Tuesday, April 12, 2005


People who don't know how to make use of optimism often think that it is mainly an emotional attitude. The reality is that optimism is a functional framework of thinking that can help in problem solving.

In this sense, pessimism is often merely a disguised excuse for laziness. One place where this can be easily seen and verified is when playing cards.

Often a player will be placed in a situation at the end of a hand where she does not know where a certain critical card is. She knows that if the card is held by her partner, there is still a way to win the hand. If the card is held by her opponent, all is lost.

The proper play in this situation is to simply assume that her partner has the card. After all, if the opponent has it, there is nothing that can be done. There is nothing to be gained from assuming the worst, and by assuming the best, we can discern the correct course of action.

Yet it is very common for a player to blunder in such a situation and, after the hand, offer the excuse that "I thought you didn't have the Ace." This reflects a pessimistic outlook that is of no use, except of course as an excuse for not thinking things through.

This principle is central to the debate within the Democratic Party about what sort of policy platform to adopt. The mantra of the DLC set is that the American people will never accept a truly progressive platform that puts working people ahead of corporate profits, commits to working within the structure of international law to resolve foreign policy issues, and brings responsible land and energy use to the forefront of our national consciousness.

These men may well be right. If they are, all is lost. Those of us who see this must thus assume, despite all evidence to the contrary, real or imagined, that they are mistaken.


Lord Lessismore said...

Can I assume from this that you play bridge? If so, we have some playing to do, my friend. Chess fries my circuitry. In Bridge, I wail!

I like your insight, Mr. Short, and believe this point about optimism echoes in the failure of the last presidential campaign. One of the things that set Dean apart was his audacious belief that people would go out on the same limb as he was on. Selecting Kerry was a hedge, a play for "electability." But it was a pessimistic play, substituting the belief in the need for winning for the belief in anything real worth believing in. It's the latter thing that people want and care enough to vote for.

Adam P. Short said...

Well, I know how to play bridge, but I need some refreshers on the bidding. I can count the points in my hand and decide whether or not to open, but beyond that I've lost it all. I used to be OK; I had a bridge computer I learned on when I was younger.

On the Kerry thing, I see where you are coming from on that, but I don't really think the candidate was the problem. Unfortunately since the exits are useless we'll never know what exactly happened, but I think the election was lost in the last two weeks of October.

Also, Dean's ebullient optimism did not serve him too well at times; particularly in his decision to contest the Iowa caucus, a contest that exists specifically to derail anti-establishment candidates.

So there's a corrolary to the optimism principle - optimism is useful when employed at the right time. Sometimes realism is needed.

Tha Greatness said...

What happened to Kerry was quite simple. He and the Democratic party failed to follow an essential rule of the public policy process: "You can't beat a plan with no plan."

The most divisive issue in the election was (duh) the war in Iraq. But since Kerry was for it, or at least he was, sort of, at one point when he considered it prudent yada yada yada... he couldn't say he was against it. To make a distinction of any kind, let alone a clear one, he needed to say what, exactly, he would have done (and would do) differently in Iraq. He failed to do so. I suspect his handlers felt that being too pro-active about the issue would further alienate the base, which was anti-war and was only going along with Kerry because of the alternative. In this, your card metaphor is apt.

Adam P. Short said...

OK, but that's just your opinion. You can't back it up with exit poll data because no one ever settled on a coherent weighting algorithm for the adjusted exits.

Of course everyone has their own theory about why Kerry lost, which fits their own preconceived ideas. But you can't get past that because there's no data.

Adam P. Short said...

Hey, did this argument jump over from Ethridge's blog? This thread isn't about Kerry...

the greatness said...

Actually I hadn't seen Ethridge's article. I just disagreed with your notion that the campaign was lost in the last two weeks. Yeah, there's tactical excellence which can make all the difference in the end, but I don't think either side had a special advantage that would be decisive in this contest. I think it more likely that early decisions on campaign strategy doomed him.

Which is why -- stepping back from the trees to view the forest -- Kerry can be seen as a symptom of the problem. The candidate sets the tone for a campaign because he's the voice everyone listens to. You don't think he was really the problem but we don't have the exit polls to be sure. I'm not sure the exit polls would have asked the right question: Is Kerry seen as a progressive? Or is he, rather, a left-leaning elite with deep pockets and friends in big business -- the sort of person you complained about being the heart of the cynical Democratic strategy?

Not that it matters now. But it is pertinent to who gets to be the candidate next time around. I'm all for seeing a true progressive get Democratic backing. I don't think they'll win, mind you, but it would be good for the democratic process to actually have choices.