SYNDICATED COLUMN: Learned Helplessness

In Dire Straits, Americans Whimper Instead

In 1967 animal researchers conducted an interesting experiment. Two sets of dogs were 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 dogs quickly learned, the shocks would stop. The dogs belonging to the first set all did it.

But the second-set dogs were too psychologically 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. Even stranger, the few dogs that did by chance jump over the barrier, successfully escaping the shock, seemed unable to learn from this experience and failed to repeat it on the next trial. In summary, the prior exposure to inescapable shock seemed to impair the dogs’ ability to learn to escape shock when escape became possible.”

The decrease in learning ability caused by unavoidable punishment leads to a condition called “learned helplessness.”

Which brings us to the midterm elections.

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 they do helps their condition. They’re flailing.

The great mass of Americans works longer hours for less pay. Until, inevitably, they get “laid off.” Is there a working- or middle-class American who hasn’t lost his job or been close to someone who got fired during the last few years? Even in 2009, when global capitalism entered its final crisis and millions of 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 over $30 million—saw their assets soar by 21.5 percent.

Go ahead, little leftie: smash the windows at Starbucks in Seattle. It won’t stop transnational corporations from raping the planet and exploiting you. Enjoy your Tea Party, little rightie. It sure is cute, listening to you talk about the wee Constitution. “Your” government and the companies that own “your” leaders have your number. And they’re listening to your phone calls.

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

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.

Does your head hurt yet?

There is some good news: Three major polls find that most Americans don’t believe Obama has a plan to fix the economy. Yes, this is good news; it proves that the public isn’t totally crazy.

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.

Next: lying on the ground and whimpering.

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.

(Ted Rall is the author of “The Anti-American Manifesto,” to be published in September by Seven Stories Press. His website is


This entry was posted in Blog, Columns and tagged on by .

About Ted Rall

Ted Rall is the political cartoonist at, editor-in-chief of, a graphic novelist and author of many books of art and prose, and an occasional war correspondent. He is the author of the biography "Trump," to be published in July 2016.

12 thoughts on “SYNDICATED COLUMN: Learned Helplessness

  1. –> “Even in 2009, when global capitalism entered its final crisis”

    Ah, no place like to go if one wants to see Marx’s decrepit body being galvanized into writhing, like a bad 19th century experiment.
    But I agree that you should get rid of the pseudo two-party system. Just differ on what should replace it…

  2. We need a new way of electing politicians. Otherwise third parties too easily are spoilers who give us the worse of the two leading party’s candidates. Some sort of system that lets us rate each candidate, on a scale of 1 to 10, might give us a shot at electing a candidate who is good.

  3. Ted, you write this same article at least once every six months. It’s the “I’m Ted Rall and I’m trying to goad Americans into a revolution against corporations!!” How many times do you have to write this until you accept that it ain’t gonna happen.

    Look, I live in San Francisco. The heart of anti-corporate, anti-government sentiment. As I walk around the streets of our fair city, you know what I see? Nothin’ special. People dining at trendy eateries. People at Starbucks with their iPads and laptops. People sunning themselves in the park. People shopping in Union Square. They look about as ready for a revolution as the overly suntanned ladies on “The Real Housewives of Orange County”. I’m serious. That’s San Francisco.

    When I visit the midwest, just how many of them do you think are ready for a revolution?

    Good God Ted, these people are WAY beyond learned helplessness. If you actually thought about it for a minute, this country would collapse if corporations were challenged and brought under control. You’d have chaos in the streets, 60% joblessness, rampant crime, and essentially be in a state of emergency. Our government would collapse, the military would disband and we’d be overrun by the Chinese and/or Russians.

    That’s what happens when you choose corporate capitalism as your organizing principle. Your stuck with it, for better and worse. Ned Beatty’s speech in Network summed it up nicely. To put it bluntly Ted: You are meddling with the primal forces of nature Mr. Rall!!!

  4. One good idea to stop them, if we can fix America is for any elections a significant number of votes are needed to pass anything. Too many small measures, especially “Mill Levys” in cities get passed because they keep declaring one tiny election after another after another to raise taxes until just enough of the “One issue fanatics and cheaters” overwhelm those that vote “No!”. Make it so it has to be at least 30% of the total electorate, not just a “Win” for yes/no even if it’s a dozen people.

  5. <<>>

    I wonder if it is a wholly separate group of multinational corporations which control the US, china and Russia.

  6. [I] Just differ [from Ted] on what should replace [the two party winner take all system]…

    What do you think should replace it?

  7. Oleg,
    Anarchy, not in the socialist, misapropriated sense, would be the ideal.
    Barring that, a very restricted, parliamentary, multi-party, no Senate, sort of liberal democracy would be preferrable. Of course, better yet would be if the USA splinterede into a dozen countries.

  8. bucephalus says:
    Anarchy, not in the socialist, misapropriated sense, would be the ideal.
    Here in my city we use less romantic names for anarchy. For instance, “gang warfare” comes to mind. Trust me, this is bad. Even if you mean anarchy without violence, sometimes romantically named libertarianism, I still disagree. Enrons, AIGs, destroy economies — even if my business would be doing fine, it can still go under because of the immoral decisions made at their businesses.

    Perhaps your experience is different but I find that anarchists/libertarians are people who think that government should provide only those things that they cannot personally handle themselves. The trouble is, that different people have different abilities to handle things. The gang bangers would argue that the government should not provide police. The Enrons would claim that government should not enforce contracts. Those with tractors think that governments shouldn’t plow roads. Those with jobs (or decent prospects) think that government shouldn’t be supplying jobless benefits (“to those lazy bums”). Etc.

    Barring that, a very restricted, parliamentary, multi-party, no Senate, sort of liberal democracy would be preferable.
    As a liberal, I think that democracy is key, so I’m not so excited about the US Senate, which does not reflect proportional representation.

    Of course, better yet would be if the USA splintered into a dozen countries.
    The fact that blue states and red states can fight it out in the national government means that they won’t have to fight it out in the battlefield. This is a good thing, in my mind — even though it means that we liberal blue states subsidize the “fiscally-responsible” red states with our tax dollars to some absurd level.

  9. lee,
    The City you live in sounds like an American city. The US is a Republic with a two party system which has been completely bought out by international capitalists. Sadly, we do not have Anarchy here. We have chaos. Anarchy is simply the opposite of hierarchy. I think we are all on the same page with proportional representation.

    Bucephalus, (ok, you rule out anarchy and so will I, for now)
    I am completely with you on the proportional representation, and so is Ted, last I checked.
    Now, in your splintered state model, would the US even be a confederation? I am pretty sure we tried that, but the currency exchange (among other things) was deemed to be inefficient. Also, the smaller states were subject to predation by private interests.

  10. Now, in your splintered state model, would the US even be a confederation?

    I was thinking more along the line of several separate little countries.