That cliff would be agony to fall from, indeed (
by Dan Burns
Jul 22, 2021, 3:00 PM

Do we really need all the progressive doom and gloom?

Based on the progressive internet, these days, and the general tenor of the emails I subscribe to from a variety of generally progressive organizations, the best that Democrats in general, and progressive Democrats in particular, can possibly hope for in the 2022 elections is that the overall outcome won’t be too much worse for us than 2010 was. Something like that. Like in 2020 the Supreme Court was going to hand the presidential election to Trump, no matter what, and fascist rule would be here.

Individuals tend to put a lot of that stuff wherever they can as part of a general message of “We’re all dooooomed!! – unless everyone does exactly what I say!” That’s their business, and this screed of mine isn’t about that. It’s about the progressive organizations who do it because that’s the best way to get clicks and donations.

The reason that it works best has to do with the various manifestations of a fundamental part of much human cognition called “negativity bias.” Basically, we tend to pay more attention to, and are more likely to remember, the bad stuff.

Part of which makes perfect sense, from the standpoint of evolutionary psychology (EP). (I’m not an EP fundamentalist, by any means, but I do agree that it has plenty of validity, in a lot of contexts.) It very much behooved our distant ancestors in Africa to remember that when Uncle Gorg took a certain trail he was killed by a leopard, and so let’s not take that trail any more.

But there are other contemporary manifestations of negativity bias that aren’t so easy to regard as understandable and OK. One is those who wallow in doom and gloom as a way of emotionally steeling themselves for calamity. Just as a relatively innocuous example, if I convince myself that the Vikings will go 4-12 next year, and they do, well, I was expecting it, and it won’t hurt so much. While if they do a lot better than that I can be especially joyful. And forget about the unhealthy quantities of sleep I lost while obsessing about the worst.

Which is related to another manifestation, which is those who publicly scaremonger worst-case scenarios every chance they get, because if the worst does happen, they can point out that they were right. And if good things happen instead, well, everyone’s happy enough to forget about what an incessant bummer they were.

Getting back on point, the key question is whether all the negativity from the professional online left significantly depresses our voter turnout. I don’t know the answer to that. There has been substantial research done on whether attack-ad campaigning really works (with many researchers saying it doesn’t, but obviously most candidates’ campaign teams aren’t buying it). But I haven’t been able to find anything, really, about whether all the scaremongering aimed at our own side helps, hurts, or neither, in terms of winning elections.

I strongly suspect that the staffs at places like Daily Kos are themselves unsure about this. But as noted before, the bottom line is that they’ll do what they have to do, to get enough donations to keep going. And the only thing that will change that is if people in general start responding more enthusiastically to more positive messaging. And given how fundamental negativity bias is, that’s hard to see happening.

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