Conservatism: A Death in the Family

Swiss psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, in her 1969 book On Death and Dying, proposed a series of emotional stages experienced by survivors of an intimate’s death. They are denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. They don’t always occur in that precise sequence, but it is the most common. I think that this model may help explain the turmoil among Republicans while choosing their Presidential candidate for 2016. And if I am right, it might help predict how it will eventually turn out.

Republican political fortunes have risen markedly since Obama’s first election. They have a firm grip on the House of Representatives and have captured a modest hold on the Senate. Across the country they control most State Houses and State legislatures. This was accomplished through great effort and the promise of real change to come. But at the national level, hopes of a new conservative millennium have been repeatedly dashed. Of course, political realities made many of these hopes unrealistic. Obamacare was never going to be repealed while the Democrats have a breath left. And arcane Senate rules aid an obstructive minority, as Republicans themselves well know from the near past when they had that role. Nevertheless, to their political supporters everywhere, it must seem like the death of fervent hopes for our nation’s future. This forms the basis of my analogy.

Conservatives, by which I mean essentially all Republicans at present, are in the early stages of grief in the Kübler-Ross model. The first reaction, denial, showed up as dismay when each effort to enact legislation or to thwart Obama’s executive decisions came to naught. They continued to think that just doing it again might do the trick. Some leaders, like Ted Cruz, saw that this was fruitless, but for a long time his was a voice in the wilderness.


I believe that they have now entered the second stage, anger. They look for whom to blame and search for new leaders, in and out of office. Perhaps – they think – none of those in charge can be trusted to follow through on their promises. Thus, we have the current rise of the outsider. The anger is so palpable that seriously flawed candidates like Trump and Carson can still attract strong support. Voters want to tear down the edifice and start anew. But this emotional reaction cannot persist. There is a greater fear lurking, the election of Hillary Clinton.

Thus, the next stage, bargaining, should follow soon. Second choices like Cruz and Rubio will begin to seem increasingly attractive as a compromise. Yes, that does sacrifice some hopes, but it preserves much while defending far more effectively against the Clinton juggernaut. I believe that we will see this open bargaining stage during or shortly after the first primaries. It will be signaled by a sharp drop in the prospects for Trump and Carson.

How the following stage, depression, plays out depends heavily on whether Cruz or Rubio can meet the challenge. If not, I expect a period of hopelessness, perhaps even a spasm of striking out with a third-party effort while the nomination falls to a mainstream choice like Bush, Christie, or Kasich. To an outsider, these men are most certainly conservatives, but not what had been fondly wished. Alternatively, they can finally reach acceptance of their compromise and a renewal of faint hope for a desirable future.