In 1967 animal researchers conducted an interesting experiment. Two sets of dogs were strapped into harnesses and subjected to a series of shocks. The dogs were placed in the same room.
The first set of dogs was allowed to perform a task--pushing a panel with their snouts--in order to avoid the shocks. As soon as one dog mastered the shock-avoidance technique, his comrades followed suit.
The second group, on the other hand, was placed out of reach from the panel. They couldn't stop the pain. But they watched the actions of the first set.
Then both groups of dogs were subjected to a second experiment. If they jumped over a barrier, the dogs quickly learned, the shocks would stop. The dogs belonging to the first set all did it.
But the second-set dogs were too psychologically scarred to help themselves. "When shocked, many of them ran around in great distress but then lay on the floor and whimpered," wrote Russell A. Powell, Diane G. Symbaluk and P. Lynne Honey in Introduction to Learning and Behavior. "They made no effort to escape the shock. Even stranger, the few dogs that did by chance jump over the barrier, successfully escaping the shock, seemed unable to learn from this experience and failed to repeat it on the next trial. In summary, the prior exposure to inescapable shock seemed to impair the dogs' ability to learn to escape shock when escape became possible."
The decrease in learning ability caused by unavoidable punishment leads to a condition called "learned helplessness."
Which brings us to the midterm elections.
Battered and bruised, with no apparent way out, the American electorate has plunged into a political state of learned helplessness. They've voted Democratic to punish rapacious Republicans. They've voted Republican to get rid of do-nothing Democrats. They've tried staying home on Election Day. Nothing they do helps their condition. They're flailing.