Offering frequent news and analysis from the majestic Evergreen State and beyond, The Cascadia Advocate is the Northwest Progressive Institute's unconventional perspective on world, national, and local politics.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

The Republican Stages of Grief

First, a couple of words about health care. I had this great post in mind for today about how we should start calling the Public Option the "Kennedy Option", but David Waldman totally stole my thunder, and probably said it better than I would have anyway. It's great framing, right on the heels of George Lakoff's suggestion last week that we should start calling the health care bill the "American Plan", because after all who wants to be seen as unAmerican by voting against it?

So take this new slogan to your local town hall meetings: We want the American Plan with the Kennedy Option!

Speaking of town halls and health care, have you noticed how downright angry the right-wingers seem to be these days? Yes, all the shouting down of meaningful health care reform is just an astroturf effort by the insurance industry, but I don't think the industry's efforts would have generated quite the response they got if there weren't an underlying pool of right-wing anger for them to tap into. Couple that with reports of right-wingers with guns starting to show up at some of these town hall meetings and even at some of President Obama's public appearances, and that's not something we can ignore.

These people are angry.

On the surface, it's pretty scary. But digging down a little, I don't think it's something to get all that alarmed about (well, unless you work for the Secret Service, in which case I hope you're very alarmed about it and taking appropriate measures to deal with it). Here's why.

There's a model of psychological response called the "Five Stages of Grief." It was developed by analyzing the typical emotional responses people have when faced with life-threatening or terminal illness. The pattern is: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance.

This model turns out to apply very, very broadly to anybody's response to unpleasant news of any kind. The more surprising and severe the news, the more severe are the five-stage reactions, and the longer it takes to get through them.

The rest of us saw it coming, but last November, Republicans received what was for them a very surprising piece of very bad news: your fundamental ideology isn't appealing to mainstream Americans anymore.

This is essentially a life-threatening situation for them, as a party and a movement, because it puts their core identity in direct opposition with their very survival. It's a terminal illness, because they're dead either way: if they hold onto their failed identity, the party will die. But if they change their identity, then what they are today will also effectively die.

Response? Straight into the five stages. Last winter and into the spring we saw endless, amusing posturing and finger-pointing within the Republican elite amounting to a whole bunch of denial. The talking heads basically went around for months trying to figure out which individual, flawed Republicans to blame for the party's collective electoral failure. As if to say "Our movement is fine, we just have a few bad apples." They went around looking for scapegoats because they were in denial about the underlying systemic problems with their core ideological identity. (Interestingly, this too ties in with one of Lakoff's central ideas about the inability of the political Right to understand deep, systemic problems with anything, whether it's the environment, the economy, or themselves.)

Now in the summer of 2009, we see denial giving way to anger. The Republicans can now see that they have a problem. A big, ugly, likely-fatal problem. They are, understandably, angry about it. The health insurance industry is savvy enough (or at least, they pay enough to hire sufficiently savvy consultants) to see that they can tap this anger in an attempt to torpedo the very reforms that the majority of Americans are clamoring for. (Interestingly, this is a five-stage response too: the health insurance industry is in deep, deep denial about their need to make meaningful changes to the way they do business, and this astroturf town-hall screaming strategy is how their denial is manifesting.)

I don't know how this whole health care thing is going to turn out (although I hope Larry Wohlgemuth has it right), but I can tell you what's next for the Republicans: Bargaining.

Bargaining is when the Republicans will attempt to cut deals with anyone they see as having the power to fix their problem. People with terminal illnesses often bargain with God to make them better: "let me live, and I promise I'll be good for the rest of my life!" The question in my mind is what form will Republican bargaining take? Who will they plead with to save their political life? It's a puzzle to me, because ultimately there is no higher power--not Obama, not Congressional Democrats--who can save them. Ultimately, they're in charge of their own fate. The Republican Party itself is the only entity with any ability to save the Republican Party.

Actually, I kind of hope they figure that out. Because if they do, it will be endlessly amusing to watch them try to bargain with themselves, looking for a solution by which they can have their cake (keep their existing ideological identity) and eat it too (survive). That's the one combination they can't have.


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