Our first guest is Arash Javanbakht, M.D., a board certified psychiatrist and Director of the Stress, Trauma, and Anxiety Research Clinic at Wayne State University. We discuss his article, “The Matrix is Already Here: Social media promised to connect us, but left us isolated, scared and tribal.”
When it was first introduced, social media seemed to help people connect with each other (as advertised). Over the years, however, social media has constricted people more and more into separate silos or echo-chambers, where others who believe as we do and think as we do are listening/talking only to each other. We are isolated from the views of people who disagree or who are privy to different facts. We spend time with our “tribes” and continually reinforce the same point of view on subjects that matter to us.
At the same time, we are isolated from any alternative viewpoints or any additional facts, and are never challenged to justify our conclusions with pesky facts or modes of analysis. Cognitive dissonance and confirmation bias harden our positions and render us angry at anyone who disagrees.
This is a dangerous place for a democracy to be. From a psychological point of view, it creates anxiety, stress, trauma. It becomes difficult for societies to solve problems together, makes debate over policies impossible (because people aren’t listening to each other), and it clogs up the wheels of the democratic process.
We chat with Ian MacDougall, a lawyer and journalist who has written for many respected publications. We discuss his piece in Pro Publica entitled “The Long Odds Facing Trump’s Attempts to Get State Legislatures to Override Election Results.”
The barriers are high, yes: State legislators and election officials have to ignore the facts, be willing to break the rules (which may entail committing crimes), convince all necessary players to go along, and have their decision upheld in higher-level appeals including the courts. Moreover, 2020 is not 2000 (Bush v. Gore). The Republicans would have to overturn the duly-cast votes in 5 states, not one. So as one state’s officials debate whether to go first, they must know that their efforts (and risk) may not in the end be successful in keeping Trump in the White House.
Some commentators theorize that Pres. Trump doesn’t really expect to be successful with his election-challenging lawsuits. (Trump’s main lawyer recently said this in an interview.) Trump knows that, even with his 3 Supreme Court nominees participating in his case, Chief Justice Roberts is an institutionalist, and other justices care about this as well. They don’t want to take actions that could lead to the Court’s decline in status, legitimacy, or respect. They also know that the Supreme Court’s legitimacy depends upon people accepting its rulings, voluntarily submitting to the rule of law, complying with societal norms. The Court doesn’t have the power of the purse or the sword to enforce compliance.
So if success is not the goal of these election challenges, what is? We think destabilization is the goal. Trump and his Republican enablers want Americans to lose faith in our democratic processes, to believe that Trump’s defeat was unfair and Biden’s presidency is illegitimate, so they will join in 2024 in restoring authoritarian Republican control over our government. And they know that messaging and propaganda are powerful tools. They also know that confirmation bias is an invisible weapon against the kind of truth and rational discussion which are necessary to a democratic system of government.
Thus, we hope that Trump’s seemingly losing battles against the election results will serve as a necessary wake-up call, to alert us to the vulnerability of free and fair elections, and to our duty to guard against the undermining of our precious democratic processes. We hope Americans can learn something from this educational opportunity: What reforms are needed; what guardrails are required to keep democracy safe.