Back in 1967, the psychologist Martin Seligman conducted a famous psychological experiment at the University of Pennsylvania. He administered shocks to two sets of dogs. The first set could stop the shocks by pressing a lever, or, later jumping over a low partition. The second set had no control over the frequency or duration of the shocks. Even when these subjects were given the chance to jump over the partition, they lay down passively and whined as shocks were administered.
Seligman’s experiment was a vivid confirmation of what psychologists call learned helplessness. Sociologists have since suggested that this concept governs societies as well as individuals. When a political culture cannot achieve desired goals, voters fall into a state of debility, dependency, and dread.
This, in a nutshell, is the current state of the American electorate, though the more precise term is probably learned hopelessness.
This wasn’t always the case. Traditionally, periods of despondence and upheaval have led to a renewal of faith in political remedies: the New Deal, the Civil Rights movement, LBJ’s Great Society programs.
Over the past four decades, however, right-wing pols have cranked the Jeffersonian formulation (That government is best which governs least) to 11. “Government is not the solution to our problem,” Ronald Reagan declared in his first inaugural. “Government is the problem.”
This has been the guiding principle of modern conservatism. Its essential agenda has been to vilify and disable government on behalf of its corporate sponsors: slash tax rates and spending, deregulate, privatize. These policies have been an unmitigated disaster for most Americans. Just as important, they have infused a reflexive apathy and cynicism into our realpolitik.
Consider President Obama’s tenure. He was swept into office amid a genuine sense of hope and immediately set about repairing our reeling economy. A federal bailout saved the auto industry. Unemployment dropped. Growth picked up. And yet, even in the midst of this recovery, half of all Americans believed the nation was on the wrong track.
By the time Obama proposed his health care plan, wealthy conservatives had seeded and manured the Tea Party, a pale roving mob with no coherent ideology beyond contempt for Obama, and government in general.
Sarah Palin, the cover girl of this modern political nihilism, captured the gist of the movement at one of her many paid sermons before the faithful. In a tone dripping with snide glee, she asked Obama voters, “How’s that hopey changey stuff working out for ya?”
Actually, that hopey changey stuff was going pretty well. After a brutal battle, Obama managed to get the Affordable Care Act signed into law, making insurance cheaper and medical care more widespread. He ended the war in Iraq, killed Osama bin Laden, and kept the homeland safe. The economy continued to improve. He won re-election. And despite all this, more and more Americans told pollsters that the nation was on the wrong track.
Much of this has to do with the Fourth Estate’s incessant focus on political incompetence and strife. The corporations that own our largest media companies have discovered that there’s more money to be made in scandals than policies. Which is why reporters and pundits and political comedians desperate for audience share feast upon dysfunction.
But even without this distorting lens, our electorate has become habituated to a cycle of in which campaign promises curdle into broken vows. Palin may be a D-list celebrity at this point, but the cynical pleasure she took in mocking hope has become the default setting of American voters.