Saturday, October 23, 2010

America's Collective Memory Lapse

Approaching the mid-term elections in the United States, it appears that the American electorate is having difficulty remembering what actually happened during the Bush years. As a result, Americans risk making an electoral choice that, given recent circumstances, could be very detrimental to the population at large.

Just two short years ago, the electorate turned its back on what could be described as the worst period in American politics during the last fifty years and elected a Democrat for President and at the same time gave control of the US Congress to the Democrats.

Yet, two years later, the same electorate is prepared to give back effective control of the Congress to the Republicans, which will effectively undo what was accomplished in the 2008 election.

Within this context, the question that needs to be asked is: “how is it that Americans can change their minds so quickly”?

The answer is that going into the mid-term elections America is experiencing a collective memory lapse.

As you know, a memory lapse is the inability to recall information when we want or need to. For example, it’s normal to forget the name of someone who we haven’t seen for a while, as well for a phone number that we don’t call often. When this happens, it may cause a minor inconvenience, but the consequences of this type of memory failure aren’t serious.

However, this is not true if we forget where we parked the car, or worse yet, where do we live. In either case, such a memory loss could have dire consequences, especially if we had to respond to an emergency at home.

In a similar vein, the inability to recall what happened during the Bush years could also have dire consequences for Americans, because by giving back control of the Congress to the Republicans, the US risks creating a situation where no meaningful response to America’s considerable economic woes can emerge for at least another two years.

What I find extremely interesting is how this collective memory block has been created socially.

The first element leading to the creation of this memory lapse involves the acceleration of time that occurs as a result of being constantly bombarded by information. Keeping up with all of this messaging requires more and more of our attention. Our brains are continually focusing on processing new information so that we have little time or energy to remember the past, especially when it’s not immediate and it contains elements of complexity.

In a sense, we become prisoners of our compulsion to constantly be in the now.

Second, a block can occur when we become focused on what has happened in the recent past so that we can’t recall what happened previously in the mid and long term. In the context of the American mid-term elections, many people are emotionally blocked over the disappointment that Obama hasn’t lived up to the impossible task of meeting the projected hopes that significant change in America could come quickly. Having been engaged in a type of magical thinking, these Americans have had their bubble burst and in the aftershock they are unable to move beyond their feelings of disappointment in order to, for example, reconnect with their previous feelings of anger of having been lied to by the Bush administration.

Finally, from a communications perspective, the right wing in the US has mounted a hugely successful campaign to erase from the collective memory any wrong doings that could be attributed to the Bush years. Essentially, the rise of the Tea Party movement diverts the collective memory of the American people away from its recent past of Republican rule and brings to mind the ideological conflict of the distant past, all the while evoking the patriotic feelings associated with the founding fathers.

In doing so, the short-term narrative of the Democrats trying to fix the serious problems left behind by the Republicans is replaced by the long running narrative centered on the perpetual dispute in the US over the size and role of the federal government. Within this narrative frame, the Democrats become the culprits since they are the ones trying to impose big government solutions upon problems that were caused by big government in the first place.

What is lost in the recollection -- and this is exactly the point of the exercise -- is that the Republicans are as much a political party that embraces big government as the Democrats. They just do it differently. In other words, the right wing has largely succeeded in reframing the political debate in the present so to change to their advantage how the past is to be remembered.

And where is the American electorate in all of this?

I would say between a rock and a hard place. Unable to recall its recent past, it will stumble forward like a drunk with a bad hangover, knowing that something significant happened last night, but not being able to remember the important details.


  1. Hey Brian -- I started to read the collective memory blog, then I got to your video, and realized if I wanted to read on, which I did, I would have to stop and listen to the video. I would like to have the option, since I read quite quickly, and listening to the video slowed down the excvitement of the ideas for me. Can we have the two options available?

  2. My oh my, someone who prefers to read rather than watch the video. The next thing you'll probably tell me is that you still read books. ;-)

    No problem, I can post the text so that you can have the choice.


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