Are some Democrats suffering from an acute case of learned helplessness?
That’s what positive psychologists call “the phenomenon observed in both humans and other animals when they have been conditioned to expect pain, suffering, or discomfort without a way to escape it.”
It took about five minutes into what seemed like an almost certain Biden-Harris (BH) electoral victory for commentators to start fretting about the future. Here’s the headline to a commentary by Paul Waldman in the Washington Post: “Mitch McConnell’s Senate might be where the Biden presidency goes to die.”
His point was that any major policy initiative proposed by the new administration would have to clear Senator McConnell and his Republican majority. Obviously, that’s a concern. But really…could we not have waited maybe a few more hours, or weeks, to just enjoy this magical moment?
EJ Dionne, thankfully, was more positive. He cautioned us to not “define Biden’s victory down,” and his reminder is a good mantra for well-deserved serenity in advance of real challenges we will face: “it needs to be asserted unequivocally that … Biden’s victory is far more substantial than the conventional take would have it and more revelatory about the future than Donald Trump’s election was four years ago.”
Aside from the fact that many of us have been in a state of traumatic depression since November 2016 and could stand a morale boost, there are fundamental flaws in Waldman’s (and others’) logic. For one thing, Senator McConnell is more likely to negotiate with Joe Biden than he ever was with Barack Obama.
Remember, they’ve known each other a long time (Biden was a member of the Senate for 36 years), and so far at least there’s no recording of McConnell declaring the kind of animosity — cheered on by vile birther fanatics and other racists — he harbored against 44 (“the single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president…”).
Second, there is plenty Biden-Harris can do that won’t require full-blown legislative authority. As their team has already announced, they are planning to start with executive orders — reversing some of the worst ones from the Trump years and issuing some smart new ones.
For example, it has been reported that the new administration may move quickly to reenter the Paris climate agreement, reverse the ban on Muslim immigration, revive the Iran nuclear deal, restore protections of federal lands and resuscitate the civil service. Regardless of what one thinks of the merits of those actions, the point is they won’t depend on McConnell’s limited and ferociously self-serving sense of the public good.
Similarly, reversing the executive order on “gainful employment” rules in the for-profit college sector, extending student loan repayments especially as relief during the pandemic, reversing the ban on racial sensitivity training and extending the waiver on accountability testing in k-12 while most schools are still closed, would be registered as early and important wins.
Third, depending on what happens in the Georgia runoffs, there is a chance the Senate may actually flip, in which case big-ticket policy initiatives in education and other areas could get moving more quickly.
But regardless of who is in the majority in the Senate in January, a major infrastructure bill to fix roads and bridges and create millions of jobs, serious economic stimulus/relief as we come out of the pandemic, and of course major spending on vaccine development and distribution are possibilities that even McConnell would likely endorse.
The Biden-Harris administration will come to office with an ambitious agenda, backed by a popular vote that has broken historical records. Education is one area where bipartisan consensus seems more possible than many others. Raising taxes to fund a big boost in Title 1 funds, helping poor kids afford college and other campaign promises must be pursued; but they will require careful pacing.
In place of heading immediately into the buzzsaw of partisan drama and stalemate, the new administration might use the time for concurrent domestic and international “listening and repairing” tours.
The president and vice-president should visit places and talk to people who are hurting and feeling left behind by the coastal elites; the global tour could start in European capitals where bells have been ringing to welcome the U.S. back to the world, and would include Africa, Asia, the Middle East and Latin America, where tensions are more complicated.
Building a foundation of trust and civil discourse — maybe our most important “infrastructure” — will reap immense returns to our general welfare and the sustainability of our democracy.
As President-elect Biden has said, this is a time for healing. As he and Vice President-elect Harris prepare to take office, let’s get past our LH (learned helplessness) and look forward to many good years of BH (building and healing).
Michael Feuer is dean of the Graduate School of Education and Human Development at the George Washington University, and immediate past president of the National Academy of Education. The views expressed here are his own and do not reflect positions of either GW or the NAEd.
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