The Lesson of Scotland: Give the People Something to Vote For

Nicola Sturgeon

Nicola Sturgeon, happy warrior

The scale of the electoral slaughter in Scotland yesterday was truly astonishing. The Scottish National Party (SNP) didn’t just take almost every single Labour seat, they took them by swings that have no precedent in electoral history. Turnout was over 80% in some constituencies! Even a 20-year old SNP candidate was enough to sweep aside a seasoned Labour politician. Forgive me for quoting myself regarding what things were like on the ground:

I ran into a Scottish friend recently, a diehard Socialist and Nationalist, who was not in the least discouraged by the recent negative vote on independence. “It was like the old days” he told me, with excitement in his voice “People standing on street corners talking about politics, complete strangers debating each other in the pub about the future of Scotland, the whole country came alive!”. Thinking about the default cynicism and political disengagement in most of the developed world, I had to admit that it sounded vivifying.

The unmistakable difference between Labour Party and SNP supporters this year is how many more of the latter were voting positively. When I asked my friends who supported Labour why they did so, they could almost never speak even two sentences without attacking the Tories. Some couldn’t even get two words out without mentioning them,

Q: “What do you like about Labour?”

A: “The damn Tories…”.

Q: “I know you don’t like them, but what would your party do if it won?”

A: “We’d kick out the damn Tories!”

In contrast, my SNP supporting friends rarely mentioned either of the major parties in explaining their votes. Instead, they talked about what they dreamed Scotland could become under SNP rule, almost always with a smile on their face and hope in their voice.

Parties can certainly win elections entirely by saying what they don’t stand for, who they are against, and how they are not as bad as their opponents. But if all you have going for you is such negative voting motivations, you are completely ill-equipped to handle an opponent whose support comes not from what they aren’t, but from what they are. The positive vision of the SNP drew a huge number of people into the political process who had previously been disengaged and energized long-time voters who were used to pulling the lever while holding their nose with the other hand.

In the U.S., we all bemoan the level of political alienation in the electorate and the negative tone of our politics. The SNP experience shows that there is a possible solution: Candidates and parties that give people something to vote for rather than merely vote against.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is a professor of psychiatry at Stanford University. He served as a senior policy advisor at the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy from 2009 to 2010.