American Voters Suffer Learned Helplessness

There’s an indelible story in Jim Collins’ Good to Great about Admiral Jim Stockdale, a war hero who survived torture as a POW in Vietnam.


From Collins’ book:

“I never lost faith in the end of the story,” [Stockdale] said... “I never doubted not only that I would get out, but also that I would prevail in the end and turn the experience into the defining event of my life, which, in retrospect, I would not trade.”

Collins then asks him, “Who didn’t make it out?” Stockdale’s answer describes the American electorate:

“The optimists. Oh, they were the ones who said, ‘We’re going to be out by Christmas.’ And Christmas would come, and Christmas would go. Then they’d say, ‘We’re going to be out by Easter.’ And Easter would come, and Easter would go. And then Thanksgiving, and then it would be Christmas again. And they died of a broken heart.”

As someone who's been politically active long before I could vote, I've certainly had my share of broken hearts. But the one thing I've learned from suffering apathy and overcoming it is that in a democracy, the finish-line is the enemy. The "finish-line" here is a single election. I don't rest all my hope on a single election, but lifetimes of elections, generations. I have to believe that America will inevitably prevail in becoming a stronger democracy abundant with freedoms and opportunity. Electing a candidate who is like a rock star and oozes sincerity is not going to right the wrongs of our country, or fast track us on the road to progress. One human being is not the answer to all of our problems, neither is one administration, or the next.

Democracy requires constant vigilance and participation. As Pericles, a general and statesman of Athens’ Golden Age, said, “Just because you do not take an interest in politics doesn't mean politics won't take an interest in you.” We are the heroes we’ve been waiting for—that’s the dynamic of a democracy, even one that’s badly limping from the blow of Citizens United.

Yes, our political system, and our rabies-filled political arena have come to resemble Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sithe. And Yoda--representing our democratic ideals--seems to have gone into exile. But sitting out an election because the system has become corrupt and both parties are the puppets of billionaires only fortifies what one is protesting against. If the lesser evil is more likely to be swayed to produce valuable progress, then vote for it you will.

Americans who did not get the Super Obama they had expected or had to settle for Romney, and therefore choose not to vote, hasten the death of our democracy from a collective broken heart. We, the people, must face the Stockdale Paradox. And we face it by strengthening our stomachs, holding our noses, and engaging--voting, talking to other voters, paying attention, caring.

There is too much at stake not to vote. November, as recent history has shown us, is the bloodiest month of the year. President George W. Bush was elected in November, twice, and he started two wars; his father started one; Presidents Reagan, Kennedy, Truman, Roosevelt also led us into wars. And Americans gave them permission to draw up their war plans in November. In this month that masks itself as an innocent time of pumpkin pie, Americans elected the Congress members who approved said war plans. November, figuratively speaking, is a terrifying month.

But when November now rolls around in the United States and it’s an election year, I often hear speeches from Americans suffering from learned helplessness. They vent their broken heart sentiments about corruption, the insincerity of politicians and political conventions, the inhumanity of it all. Frankly, these people are as tiresome as a telemarketer, and need a vacation in North Korea. (There's nothing like totalitarianism to make you love your democracy, no matter how imperfect it is.)

Yann Martel, author of Life of Pi, the story of a young, lone survivor of a shipwreck, beautifully captures how Americans should face our political reality:

“I had to stop hoping so much that a ship would rescue me. I should not count on outside help. Survival had to start with me. In my experience, a castaway’s worst mistake is to hope too much and do too little. Survival starts by paying attention to what is close at hand and immediate. To look out with idle hope is tantamount to dreaming one’s life away.”

Image: Karen Eliot/Flickr

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The finding goes hand in hand with the "hygiene hypothesis," initially proposed in 1989 by the British scientist David Strachan. He maintained that our generally sterile modern world prevents children from being exposed to certain microorganisms, resulting in compromised immune systems and greater incidences of asthma and allergies.

Contemporary research fine-tuned the hypothesis, finding that not interacting with so-called "old friends" or helpful microbes in the soil and the environment, rather than the ones that cause illnesses, is what's detrimental. In particular, our mental health could be at stake.

"The idea is that as humans have moved away from farms and an agricultural or hunter-gatherer existence into cities, we have lost contact with organisms that served to regulate our immune system and suppress inappropriate inflammation," explained Lowry. "That has put us at higher risk for inflammatory disease and stress-related psychiatric disorders."

University of Colorado Boulder

Christopher Lowry

This is not the first study on the subject from Lowry, who published previous work showing the connection between being exposed to healthy bacteria and mental health. He found that being raised with animals and dust in a rural environment helps children develop more stress-proof immune systems. Such kids were also likely to be less at risk for mental illnesses than people living in the city without pets.

Lowry's other work also pointed out that the soil-based bacterium Mycobacterium vaccae acts like an antidepressant when injected into rodents. It alters their behavior and has lasting anti-inflammatory effects on the brain, according to the press release from the University of Colorado Boulder. Prolonged inflammation can lead to such stress-related disorders as PTSD.

The new study from Lowry and his team identified why that worked by pinpointing the specific fatty acid responsible. They showed that when the 10(Z)-hexadecenoic acid gets into cells, it works like a lock, attaching itself to the peroxisome proliferator-activated receptor (PPAR). This allows it to block a number of key pathways responsible for inflammation. Pre-treating the cells with the acid (or lipid) made them withstand inflammation better.

Lowry thinks this understanding can lead to creating a "stress vaccine" that can be given to people in high-stress jobs, like first responders or soldiers. The vaccine can prevent the psychological effects of stress.

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"This is just one strain of one species of one type of bacterium that is found in the soil but there are millions of other strains in soils," said Lowry. "We are just beginning to see the tip of the iceberg in terms of identifying the mechanisms through which they have evolved to keep us healthy. It should inspire awe in all of us."

Check out the study published in the journal Psychopharmacology.