As people start getting stuck into the polling data in the wake of Obama’s victory, some interesting patterns are emerging. This, for instance, is pretty striking:
Relative to 2004, the number of under 30s who voted stayed pretty much the same, but their preference swung strongly toward the Democrats.
Now, there are probably any number of ways of explaining this result, but it’s interesting when read in conjunction with recent research on the relative happiness of younger and older people. In short, younger people tend to be more optimistic about how happy they will be the future, whilst underestimating how happy there were in the past.
Needless to say, optimism was a central feature of Obama’s campaign. Rather than running on a negative, Bush-bashing platform (the temptation!), his core message – “Yes we can” – was about the possibility of change and a better future. It seems at least plausible, then, that the optimistic tone of Obama’s campaign was especially appealing to young voters who were already strongly disposed to see the future in a positive light.
Whether or not this explanation stacks up, it’s at least a worthy reminder of the power of optimism as a motivating force. In many respects the world is in a mess, and there’s no sense in pretending otherwise. But that doesn’t mean that emphasising our problems is the best way to make people want to do something about them. When we think about the scale of the challenge, especially on environmental issues, it’s all too easy to come across as downbeat and negative. But for the unconverted, it’s a short step from here to apathy, and from there the merest hop over the border into nihilism.
So yes, let’s make be realistic about the difficulties we face now, but make sure we tell an optimistic story about what’s to come.