Opinion » Ted Rall

Learned Helplessness

In dire straits, Americans whimper instead


PORTLAND, ORE.—In 1967 animal researchers conducted an experiment with two sets of dogs strapped into harnesses and subjected to a series of shocks. The dogs were placed in the same room.

The first set of dogs was allowed to perform a task—pushing a panel with their snouts—in order to avoid the shocks. As soon as one dog mastered the shock-avoidance technique, his comrades followed suit.

The second group, on the other hand, was placed out of reach from the panel. They couldn't stop the pain. But they watched the actions of the first set.

Then both groups of dogs were subjected to a second experiment. If they jumped over a barrier the shocks would stop. The dogs in the first set all did it. But the second set was too scarred to help themselves. "When shocked, many of them ran around in great distress but then lay on the floor and whimpered," wrote Russell A. Powell, Diane G. Symbaluk and P. Lynne Honey in Introduction to Learning and Behavior. "They made no effort to escape the shock." The decrease in learning ability caused by punishment leads to learned helplessness.

Battered and bruised, with no apparent way out, the American electorate has plunged into a political state of learned helplessness. They've voted Democratic to punish rapacious Republicans. They've voted Republican to get rid of do-nothing Democrats. They've tried staying home on Election Day. Nothing helps.

Most Americans work longer hours for less pay. Until, inevitably, they get "laid off." Even in 2009, when Americans were losing their homes to the same banks their taxes were paying to bail out, the world's richest people--those with disposable wealth more than $30 million--saw their assets soar by 21.5 percent.

The public is now in full-fledged flailing mode. Just two years ago, President Barack Obama and the Democrats swept into power on a platform of hope and change: hope that things might improve by changing from the Bushian Republicanism of previous years.

Now, depending who you listen to, people have either turned against the hope and the change or against the failure of ObamaCo to deliver it. "The voters, I think, are just looking for change, and that means bad news for incumbents and in particular for the Democrats," says Peter Hart, a Democratic pollster.

Change from change we can't believe in.

According to the latest NBC News/Washington Post poll, this is the same electorate that "shows grave and growing concerns about the Gulf oil spill, with overwhelming majorities of adults favoring stronger regulation of the oil industry and believing that the spill will affect the nation's economy and environment." Because you know the Republicans are all about more regulation of Big Oil. And care so much about the environment.

There is some good news: Three major polls find that most Americans don't believe Obama has a plan to fix the economy.

Like the poor Set B dogs in that 1967 experiment, Americans are running around aimlessly, veering between two parties that differ only in their degree of harm. Republicans are evil; Democrats enable it.

The way out is obvious. If a two-party corpocracy beholden to gangster capitalism is ruining your life, get rid of it.

Don't whimper. Bite.