Thursday, September 6, 2007

Learned Fecklessness

In 1965, Martin Seligman conducted an experiment extending Pavlov's work on classical conditioning. First, he would expose a dog in a hammock to a harmless -- but painful -- electric shock while he played a tone. This happened often enough that the dog associated the tone with the shock.

Later, Seligman took the dog out of the hammock and put him in a small box. The dog was no longer constrained. Now, he played a tone as he electrified the floor. A normal dog in this situation would simply jump over a low fence to escape the shock -- escape was simple. But not for our dog. He had learned that the tone and the shock were inextricably linked, that any attempts at escape were futile. He had learned to be helpless.

This is what has happened to Democrats.

It all began when Nancy Pelosi took cutting off funds for the war off the table before she even took office. "As long as our troops are in harm’s way, Democrats will be there to support them," she said. Even if the Dems didn't want to end the war this way, agreeing to the Republican frame (cutting funds = not supporting troops) was asinine. It would be far better to keep the threat of a funds cut-off in your pocket.

Now, the New York Times reports that Dems are considering coming to a 'bi-partisan' compromise:
Senator Carl Levin, Democrat of Michigan, said, “If we have to make the spring part a goal, rather than something that is binding, and if that is able to produce some additional votes to get us over the filibuster, my own inclination would be to consider that.”

How is a non-binding resolution going to end this President's war? How will meekly suggesting a withdrawal in the spring, which we know is going to happen anyway, going to end this President's war? The only thing such a vote will do is give the Republicans political cover. In 2008 they will be able to run ads saying "See, folks! I voted to end this war. You don't have to be angry at me!"

Conservative Andrew Sullivan is right. There is a whole generation of traumatized Democrats. Here he is about Clinton vis-à-vis Obama:

Clinton is from the traumatized generation; Obama isn't. Clinton has internalized to her bones the 1990s sense that conservatism is ascendant, that what she really believes is unpopular, that the Republicans have structural, latent power of having a majority of Americans on their side. Hence the fact that she reeks of fear, of calculation, of focus groups, of triangulation. She might once have had ideals keenly felt; she might once have actually relished fighting for them and arguing in their defense. But she has not been like that for a very long time. She has political post-traumatic stress disorder.

We need to replace a whole generation of Democratic leaders. The ones we have now will never learn that all they need to do to avoid the electrical shock is to just jump over the damn fence.

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