The US Electorate’s (and Everyone Else’s) Learned Helplessness

kucinich 2I listened this morning to CBC’s coverage of the Iowa caucuses, and was struck by the dismal mood of Democratic Party voters. The election is, after all, theirs to lose. But there was an overwhelming sense, voiced by the supporters of the party’s three leading candidates, that nothing they did really mattered.

Ending the war, restoring civil liberties, closing the torture prisons, restoring integrity to government and the rule of law, getting serious about global warming, getting social and environmental laws and regulations actually enforced, and strengthening them, solving the health care and education crises, restoring the US’ international reputation, grappling with the horrendous and dangerous fiscal and trade deficits, reining in corporatist excesses — the voters don’t seem to believe any of the candidates, despite their rhetoric and regardless of the strength of their mandate, will be able to do anything on any of these issues.

“So why,” the CBC reporter asked, “even bother to vote?”  

“We can always hope,” the candidates’ supporters replied, glumly.

Yet they didn’t seem very hopeful. Dennis Kucinich, the candidate who just about everyone who’s studied the positions seems to agree is the candidate most in touch with the progressive electorate, has been written off as ‘unelectable’. Why? Because he speaks truth to power? Because he’s not tall and handsome enough? Or is it, perhaps, because people know the corporatist establishment would pull out all the stops, and billions of dollars, to buy the election for his political opponent if he were nominated?

Even John Edwards, who seems to have acquired some balls recently, is getting the Democrats nervous because he’s willing to say that corporatists have far too much power and will keep using it until it’s taken away by force. To many that makes him, like Kucinich, ‘unelectable’. Entrance polls today suggest he’ll finish third in Iowa.

The US has had a Democratic congress for three years now, and they haven’t been able to do much more than posture. Their record on reform of elections and corporate influence in the political process has been dismal. The war goes on, with a ‘surge’ even, bankrolled mindlessly by the congress. Hillary Clinton is so hawkish that she sounds like a Bush Republican. Barack Obama is saying nothing, except that his is a campaign of — you guessed it — hope. Gerrymandering, the disgraceful US partisan redrawing of electoral boundaries which virtually guarantees election of the incumbent party and which no candidate has vowed to change, makes it a waste of time to vote for representatives in most US states.

Back-room dealing, pork-barreling, overt corruption, non-enforcement of the laws of the land — this is the Bush legacy of ‘lowered expectations’, but it’s a legacy that dates back decades. There hasn’t been a truly progressive US president in decades, although there has been plenty of progressive rhetoric. The Clinton/Gore presidency was a huge disappointment to progressives — if they couldn’t reform anything, how likely is it that anyone else can? Lower expectations enough and Learned Helplessness sets in — we ‘learn’ from propaganda and bitter experience that there’s nothing we can do, so we stop trying. But we don’t give up hoping.

Americans are the poster children for learned helplessness — most evangelical religions, so popular there, are models for cultivating learned helplessness — God and the Preacher will look after you, so you need do nothing except confess your inadequacies and await salvation from the powerful. But we in other countries shouldn’t be smug. I wrote yesterday about how addicted we all are to modern communication, energy transmission and transportation infrastructure. But we aren’t weaning ourselves off this dependency. Wedon’t know what to do. We can’t help ourselves.

It may be hopeless, but we still hope. What else can we do?

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11 Responses to The US Electorate’s (and Everyone Else’s) Learned Helplessness

  1. Jon Husband says:

    too late for pessimism, I guess.

  2. David Parkinson says:

    What this country needs is some good old-fashioned learned helpfulness.

  3. Susan Hales says:

    It was your post about Kucinich back in 2003 that spurred me on to run as a delegate for him in Alabama. Back then no one even knew he was running. In comparison to that, he’s at least getting heard now, and people know who he is and what he represents. If they don’t choose him, we can’t say they didn’t hear his voice. This is a positive change from ’04. Having said that, I’m actually leaning towards Edwards because his record is one of going after the corporations that are the impediment to most progress, including progress in getting the message to the people. Kucinich, unlike many others, isn’t quitting, no matter what the numbers say. He’ll make a difference. And I’m glad to see you highlighting him again today!Best.Susan

  4. T says:

    As happy as I am that a woman is running and an African American, I’m voting for Kucinich, whether he is on the ballot or not. I like Hillary, I believe she knows how to play the game that politics is. She would be more effective than anyone else running, but, Kucinich is the real deal.Like a Native American Activist once pointed out, “It’s crazy that you choose to have leaders you know are liars. You know they lie to you and yet, you chose them to be your chiefs!”

  5. Dagny says:

    The act of voting legitimizes the very corrupt political system we have.I don’t vote because doing so perpetuates the status quo. By not voting I am saying that I have withrawn my consent.

  6. I’m very disappointed that more voters don’t seem to be hearing Kucinich’s message or witnessing all that he’s already doing that I think answers what voters asked for in 2006 with the new legislative majority for Democrats. Kucinich seems to me to be the most proactive of all the candidates, and the one most concerned for all Americans, as well as a stable and balanced foreign policy. He also hasn’t sold his soul to the corporate money that would BUY the election for him.

  7. Tom says:

    While I agree with your general statement, I’m not sure that I’m convinced that religious fundamentalism is the reason Kucinich does not receive greater support among Democrats.Religious fundamentalists are overwhelmingly Republican, and so their culture should impact Republican candidates more than Democratic candidates. Yet religious fundamentalists form the backbone of Republican populism.Corruption and a failure of the U.S. government to do anything positive for the American electorate in more than thirty years have, in my opinion, not so much lowered expectations as taught the U.S. electorate that their vote doesn’t matter. Carter lowered taxes on the wealthy, increased defense spending and decreased spending on social programs. Reagan promised a better future, but was a nightmare in office, driving jobs out of the U.S., driving Americans into poverty and undermining the middle class. Bush 41 was only slightly less psychotic than the crazies in the basement. Clinton carried on Reagan’s policies, with the sole exception of Reagan’s record-setting deficit spending. Bush 42 is worse, having run as a coalition builder and compassionate conservative, and having populated his administration with the crazies in the basement.And what were the alternatives? Against Bush 42 was Gore and Leiberman, a ticket slightly to the right of moderate Republicans. Kerry’s voting record was no more progressive, and he gave no reason to believe that he would become a representative of the People once in office.The media, owned and influenced by corporations enamored of the status quo, doesn’t help. The excessive spending required to even run for national office ensures that only those people who can acquire large donations can run for office, and their donations naturally come from that quarter or so of Americans with sufficient disposable income to take part in the U.S.’s capitalist version of democracy. The bottom seventy-five or eighty percent of Americans are automatically disenfranchised.Americans have, indeed, learned helplessness, but I think we should give them more credit. They understand, at some level, that their political system is a _system_, and one that is deliberately designed to maintain the status quo. When change is needed, Presidential candidates are not the solution.

  8. Raging Bee says:

    Or is it, perhaps, because people know the corporatist establishment would pull out all the stops, and billions of dollars, to buy the election for his political opponent if he were nominated?Well, now we know where some of that “learned helplessness” is coming from.By not voting I am saying that I have withrawn my consent.Actually, you’re saying you consent to whatever the party in power does, and will never lift a finger to call anyone to account for it. Thanks for nothing, pal.

  9. Systems based upon lies and deceit are strategies for personal gain, not real systems even if imposed as such. When enough people finally realize they were duped, they do change things. We got out of Vietnam when enough people said ‘stop’. We will elect someone who will take us out of Iraq because majority opinion has finally realized we had no business getting in there to begin with. Hilary voted for war for reasons of electoral popularity, not out of conscience which is why I think she would make a bad president. She was a NY Senator and I lived in NYC during 9/11. I never believed Iraq had anything to do with 9/11 but New Yorkers were fragile after that tragedy and her polls must have indicated that was the stance her constituents wanted. But it doesn’t justify her vote and other actions in the same spirit of efficacy.Popularity is a one note issue – tell the most people what they most want to hear. That is also the reason for fundamentalist candidates’ popularity. That is the single note fanatics wish to hear. Republicans didn’t start out with far right fundamentalists but they encouraged and supported them. If you are entirely taken up with religion instead of LIFE in capital letters (which doesn’t mean religion cannot be a part of LIFE), you won’t get in their way or notice that labor was continuing the march down the road to abject slavery. Democrats, usually urging separation of Church and State, lose out among fundamentalists because they don’t play that one note. But the inmates took over the asylum because fanaticism usually wins out over reason. They work harder than most of the opposition and, yes, they come out to vote in droves. The Republicans created a monster that now divides their party. Serve them right, but not the rest of us!Religion rules most countries and has throughout history. All the more reason for us to realize that hope is only useful if backed up with action.To prove how bad the ‘monster’ is becoming, I urge Canadians to look at a recent congressional (house) resolution that passed last month and publicize it. Nothing cleans ‘House’ faster than embarrassment:Yes, with sixty co-sponsors, the House resolved to honor Christianity as the most important world religion and the prevalent form of religion in the US. I suggest you read these and contact your representatives to protest the use of a US legal body to author approvals and recognition of any religious body. It is a primary violation of the seperation between Church and State.Go to and look up House Resolution 847. Here is the text:Version #1 was even more bizarre than this second version of the resolution, which I believe is the one which passed the House:Whereas Christmas, a holiday of great significance to Americans and many other cultures and nationalities, is celebrated annually by Christians throughout the United States and the… (Engrossed as Agreed to or Passed by House)LLAlpha3LELHSEENRLhr847–eh.xml [file 1 of 1] HRES 847 EH H. Res. 847In the House of Representatives, U. S.,December 11, 2007.Whereas Christmas, a holiday of great significance to Americans and many other cultures and nationalities, is celebrated annually by Christians throughout the United States and the world; Whereas there are approximately 225,000,000 Christians in the United States, making Christianity the religion of over three-fourths of the American population; Whereas there are approximately 2,000,000,000 Christians throughout the world, making Christianity the largest religion in the world and the religion of about one-third of the world population; Whereas Christians and Christianity have contributed greatly to the development of western civilization; Whereas the United States, being founded as a constitutional republic in the traditions of western civilization, finds much in its history that points observers back to its Judeo-Christian roots; Whereas on December 25 of each calendar year, American Christians observe Christmas, the holiday celebrating the birth of their savior, Jesus Christ; Whereas for Christians, Christmas is celebrated as a recognition of God’s redemption, mercy, and Grace; and Whereas many Christians and non-Christians throughout the United States and the rest of the world, celebrate Christmas as a time to serve others: Now, therefore, be it Resolved, That the House of Representatives–(1) recognizes the Christian faith as one of the great religions of the world;(2) expresses continued support for Christians in the United States and worldwide;(3) acknowledges the international religious and historical importance of Christmas and the Christian faith;(4) acknowledges and supports the role played by Christians and Christianity in the founding of the United States and in the formation of the western civilization;(5) rejects bigotry and persecution directed against Christians, both in the United States and worldwide; and(6) expresses its deepest respect to American Christians and Christians throughout the world.Attest: Clerk

  10. Tom says:

    Regarding H.R. 847…I’m shocked. I had missed all notice of this bill. It looks like Congress is working toward the establishment of a national religion.

  11. I thought it was the pinnacle of congressional stupidity and a last ditch effort to tell fanatic constituents, “Here, see? Vote for me even though you are upset with my party now for not overturning RoeVWade yet or restoring prayer to the schools, establishing faith based ONLY charitable programs to replace federal entitlement programs etc. The thin end of the wedge – they really don’t want a national religion but are catering to those who do, stupidly refusing to look at history and see that is exactly how it starts. Just like our pointless wars did with banner waving and slogans. Only this is the stuff that civil wars are made of…as we see around the world. Bad enough that there is a class war going on.If you are American, please write your congressmen and the ACLU office in your town to tell them this has not escaped your notice. Resolutions are largely meaningless in action terms (just statements of approval, dissaproval) but nothing like this should be on the books as per our Constitutional protections.

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