From the point of view of observation and study, we in Missouri are lucky that we have in Democratic Claire McCaskill a prime example of one of the so-called centrist Democrats who are characterized by their one-sided love affair with bipartisanship. These individuals are often characterized as “Republican lite” because they freqeuntly echo GOP talking points. But there’s something different about the way they use GOP rhetoric to excuse not doing what they often implicitly or even explicitly acknowledge to be the right thing. Republicans mouth their hocus-pocus to serve either their own personal ideology or that of their big money backers. Democratic “bipartisan” patter seem to consist of making excuses while whining that there’s not really anything they can do so why are we getting mad at them for trying to keep things all ?
This response to the difficulties of legislating has lots in common with what popular psychology calls “learned helplessness. This condition is defined as follows:
Learned helplessness occurs when an animal is repeatedly subjected to an aversive stimulus that it cannot escape. Eventually, the animal will stop trying to avoid the stimulus and behave as if it is utterly helpless to change the situation. Even when opportunities to escape are presented, this learned helplessness will prevent any action.
While the concept is strongly tied to animal psychology and behavior, it can also apply to many situations involving human beings. When people feel that they have no control over their situation, they may also begin to behave in a helpless manner. This inaction can lead people to overlook opportunities for relief or change.
Which brings me back to Senator McCaskill as my exhibit A. It’s doubtful that she was ever going to be the darling of the American left, but back in 2006 when she was first elected, she actually referred to herself as a “progressive” at times, and she certainly made a few progressive noises. But when the Tea Party critters crawled out from under their rocks, she became a target for lots of nastiness. In the summer of 2009 She survived a few raucous town hall encounters with the crazies through shear force of will and wit, always respectful, but giving as good as she got. I have always suspected that these experiences persuaded her that she had to come to terms with an electorate in which rightwing fervor was beginning to dominate. She has subsequently seemed to legislate as if she has one ear to the ground, listening for distant tea bag thunder.
What’s interesting, though, is the way she frames her partial surrender to the right in terms that reflect a sense of helplessness. Note that the bottom line in each of the examples below is that there’s not really anything we can do in the face of greed and corruption, so let’s try to eek out a few concessions to make all less horrible:
— One of the justifications McCaskill offered for her early votes against legislation that sought to limit CO2 emissions was that if the United States were to exercise leadership on the issue, it would be a useless gesture since the other guys, in this case China and India, wouldn’t, at least in the opinion of the GOP and Claire McCaskill, follow suit, but would, instead take potetial American jobs for “China and India, where they’ve been putting up coal-fired plants every ten minutes.” No point in fighting the GOP to enact sane climate change policies because, hey, we’re ultimately helpless.
— Keystone XL Pipeline? According to McCaskill, it doesn’t make any difference if it isn’t built. The oil will get to market no matter what we do, so why don’t we go ahead and facilitate TransCanada’s profits and maybe create a pitiful handful of temporary jobs in the process. After all, when it gets down to it we’re helpless in the face of the oil industry which will do what it wants without us or with us.
— In the past McCaskill indicated a willingness to consider reforms to Social Security that might involve raising the eligibility age, or means-testing because somewhere years down the road, there will be shortfalls.Those shortfalls could be easily forestalled by raising the cap on income taxed for Social Security, but, again, those nasty Republicans won’t let us do the reasonable, fair thing and up the revenue stream so let’s give in and do what just what they want right now. It doesn’t do us any good to consider other, better solutions because, ultimately, we’re helpless.
The entire “bipartisan” schtick reeks of the same helplessness. To start with, it’s entirely one-sided. Democrats get to agree with and defend Republican druthers while Republican’s never, ever give an inch.
Our centrist Democrats are not bad people; they actually often come through for us