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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