In 1969, Dr. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross published a groundbreaking book, On Death and Dying, suggesting that people facing death went through five emotional stages before they could accept their fate. While never proven by subsequent studies, the five stages of grief have entered the realm of conventional wisdom and are often cited to explain the behavior of groups, as well as individuals, facing a life-threatening crisis. The actions of Republicans, and their conservative supporters, in attempting to disrupt Town Hall discussions of President Obama’s health care reform proposal suggests that the concept is alive and kicking in politics as well.
According to Kubler-Ross, the first stage in dealing with impending doom is to deny it’s happening. We witnessed this behavior in the immediate aftermath of the Democrats’ overwhelming victory last November. Republicans reacted almost identically to the way Democrats did after Ronald Reagan’s victory in 1980. The election results were attributed to poor campaign tactics by the loser, or the failure to develop a winning message by the campaign’s media strategists, or a plot by reporters to ensure the victory of the winning candidate, if for no other reason than to give them something new to write about. In the classic words of death deniers throughout history, Republican leaders continued to insist well into January 2009 that they “felt fine” and the results had “nothing to do with me”--the Republican party and its message. The only thing that was about to die, we heard GOP leaders like Rush Limbaugh and Michael Steele assert, was the muddled attempt at moderation by Senator John McCain and the failure of their party to adhere to its most conservative principles.
The second stage of grief according to On Death and Dying is anger, and this summer the Republican Party and its minions have clearly moved beyond denial to anger. Enraged mobs of extraordinarily well informed “average” citizens have descended on Democratic Town Hall meetings to demand that their Representative not follow Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s party line and instead vote against specific provisions of health care legislation that would, for instance, incent the writing of living wills, or substitute the judgment of health insurers for that of objective government entities on what treatments would be allowed based on their cost effectiveness. Above all the evil of government involvement in the health care system is to be labeled for what it is—the work of the devil, who is clearly a socialist, through his agents in the U.S. Congress. The fact that many of those most vociferous in their opposition to government supported health care are carrying their sacred Medicare card in their wallet is only ironic if you ignore the degree to which anger and denial are related emotions. In fact, Kubler-Ross points out that people often oscillate between those stages before moving on. This makes the denial of Barack Obama’s Hawaiian birth by many of these same angry protesters understandable, if not any more credible.
So what can the country expect once the Republican Party moves on to the next stage of dealing with the demise of its former electoral dominance? According to Kubler-Ross, the third stage of grief is “bargaining.” Here the individual or group hopes that it can at least postpone or delay death by promising to reform or turn over a new leaf. There are already early signs in the writings of Peggy Noonan, President Reagan’s speechwriter, that this next stage is coming to the fore. She suggests that if only President Obama would rethink the broad scope of his proposals and join in true bipartisan negotiations, Republicans in Congress would support a bill that leaves most of today’s health care system in place but without the nasty practices of denying health coverage to those with pre-existing conditions or canceling people’s insurance at the first sign that they might actually need medical treatment. The country can expect to hear more such offers from Republicans this fall when Congress returns and the real bargaining over the scope of health care reform takes place. But the party’s past misdeeds in building a majority coalition based on the racist premise of its Southern Strategy or its failure to appeal to the civic beliefs and attitudes of the emerging Millennial Generation or its most recent decision to sacrifice its future among Hispanics by voting against the nomination of Justice Sonia Sotomayor, make any such offer a fool’s bargain. The demise of GOP dominance is inevitable and Democrats should take no part in postponing the inevitable.
If congressional Democrats have the courage to use their majority to pass health care legislation and then go to the voters with an economy on the mend, the 2010 elections should serve to move Republicans to the fourth stage of grief—depression. Suffering from a series of unexpected and unexplainable defeats, Republicans are likely to go off on a prolonged period of silence, punctuated by bouts of crying over just how unfair politics has become. Kubler-Ross suggests that it is important not to try and cheer up the person in this stage of grief, but to let the individual work his or her way through the inevitable depression on their own. That way, her book says, the dying can finally come to the final stage of grief—acceptance.
This stage represents the end of the struggle and a willingness to accept one’s fate. The Republican Party as we have known it since 1968 will die for lack of political support. It may not accept that fate until after President Obama’s re-election, by a landslide, in 2012 just as the Democratic Party’s New Deal liberals did not accept their fate until after Ronald Reagan’s complete demolition of Walter Mondale’s candidacy in 1984. Still the end is inevitable, as many of today’s leading thinkers in the GOP are beginning to realize.
But Republicans can take heart in what Democrats were able to do after reaching the clarity of mind that comes with accepting one’s fate. By recognizing the death of its old ideas and rethinking their approach to the electorate after their landslide defeat in 1984, the Democrats eventually found a new road to victory—tentatively in 1992 with Bill Clinton and then more confidently with Obama’s victory in 2008. At that rate the GOP only has to wait until 2020 to have its next real shot at winning the presidency. If Republicans want to get to that goal sooner, psychologists might suggest that they move quickly out if their “summer of anger” phase, don’t bargain or obstruct too much over health care or anything else when Congress returns, and get ready for a good cry in 2010. Even better, such a course of therapy will improve the rest of the country’s mental health as well.