by Jean Stimmell
Twenty-five years of psychological research has proven how easy it is, by the process of suggestion, to get individuals to believe in things that never happened: In these experiments, “we see that people can come to believe that they were lost or that they took a hot air balloon ride or spilled punch on the parents of a bride at a wedding.1 Remarkably, even after being told that the memory is false, participants tend to keep on believing it.
Research shows how even family members growing up together can have different memories of the same event, sometimes radically different. In well-functioning families, dissimilar individual memories become blended into a master narrative that changes over time as circumstances change. Psychologist Coman at Princeton University tells us such memory convergence boosts group cohesion, by empowering self-worth and sense of belonging to a greater whole.2
Governments require the same group cohesion to function well. When I was growing up in the 1950s, our country had this bond: we were united, proud to be Americans. By saying that, I’m not suggesting that America in the 1950s was necessarily fair or equal, just that a large majority was on the same page.
Those of us growing up at that time were deeply idealistic. We, of course, became known as the sixties generation, and contrary to an unfair stereotype, loved our country. I remember how affected we were by JFK’s speech, challenging each of us to contribute in some way to the public good: “Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country,” The turmoil we caused in the 1960s was an expression of that idealism: We protested, not to tear things down but to demand that our government live up to its founding ideals.
Obviously, our nation has lost that optimistic idealism. One big reason is the nature of the news. Back in the day, the media was, for most, a single reality: most families got their news in the evening on one of three networks, all basically saying the same thing. Now social media has proliferated like the profusion of dandelions seeds from a single plant floating off into the air, dispersing a vast assortment of progeny, far and wide.
As psychologists have proven, it is so easy, by the power of suggestion, to convince folks that something happened that didn’t. Social media has blossomed to be a major accelerator of this process. If we add to the mix, Trump’s fake news, we have a perfect storm.
While all politicians sometimes fib, Trump takes the cake, lying at least 30,000 times during his presidency. Before that, when running for president, he bombarded the Democrats and Hillary Clinton with fake claims. Reputable sources like Kathleen Jamieson, a professor of communications at the University of Pennsylvania, concludes that the barrage of Trump lies amplified by Russian meddling “very likely” swung the election to him.3
But Trump’s most dangerous lie isn’t his alone but a long-time Republican talking point, that is scornful of JFK’s positive view of government. The turning point came with Ronald Reagan’s inaugural address in 1981 when he laid down the gauntlet to Democrats, declaring that “Government is not the solution to our problem, government is the problem.”
The Republicans were on a roll. Grover Norquist followed up this offensive against government with this infamous bombshell: “I don’t want to abolish government. I simply want to reduce it to the size where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub.”
Considering all the factors I have listed, no wonder we are in disarray, unable to achieve a consensual narrative as to who we are as a nation. Divided into factions, we have become a dysfunctional family, consisting of individual factions like narcissistic children, all vying for control. It can’t last. Without a functioning government, we climb a ladder to nowhere.
One thing is clear. While we may have many different agendas, we all must support our democratic form of government and work to make it better and stronger – not drown it in a bathtub.