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 Obamacare was never going to be repealed while the Democrats have a breath left.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.

The False Hope of Compromise

Researchers into how people organize their thoughts have discovered a strong correlation with political leaning. They use a simple test that goes as follows. Subjects are presented with three images: a scarf, a mitten, and a hand. Then they are asked which two objects are most closely related.

Broadly speaking, there are two distinct modes of thought. Holistic thinking is oriented toward context, basing choices on situations and circumstances. Analytic thinking detaches objects from contexts and uses categorical rules. In this test, holistic thinkers choose the relational pairing — mittens are worn on the hand — while analytic thinkers choose the categorical pairing — the scarf and mitten are items of winter clothing. Which did you pick?

People tend to think holistically when they hold an interdependent, connected view of the self, emphasizing harmony over self-expression. Analytic thinkers believe in autonomy and self-direction, with the stress being on personal responsibility. Of course each person can and does switch between these modes of thought, although one usually dominates.

The correlation which this research has revealed is that liberals tend to think holistically while conservatives tend to be analytical. Moreover this divergence appears most strongly at the outer fringes in both groups.

This goes a long way toward explaining the different world views of each political camp and why there is constant misunderstanding between them. It is often asserted that their conflicts primarily stem from differing values, but this research seems to indicate that it is even more basic than that. It isn’t the conclusions by which they differ as much as how they reach them. They simply think differently. Both modes of thought are sound and practical, but in specific circumstances each group would believe that the other ignores realities that they find obvious.

We Agree

So, anyone expecting either convergence or compromise is unrealistic. This does happen, but in such cases each side is simply putting up with some of the other’s ill-informed beliefs for the sake of some greater good. There is actually no agreement at all. What is worse is that each such arrangement fails to build trust that might lead to further compromises.