, and the unceasing melting of polar icecaps. Those who sing us pretty songs of good times that are sure to roll are the ones to watch out for.
[Cross-posted at TPMcafe.com]