0190-9320/00/0300-0071$18.00/0 ᮊ 2000 Plenum Publishing Corporation
Political Behavior, Vol. 22, No. 1, 2000
THE OTHER SIDE OF OPTIMISM:
High Expectations and the Rejection of
Status Quo Politics
Why are options that suggest a rejection of status quo politics popular today? This
study suggests that an overlooked and important source of disappointment in govern-
ment is the unrealistically optimistic expectations many Americans hold. At the sur-
face it seems almost paradoxical: Americans generally tend to be quite optimistic,
while at the same time they are negative and cynical about politics. This research
suggests that because strong optimists have such high expectations, they react to
political disappointments much more negatively than do those who have more mod-
est expectations, thus reducing trust in government and belief in the system. The
disappointed optimist seeks remedies for their disappointment, and in so doing, em-
braces the political unknown, whether embodied in an inexperienced, ideologically
vague political leader such as Colin Powell, a third political party, or the mystery
men and women who would be called into service after term limits remove incum-
bents from office.
Trust in government has received concerned attention for decades because
since the 1970s most Americans have been unwilling to express confidence in
their government and its leaders (Miller, 1974; Parker, 1989; Rosenstone and
Hansen, 1993; Patterson, 1994).
Cappella and Jamieson argue that “healthy
skepticism about politics has become pervasive cynicism. The presumption of
trust and cooperation has been replaced by that of mistrust and exploitation”
(1996, p. 84).
Why is there so little trust? This research explores the link between opti-
mism about personal life circumstances and cynicism about our current poli-
tics and political leaders, and suggests that one reason we are so unsatisfied is
that we have such optimistic expectations about outcomes that affect us.
When those expectations are not met, we lose confidence in politics and seek
system altering remedies.
David Niven, Department of Political Science, Florida Atlantic University, Boca Raton, FL.