The learned helplessness of the Democrats

Martin Seligman is the psychologist who coined the phrase “learned helplessness.”  It is based on work he did with dogs as a young graduate student in 1964.  In the experiment, the dogs were trained to associate a musical tone with mild electric shock.  They would then be given a chance to learn they could escape the shock if they could jump over a small barrier, and then the psychologists would see if they responded the same way to the musical tone without the shock.  Seligman described the result in his book Learned Optimism:

Martin Seligman

These dogs … had just lain down whimpering.  They hadn’t even tried to get away from the shocks. … Accidentally, during some part of the experiment, the dogs must have been trained to be helpless.  That’s why they had given up. … During Pavlovian conditioning, they felt the shocks go on and off, regardless of whether they struggled or jumped or barked or did nothing at all.  They had concluded, or “learned,” that nothing they did mattered. So why try? ……

It would take the next ten years of my life to prove to the scientific community that what afflicted those dogs was helplessness, and that helplessness could be learned, and therefore unlearned.

Democratic liberal leaders manifest learned helplessness.  Since 1980, they have  become so accustomed to defeat that they think in terms not of how to win, but of what terms they can get from their opponents.

Most of us liberals think that a single-payer health insurance plan or, at the very least, a public option would be the best way to provide universal health care while controlling costs.  But it is unpopular, so the Democratic liberal leaders settle for the Affordable Care Act, which hardly anyone understands or defends.

We are indignant that the abuse of cloture by Republicans means that a 60-vote Senate majority is needed for any significant action.  But President Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid don’t even make an issue of it, so the majority of Americans are not informed that this is even a problem.

We favor the card-check system to enable unions to organize without intimidation, but there is opposition, so this is not even proposed.  The “cramdown” plan, to allow federal bankruptcy judges to deal with mortgage foreclosures, is not on the agenda.  Likewise any serious proposal to break up the “too big to fail” banks.  Likewise any serious proposal to keep Americans at work by maintaining essential public services and rebuilding deteriorating infrastructure.

No doubt some of these things are unpopular.  They always will be unpopular if Americans never hear any arguments in favor.

Republican “movement conservatives” are not like this.  They stick by their agenda, even when they pay a political price.  Each time they propose privatizing Social Security or voucherizing Medicare, they fall in the public opinion polls, but they also make a dent in the consensus, and increase the chances of getting their way the next time around.

Democratic leaders, in contrast, weaken their case every time they accept debate on Republican conservative terms.  President Obama has already lost when he accepts the premise that dealing with Medicare deficits projected for 20 years from now is more important than the current unemployment crisis.

Martin Seligman in his experiments found that there were some dogs who did not learn to be helpless.  They kept trying, no matter what.  Liberals need to learn the same dogged determination.

Click on Authentic Happiness for Dr. Martin Seligman’s home page.

Click on Against Learned Helplessness for comments by Nobel economist Paul Krugman in the New York Times.

At about the same time as I read Krugman’s column, I came across several interesting proposals that Democrats might take up if they were pro-active rather than defensive.

Click on UnHAMPered for a proposal by Brad Miller in The New Republic for the federal government to use its power of eminent domain to acquire distressed mortgages from banks, and then refinance them on terms the homeowners can afford to pay.  This was actually done under the New Deal.  The Home Owners Loan Corp., created in June, 1933, just three months after President Roosevelt took office, did just this.  It refinanced 1 million mortgages and earned a slight profit before going out of business when the last mortgage was paid off in 1951.

Click on The Right to Rent Plan for a proposal by Dean Baker, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, to allow homeowners whose mortgages have been foreclosed to remain as tenants, paying fair market rents, for up to five years.  This would provide more direct help and more economic stability than bailing out banks.

Click on Why Not Let the Dead Pay for Medicare? and Letting the Dead Pay for Medicare, Part 2 for a proposal by Kevin Drum of Mother Jones to recoup the costs of Medicare not covered by premiums and co-payments from the estates of the former recipients.  Rich people with large estates would pay the entire cost of their medical care, poor people with no estates would pay nothing, and a lot of the cost of Medicare deficit would be paid off.  The problem with this is that the heirs of middle-income people would subject to substantial inheritance taxes, which they never have been before; still, taking someone’s estate is better than throwing someone into the private system and exhausting their savings while they still are alive.

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One Response to “The learned helplessness of the Democrats”

  1. jacksmith Says:


    ( )

    ( Gov. Peter Shumlin: Real Healthcare reform — )

    ( Health Care Budget Deficit Calculator — )

    ( Briefing: Dean Baker on Boosting the Economy by Saving Healthcare )


    As you all know. Had congress passed a single-payer or government-run robust Public Option CHOICE! available to everyone on day one, our economy and jobs would have taken off like a rocket. And still will. Single-payer would be best. But a government-run robust Public Option CHOICE! that can lead to a single-payer system is the least you can accept. It’s not about competing with for-profit healthcare and for-profit health insurance. It’s about replacing it with Universal Healthcare Assurance. Everyone knows this now.

    The message from the midterm elections was clear. The American people want real healthcare reform. They want that individual mandate requiring them to buy private health insurance abolished. And they want a government-run robust public option CHOICE! available to everyone on day one. And they want it now.

    They want Drug re-importation, and abolishment, or strong restrictions on patents for biologic and prescription drugs. And government controlled and negotiated drug and medical cost. They want back control of their healthcare system from the Medical Industrial Complex. And they want it NOW!


    For profit health insurance is extremely unethical, and morally repugnant. It’s as morally repugnant as slavery was. And few if any decent Americans are going to allow them-self to be compelled to support such an unethical and immoral crime against humanity.

    This is a matter of National and Global security. There can be NO MORE EXCUSES.

    Further, we want that corrupt, undemocratic filibuster abolished. Whats the point of an election if one corrupt member of congress can block the will of the people, and any legislation the majority wants. And do it in secret. Give me a break people.

    Also, unemployment healthcare benefits are critically needed. But they should be provided through the Medicare program at cost, less the 65% government premium subsidy provided now to private for profit health insurance.

    Congress should stop wasting hundreds of millions of dollars of taxpayer money on private for profit health insurance subsidies. Subsidies that cost the taxpayer 10x as much or more than Medicare does. Private for profit health insurance plans cost more. But provide dangerous and poorer quality patient care.



    This is what the American people are shouting at you. Both parties have just enough power now to do what the American people want. GET! IT! DONE! NOW!

    If congress does not abolish the individual mandate. And establish a government-run public option CHOICE! before the end of 2011. EVERY! member of congress up for reelection in 2012 will face strong progressive pro public option, and anti-individual mandate replacement candidates.

    Strong progressive pro “PUBLIC OPTION” CHOICE! and anti-individual mandate volunteer candidates should begin now. And start the process of replacing any and all members of congress that obstruct, or fail to add a government-run robust PUBLIC OPTION CHOICE! before the end of 2011.

    We need two or three very strong progressive volunteer candidates for every member of congress that will be up for reelection in 2012. You should be fully prepared to politically EVISCERATE EVERY INCUMBENT that fails or obstructs “THE PUBLIC OPTION”. And you should be willing to step aside and support the strongest pro “PUBLIC OPTION” candidate if the need arises.

    ASSUME CONGRESS WILL FAIL and SELLOUT again. So start preparing now to CUT THEIR POLITICAL THROATS. You can always step aside if they succeed. But only if they succeed. We didn’t have much time to prepare before these past midterm elections. So the American people had to use a political shotgun approach. But by 2012 you will have a scalpel.

    Congress could have pass a robust government-run public option during it’s lame duck session. They knew what the American people wanted. They already had several bills on record. And the house had already passed a public option. Departing members could have left with a truly great accomplishment. And the rest of you could have solidified your job before the 2012 elections.

    President Obama, you promised the American people a strong public option available to everyone. And the American people overwhelmingly supported you for it. Maybe it just wasn’t possible before. But it is now.

    Knock heads. Threaten people. Or do whatever you have to. We will support you. But get us that robust public option CHOICE! available to everyone on day one before the end of 2011. Or We The People Of The United States will make the past midterm election look like a cake walk in 2012. And it will include you.

    We still have a healthcare crisis in America. With hundreds of thousands dieing needlessly every year in America. And a for profit medical industrial complex that threatens the security and health of the entire world. They have already attacked the world with H1N1 killing thousands, and injuring millions. And more attacks are planned for profit, and to feed their greed.

    Spread the word people.

    Progressives, prepare the American peoples scalpels. It’s time to remove some politically diseased tissues.

    God Bless You my fellow human beings. I’m proud to be one of you. You did good.

    See you on the battle field.


    jacksmith – WorkingClass 🙂


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