Learned Political Helplessness

Ed at Gin and Tacos makes an excellent point, while describing some recent airline travel woes, about the crapification of, well, everything (boldface mine):

It occurred to me just how much of this kind of satisficing we are bombarded with these days, especially since the Great Recession began in 2008. “Good” is now defined as “better than the worst things could possibly be.” Your boss works you like a dog and pays you terribly? It could be worse! You could have no job at all! Be happy about having a job! Don’t want to vote for a pathetic excuse for a Democrat? Well the GOP is even worse! You paid for something and got shafted? Well be glad XYZ didn’t happen, that’s even worse! You know, because as long as things could conceivably be even worse they are now, by definition, good. Or what passes for good.

It’s like we’ve thrown up our hands collectively and admitted that we have given up on the idea of having anything that’s actually Good in this society and now we simply pick the best of whatever shit options are available and call that Good. Good no longer means Good; it means Better Than. It means you could have it worse.

Obviously I am loopy from making an 12 hour trip out of a 4 hour one, but when I thought (too much) about it I realized just how pervasive this kind of thinking is. In my own life and throughout our culture. We’ve sort of accepted that everything will be at least kind of shitty because, frankly, we’ve ruined most of the things that used to be great about this country far beyond any hope of repair. So we are constantly encouraged with this overarching take-what-you-can-get mentality in the hope that people are dumb enough not to notice that nothing is actually any good anymore. A good candidate is one who is less repugnant than his opponent. A good school is one that is dysfunctional rather than really dysfunctional or physically dangerous. Good customer service is waiting on hold for 45 minutes to have your problem kinda sorta dealt with rather than being completely ignored. A good job is not having no job.

Herbert Simon called this kind of behavior “satisficing”, the tendency not to hold out for the absolute best but instead to set a bar and take the first option that is over it. It’s not inherently a depressing mentality, at least not until you realize how far you have to lower the bar before anything can clear it.

Think I might have made the ‘good’ versus ‘better than’ point once or twice. After Dupont Circle lost power for nearly a day recently, I noted that the D.C. government responded dismally (essentially, it didn’t respond at all). I also noted on the Twitterz that Pepco, on the first snow day of the weather, had the power go down, to which one local policy blogger responded:

I don’t mean to pick on Alpert or Greater Greater Washington (full disclosure: I’ve donated to Greater Greater Washington)–this learned political helplessness is widespread in D.C. It is, as we like to say around here, why we can’t have nice things. It is not acceptable to have a 21 hour power outage that shuts down two major tax revenue generating hubs (14th Street Corridor and Dupont Circle)–we don’t know if this was a fluke or a lack of maintenance (and regulatory oversight). It is not acceptable to have no police presence in completely darkened neighborhoods. It is not acceptable to have no police directing traffic on darkened streets in the absence of traffic lights (Dupont Circle is enough of a nightmare as it is)*. And it is not acceptable on the coldest night of the year to date to have the only available warming center two miles away (when the streets and sidewalks are covered with ice**).

Let’s not even get started on the 40 minutes to 1 hour response time to rescue people from last week’s Metro fire (one death, 86 hospitalizations). Again, this could have been a freak occurrence–or a result of inadequate maintenance–but the response was awful.

Unfortunately, things won’t get better until we realize they can be better. Learned political helplessness means there will be no accountability. And death and hospitalization is not a minor inconvenience.

Anger is the appropriate emotion.

*It’s worth noting that Boston’s Mayor Menino, when faced with a power outage that shut down Back Bay, had generators brought in to power street and sidewalk lights and police on many of the street corners. And Menino didn’t even like the residents of Back Bay.

**This is why cities have to be hard-assed about snow removal. I’ll make it if I need to, but what would an elderly or disabled person do?

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