Learned Optimism and Grasshoppers

Yesterday I was reminded of an old experiment – one that sheds light on important aspects of the Republican strategy and how we fight it.

The experiment involves a Mason jar and a grasshopper.

Maybe you unwittingly ran this experiment yourself as a kid, but if not, here’s how it goes.

You place (gently, of course) a grasshopper in the jar and secure the lid.

The poor thing will jump around like mad to try to get out.

At least, for a while.

Eventually (after banging its head a few times) it stops.

That’s when you lift the lid.

Now, you’d think that upon seeing the open sky the grasshopper would leap right out of the jar, wouldn’t you?

But usually it doesn’t.

Not because it can’t.

Because it won’t.

It learned that when it jumps, it doesn’t get anywhere. And so, it stops trying.

That’s what learned helplessness is all about.

Back in the ’60s and ’70s, a psychologist and researcher named Martin Seligman was part of the team that “discovered” learned helplessness. He studied it pretty extensively – and one of his most famous experiments involved people who were subjected to a loud, annoying noise.

One group could shut off the noise with a button. The second group’s button wouldn’t turn off the noise – no matter how many times they pushed it. A third group (the control group) didn’t hear anything.

Later (usually the next day) all three groups would be in another situation involving noise. This time, to turn it off all they’d have to do is move their hands about 12 inches. The people in the first and third group would figure it out pretty quickly.

But most of the folks in the second group – the learned helplessness group – didn’t even try. They had learned that “resistance is futile.”

Note that I said “most of the folks” in the second group.

Because about a third of the people and animals in these experiments never become helpless.

So Seligman spent the next 15 years figuring out why that is. What is it about this subset of creatures that make them so resilient?

It’s another learned trait. Optimism.

When people have an explanatory style that’s optimistic, they tend to interpret setbacks as temporary, local, and changeable. As he puts it, these folks explain situations to themselves by saying – “It’s going away quickly; it’s just this one situation; I can do something about it.”

It’s when people feel like there’s no end in sight, that it’s a pervasive problem, and there’s nothing they can do about their situation that they … stop trying.

Why on earth am I talking about grasshoppers and psychologists?

Because the GOP has fine tuned learned helplessness, and Democrats have unwittingly helped them.

Across the country there are state legislative and congressional districts that have been completely left behind – either uncontested or underfunded. They’re gerrymandered to the hilt by Republicans armed with super sophisticated software that slices and dices voters to make it near impossible for a Democrat to win.

That’s bad enough. But then we’re told (by Democrats who are boasting about their “strategy”) that those districts are “unwinnable,” or a “waste of resources,” or “not a priority.” So funds don’t go to those districts. Democrats often don’t even run nominees in those districts.

First it was just one cycle. Then two. Now we’re decades into huge swaths of the country having learned that there’s nothing they can do about their situation. So why even try?

Republicans absolutely love this result, as you can imagine.

It makes it possible for them to do literally anything they want. Expel Democrats from the state legislature? Why not! Ban abortion? Sure! Defund public schools? Of course! Make voting even harder to make people even more depressed and helpless? You betcha…

The list is endless.

When there are no repercussions – in part because they’ve made people believe there’s nothing they can do to stop them – they’re limited only by their own imaginations.

But back to the good news. Learned helplessness is learned. So is learned optimism.

It’s easy to reverse – if we all work together to make sure there are Democrats fighting in every district. That’s why it’s so important for those of us in blue districts and states to roll up our sleeves and help the red districts that seem “unwinnable.”

They’re only unwinnable because we’ve stopped trying. We can change that, right now. You can change that, right now.

Friends, Republicans want you to be blind to your power. They want you to settle into the learned helplessness mindset that “rural America is too red,” or “that district is too far gone.”

Because they’d really rather you just … get tired.

Get tired of trying. Get tired of pushing.

Get tired of the tough work so you’ll stop doing it, already.

They want us to give up – to be content to sit in the middle of the Mason jar and stop jumping around so much.

I’m not willing to give them the satisfaction. I’ll bet you’re not either.

So let’s work together and lift the #$%^ lid off of the Mason jar, already.

Let’s get to work.

Actions for the Week of April 11, 2023

Let’s Turn Every State Blue

So you want to make sure Democrats fight everywhere? There’s no better way to show it than to provide them with resources and show you’ve got their back.

As you no doubt know, I’ve dedicated my life/time/sanity to building communities that ensure every Democratic state legislative nominee has resources. Under the umbrella organization Every State Blue, we now have projects in Ohio, Texas, and Missouri. We collectively fund Democratic nominees using a “bottom up bathtub” method, funding those nominees who have the fewest resources first.

100% of our members’ donations go to the nominees (we rely upon tips and generous donations from folks like you to sustain our efforts). (The exception is Texas, where 50% of the funds go to Power The Vote’s permanent voter protection programs and 50% to the nominees.)

If you’d like to make a one-time donation to Every State Blue to help us spread the word in Ohio, Texas, and Missouri, click here: https://secure.actblue.com/donate/everystate

Here’s where you can become a member of each project:




We have great meetings monthly that are run/led by people you know – David Pepper and Jessica Piper for starters.

If you want to help folks in red districts feel optimistic, join one (or all three!) today.

TONIGHT! Join PA Dems to Expand Dems’ Lead (H/T Rogan’s List!)

There is a Special Election for Pennsylvania State Rep in HD 163 on Tuesday, May 16th.

Join Turn PA Blue’s Zoom phone bank TONIGHT AT 6-8PM EST to reach out to Democrats to request and then chase mail-in ballots. This is a specific Vote By Mail phone bank – you’re going to be targeting Democrats in your calls, so it should be a friendly audience. Let’s protect that Democratic majority!

Training & support is provided during every phone bank! https://www.mobilize.us/turnpablue/event/556705/

MO Folks: Tell Your State Senator to Restore Library Funding

The Missouri House approved a budget that strips funding from Missouri Libraries – literally zeroing out their budget – to retaliate for a lawsuit the Missouri Library Association brought due to the book bans.

The Missouri constitution quite literally mandates funding for public libraries. By not funding them, the legislature is acting unconstitutionally.

The public libraries most heavily impacted will be rural, small-town libraries that rely on this funding and matching federal funding to stay afloat. Without state funding they would lose both the state and federal funding and would have to rely upon their dwindling tax base to stay open. In many rural areas, those libraries are the places where kids can get access to the internet/wifi.

We need to reach out to our Missouri state senators to demand that they put the $4.5 million of critical funding BACK in the budget. The MLA has made that easy. Go here: https://molib.wildapricot.org/

Or you can just call them – find out who your State Senator is here: https://www.senate.mo.gov/LegisLookup/Default

The results will give you the name and telephone number of your state senator.

Script: Hi, my name is __ and I’m calling from __. I’m calling because the House approved budget zeroed out public library funding. I’m shocked they would do that to constituents – especially kids. I want to make sure our libraries get the resources they need and that my taxes pay for. I’m urging the Senator to support library funding. What is her/his position?

Oh, Clarence

This past week Pro Publica published a report that Clarence Thomas has been traveling the world with Republican mega-donor Harlan Crow. During those trips he’s been elbow-to-elbow with people who regularly appear before the Court. Of course, Justice Thomas did not disclose any of those trips on his financial disclosures. It’s a massive conflict of interest.

The Supreme Court polices itself, which – as is readily apparent – is a problem. We need reform to get accountability.

There is something we can do. In fact, legislation has already been proposed: S.359 and H.R.926 – the Supreme Court Ethics, Recusal, and Transparency Act.

These bills would require adoption of ethics rules – and require that Justices adhere to at least the minimum gift/disclosure rules as Congress. You can read a bill summary HERE.

Call your Senators and your Representative and ask them to cosponsor this bill – and if they’re not willing to, find out why not. Just as we need to know the entanglements of the people who write our laws, we need to know the entanglements of the people who interpret them.


If you’d like to sign up to get this pep talk and action list in your in-box each week, you can do that here. Welcome, friend!

Thank you for reading. Thank you for writing. I read and respond to every e-mail. (Really! I really do!) We’re in this together. Don’t you forget it.

P.S.: If you want to help support this work you can do so via Patreon at
https://www.patreon.com/smalldeedsdone or via paypal at https://www.paypal.me/smalldeeds
My deepest gratitude in advance.

P.P.S: Why don’t you make someone’s day and send this pep talk to a friend or two? I bet they need it.

P.S.: If you want to help support this work you can do so via Patreon at
https://www.patreon.com/smalldeedsdone or via paypal at https://www.paypal.me/smalldeeds
My deepest gratitude in advance.

P.P.S: Why don’t you make someone’s day and send this pep talk to a friend or two? I bet they need it.

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