How Social Collapse Happens — And Why Americans Feel So Powerless to Stop It
I’m going to be ruthlessly honest with you. And tell you what I see when I look at America. It’s the understatement of the 21st century to say that America’s in bad shape. It’s collapsing — economically, socially, politically, democratically. And that collapse is more horrifically visible every single day, in the fascist massacres, the fanatical Supreme Court, the attacks on women, the scapegoating of gays.
How did America get here? And where can it go from here?
There’s a question my friends ask me, baffled. European ones, Asian ones, Australian ones, from every corner of the globe. “Why don’t they do something about it?” They’re bewildered. Genuinely, truly, to the bottom of their hearts. When I put that question to Americans, on the other hand, the responses come back, weary with exasperation, furious, desperate. “What canwe do? We’re powerless!”
Meanwhile, there’s a question my American and European friends both ask, horrified. “Why don’t the Democrats fight?” That doesn’t mean Trump’s “fight like hell” — lead a bloody coup of armed militants storming Congress. It just means do something. For God’s sake, anything. Anyone vaguely sane knew that Roe was going to fall at the hands of lunatics so fanatical that, for example, one of Trump’s Justices belongs to a fundamentalist sect where women were literally called Handmaids and take a vow of submission to men — when I tell my European friends that, they’re aghast. Their jaws drop. We all knew it was coming. Not least because it was &%*ing leaked.
And yet the Dems didn’t…do anything. Expand the court, codify women’s rights into law, push, even for new Constitutional Amendments to strengthen even more robust rights for all. Nothing.
They just waited for the axe to fall. On everyone’s goddamned neck. Especially women. And then, as democracy was getting decapitated, right then, they cried out, “Will no one stop this? Give us money! Vote for us!!” LOL. It’s ridiculous, and both my American and European friends are correct to ask, in horrified despair, why the **** the Dems don’t do a-n-y-thing.
So why don’t they? You see, both these question are the same question — but let me come back to that. There are many answers that are offered. The cynical view is that the Dems don’t do anything because of money — but come on now, would you sell your country to fascists? They can’t all be in it just for the money. And it’s not even a lot of money. It’s hardly Bill Gates level money. It’s more like Vice-President-at-Google-level money. Buy a nice house somewhere, and maybe a sports car. Hardly the stuff of being remembered forever as the quisling who sold out your democracy.
Look at the Dems for a moment. What are they always doing? They engage in a seriously weird and ultra revealing pattern of behavior. Over and over again. They second guess themselves. And then, fearing the worst, they sabotage themselves. We can only give wrist slaps to the Jan 6th terrorists — and yes, they were terrorists — otherwise, we might set them off. We can’t really abolish the filibuster — what if we need it one day? Wait, isn’t democracy ending now?
The pattern is always the same. Second-guessing and self-sabotage. To an extreme, surreal degree. The Democrats are like the guys who stand there arguing over the laws of gravity while a giant anvil’s dropping from the sky…right on their heads. They’re like the guys who try to appease the Minotaur with the blood of virgins, instead of slaying the beast, and then wonder why everyone rolls their eyes at them. Maybe you see my point. They quiver in a certain special kind of paralytic fear — one made of catastrophization.
There’s a term for that pattern of thinking. Do you know what it is? Learned helplessness. Think of what happens to the poor, poor dogs who were “studied” to discover this psychological phenomenon. Anytime — any time — they took a step outside their little square in the corner, they were given a shock. What happened to them? Even when the shock machine was turned off, the poor things cowered in the corner, afraid to venture out. They would literally starve to death. Damn those experimenters, by the way, because, well, every creature’s life matters. But I digress.
Doesn’t that sound exactly like the Dems? Eerily and precisely?
Learned helplessness, I’ve come to believe, explains how America got into such dire straits. Before you object, let me continue my story.
The dogs in these experiments had been conditioned. These were Skinnerian experiments, done in the heyday of behaviorism. The dogs were conditioned in a certain way: to lose all belief and confidence and trust in themselves. In their will and potency. To the point that — remember — even when the shock machine had been turned off, they wouldn’t even move. In plain English, the dogs had been broken. Inside. Their minds had been destroyed and their spirits ravaged. How terrible. Say a prayer for them.
Now think about the Democrats. They, too, act conditioned. They assume that they can’t do anything, which is really why they don’t. If you don’t believe me, think about it. Ask a Dem why they don’t do anything, and you’ll get a million explanations. Excuses. They won’t stop talking. They’ll give you reason after reason why — the Republicans will retaliate, we don’t know how, this won’t work, we don’t have the votes for that, that’s a pipe dream, what if this happens, what if that happens, oh we’re definitely not strong enough to do that, that’s impossible.
They really believe it. They really believe that if they step outside their little square — zap! They’ll get shocked. Just like the dogs. And so they’re just sitting there, starving to death.
How did the Democrats get conditioned to believe that? Think about American history. What happened to the center and left? From the 1960s onwards, something peculiar and terrible did, which Americans barely remember. And aren’t even taught was a thing.
One after the other, the leaders of the center and left were killed. They were literally assassinated by the fanatical right. JFK. MLK. Various civil rights leaders. Right down to John Lennon, who, of course, sang about world peace, and hey, the fascists couldn’t have that.
If you don’t believe me, look at the list above. Medgar Evers, NAACP field secretary, assassinated by a Klansman in 1963. James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner, Racial Equality field workers, killed by the KKK in 1964. Viola Liuzzo, civil rights activist, shot by the KKK in 1965. Fred Hampton, Chairman of the Blank Panther Party, shot by the Chicago Police in 1969. Alan Berg, Jewish attorney, killed by the Aryan Resistance movement in 1984. The list goes on, and on, and on.
Bang, bang, bang.
The American center and left was conditioned this way. And any good form of conditioning involves the subject not even knowing it as conditioning. The dogs didn’t know they were being conditioned — and neither did, do, the Dems. But that is exactly what happened. They were being taught a lesson. Cross us, the fanatical right, and you’ll suffer. We’ll make you hurt. With very, very real violence. Lethal violence. We’ll beat you. We’ll kill you.
Don’t cross us.
Americans, like I said, barely remember this story. They remember MLK, sometimes, and JFK, barely — but they don’t seem to grasp that the right systematically slaughtered the center and left’s leaders. To the point of annihilation. So there were none left. And that was done for a reason. To teach a lesson. To condition. Don’t cross us ever again.
The lesson, sadly, was learned. Learned through forgetting, because that is how true conditioning happens. Forget the terrible abuse you suffered — and just internalize the lesson that you’re worthless, powerless, and helpless.
Are you seeing my point a little bit?
When we say, in rage, despair, numb with fury and bewilderment, “why don’t the Dems do anything?” we only ask the question because we all know they can. We all know that Joe Biden can, with a literal stroke of his pen, cancel student debt, allow reproductive healthcare in federal buildings in Red States, that together, the Dems can still expand the courts and reform all sorts of broken institutions. Yet they do nothing, which is infuriating to the point of boiling one’s blood because we all know they’re not powerless.
So why do they act like they are helpless? Because they’ve learned it. They’ve internalized the abusive lesson of their own powerlessness, through decades of violence. Like the dogs, they’ve learned their own helplessness.
Just like those poor dogs, they sit there quivering in fear, overthinking everything, second-guessing themselves, self-sabotaging, to the point of starvation. These behaviors the Dems display are the literal hallmarks of learned helplessness.
But the same holds true for Americans. Remember when my European friends ask: “but why don’t Americans do anything?” And my American friends offer a litany of explanations, which are mostly excuses.
Yes, the Senate really is skewed. Yes, the electoral college is lopsided. Yes, there are millions of fanatics. Yes, Fox News exists and it radicalizes people. But a truer truth still remains. If the 70% of Americans who back things like rights for women and gay people and kids being able to read books and lunatics not being able to buy weapons of war actually went out and really demanded that society…nothing could stop them. How so? Even a skewed Senate is no match for 70 to 80% of people. Even a lopsided electoral college isn’t. Nothing is.
Imagine a seesaw. On one side is an angry…I don’t know…rat, squealing and screeching. He’s making a lot of noise. On the other side is a huge elephant. He’s cowering in fear. He’s been told his whole life that he’s powerless. He’s worthless. He can’t fight for himself. He’s no match for the rat. Look how loud the rat is! See how much noise that little goddamned guy is making?
But all the elephant has to do is…jump on the seesaw. And he’ll send the rat flying into the next zip code. Wheee — what the hell…was that a flying rat, Buford?
Maybe you see my point.
What do Americans do when you ask them The Question? “Why don’t you do anything?” They do exactly the same thing as the Dems. They quiver in fear. Second guess themselves. Overthink everything. Catastrophize. Assume they can’t. And by doing all that, they self sabotage. They’ve learned their own helplessness, too.
My European friends, baffled, say things like, “But why don’t they strike? A general strike would shut down the country overnight!” or “But why do they keep backing figures like Joe Biden instead of Liz Warren or Bernie when it counts, and then lament later?” or “But why do they let the fanatics take over the local offices?”
They have a point. In fact, they have point after point. My American friends, when asked these questions, offer what sound a whole like what my grandma, Lord rest her dear soul, would sternly look askance at you and then call, deadpan, “excuses.” Is a general strike hard? Of course it is. But guess what, corporate America doesn’t exactly like the fascists either. Disney? Apple? Even Google? Hello, America, corporate America is on your side in this battle. Go right ahead and strike. Why the [insert silent scream by the entire rest of the world here] don’t you?
Are the Senate and electoral college lopsided? Sure they are. Did certain of the last few Presidents lose the popular vote, and then smugly strut into power anyways, because of the electoral college? Yes, they did. The answer to that problem isn’t: give up and stop and cry into your beer. It’s: even more of the sane 70% to 80% have to get serious and strike and protest and lobby and vote when and where it matters, and then the problem will be solved. Even America’s lopsided institutions can’t hold back those numbers. Remember the elephant and the seesaw?
Learned helplessness, I’ve come to believe, explains much of American collapse. It’s a sad and terrible thing. Americans have to begin to understand themselves that way. That their powerlessness and sense of impotence is a fiction. What’s the point of the insane firehose of propaganda that greets them now? The point isn’t just to persuade the idiots to believe in the Big Lies. It’s to convince the sane, thoughtful 70–80% that they’re impotent. The propaganda is there to create the learned helplessness.
Let me give you an example, so you really believe me. One of the answers Americans give, in despair, to why they don’t do anything, is “but Fox News!” They really believe that Fox News is a gigantic monster on a scale much, much, much bigger than it really is. Do you know what Fox’s average daily viewership is? 1.5 million people. LOL. That’s the size of…my blog sometimes. It’s literally nothing. See what I mean? The helplessness is learned. It’s a fiction. Created. Manufactured. To keep people scared and afraid. Of ever doing anything.
Life is unfair. The mature, adult mind? It doesn’t simper and sulk in the corner over that bitter truth. Nor does it join the dark side, and become the agent of malignancy, exploitation, hate, and dominance. It acts. To make life less unfair. This mindset is the opposite of learned helplessness. Call it whatever you like. Courage, grace, decency, truth, goodness.
Americans need to rediscover their power. The good news is that they’re not nearly as powerless as they think. The bad news is that first they have to stop thinking of themselves that way — and after decades of conditioning? That’s much easier said than done. Remember what happened to the dogs? Once their spirits were broken, they were done for. They never rediscovered the will to fight, to live, to take one step outside the square they’d been shocked to believe was all they could ever inhabit. Will Americans step foot outside the prison of the mind, soul, and spirit that their abusers have built for them, either — realizing that it’s bars aren’t made of metal, but only of fear? Let us hope, my friends. Let us hope.