Opinion » John Rember

None of the Above

The learned helplessness civics lesson


Like a lot of older Idahoans, I used to vote for Democrats. Decades ago, as a hopeful person, I supported decent wages and working conditions for ordinary people. I recognized that well-funded public education would make people wealthy and wise. I backed school bond issues and health-related environmental protection. I don't do any of that any longer. If I vote this fall, I'm voting a straight Republican ticket, not so I can feel like a winner, but to see what believing in nothing feels like. You might call me nihilism-curious. I've been that way since Idaho became a one-party state. I still believe in decent wages and working conditions for ordinary people, quality public-funded education and clean air and water. But I've stopped thinking a vote for a Democrat can advance any of these things.

It's like those experiments where scientists trained lab rats to avoid severe electric shocks by pressing a lever. Then the experimenters disconnected the lever and still administered the shocks. Eventually the rats just sat quivering in the corner of their cages, not pressing the lever, not even looking at it, just waiting for the next agonizing jolt of electricity. The experimenters called the rats' condition Learned Helplessness.

Any Democrats in Idaho who haven't achieved Learned Helplessness are slow learners. It's only a matter of time and a few more elections before they realize the lever on their voting machine isn't connected to anything.

Cases in point: Jerry Brady's gubernatorial losses to Dirk Kempthorne and Butch Otter. If you look at everybody's resumes--not to mention their video clips--it's hard not to conclude that Brady is superior, morally and intellectually, to his two opponents. But he received 42 percent of the vote against Kempthorne and 44 percent against Otter. Democrats still point to those numbers with pride--an indication of how far they've fallen. In two-party states you don't brag about landslide losses.

In a more extreme example, Nicole LeFavour got 34.8 percent of the vote against Mike Simpson, whose overexposure to the mutagenic effects of lobbying has made it impossible for him to have a recent photo on his website. LeFavour is smart, articulate, committed to human rights, courageous, principled and determined not to be a typical politician--in deep contrast to what can kindly be characterized as the go-along-to-get-along practices of the Idaho congressional delegation in general and of Simpson in particular.

Idaho politics are at the point where the Republican Primary is the only election worth holding. Republicans hold supermajorities in the Idaho Legislature. Anti-union and pro-corporate bills, no matter how destructive to families or small businesses, are assured passage. Education, especially in rural communities, has been neglected to the point where our colleges teach what our high schools used to.

In happier days, the Democratic response would be for a party leader to go out to the counties and begin organizing at the grassroots level, pointing out to what remains of the middle class that there's a political party that has their interests in mind. That's what Phil Batt did as Republican Party chairman in 1991, and his success, however disingenuous, created the current situation. I don't see any Democrat on the horizon who possesses Batt's political will, or his demonstrated willingness to garner votes by appealing to voters' fears and prejudices. Not that I'm recommending the latter--I'm recommending an articulate and moral defense against the latter.

But not this year, and not this year's Democrats. It would be more effective--and certainly more humane--for the Democratic Party to disband completely at next weekend's convention in Moscow. Committing suicide as a party would show more integrity than what they're doing now: serving as Idaho's mute minority, being humiliated, mocked and beaten every November, and giving Republicans straw-men and -women to vote against.

Making Idaho an official one-party state might shock Idaho voters into the realization that choice has become an echo here. What echoes from Bonners Ferry to Bear Lake is the cynical contempt of Idaho officials toward the people who vote for them. Tom Luna's unsuccessful sale of Idaho school curricula to out-of-state cronies is one example of this contempt. Butch Otter's aborted attempt to privatize the Idaho prison system is another. Jim Risch's transfer of property taxes from corporations to fixed-income grocery-purchasers is yet another. Two more are the Ag-Gag and the Guns-Go-to-College bills. With all due apologies to Nietzsche: In a state full of people who will vote for you if you cater to the worst in them, anything is permitted.

The Idaho Democratic Party has had a couple of decades to counter the mean and nasty small-town nihilism that masquerades as Republican rule. They have yet to come up with a strategy that would defeat a party whose priorities are destroying social safety nets; auctioning off federal land; getting rid of sane regulation of mining, logging and transportation; eliminating the division between church and state; and selling Idaho children's futures to the highest bidder. When a political party can't offer an attractive alternative to people as mad, bad and venal as Idaho Republicans, you have to wonder what they're good for.

I wasn't serious when I said if I voted, I'd vote Republican. The risks are too high, especially for someone whose mother told him not to make nihilistic faces or one day they'd stick. But I am done voting for Democrats. I do think they should disband, and stop providing two-party cover for a one-party system--a system that consistently elects amoral place-holders whose loftiest goals are (a) getting elected again and (b) crapping on the ordinary people they've sworn to serve.