From Death Panel to Death Spiral

09/17/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Jeff Schweitzer Scientist and former White House Senior Policy Analyst; Ph.D. in neurophysiology

A positive feedback loop is defined as a system that responds to a disturbance in the same direction as the disturbance. With every small input the response gets amplified, growing ever larger until the system collapses. In the physical world, one of the most famous examples is the Tacoma Narrows Bridge, which collapsed in the face of a moderate wind. The destruction was a result of a "resonant frequency" that allowed the bridge to respond to the gentle nudge of the wind like a swing arcing higher and higher with each push until the oscillation was greater than the bridge could withstand.

In the political world the best example is the Republican Party responding to the resonant frequency of crazy. We may be witnessing the GOP self-destructing in a death spiral. With every lost election, the Republican ranks contract, giving greater voice to the remaining extremists -- leading to the next lost election, giving even greater influence to the wing nuts. Destruction just like the Tacoma Narrows Bridge.

Nowhere is this destructive resonance more clearly revealed than in the health care reform debate. Disrupting town hall meetings is a distraction to keep our attention away from the stench of a decaying GOP. Any disinterested third-party observer of what is happening in our town halls would have to conclude that opponents represent the flames of a Party burning out of control. Hysterical opponents seek to foster fear that will spiral toward blind panic.

Opponents of reform have shamelessly fanned the embers of fear that the government will prevent us from choosing our own doctor (nothing in the proposed health care plans suggests that), when in fact we already suffer that actual restriction with many insurance policies. Irrational skeptics spread unfounded fear that the government will choose for us what procedures will be allowed, as though this is not common practice in our current system. This is exactly what is happening now with private insurance companies. Opponents spread rumors that the reforms proposed by Obama will be too expensive when in fact the costs of inaction are much greater.

"Keep your government hands off my Medicare" is the voice of the poorly informed, a level of ignorance so deep as to make reasoned debate difficult. Comparing Obama to Hitler requires no further discussion. Fabricating the idea of death panels is an act of desperation. Claiming a government take-over of health care ignores every fact of the case. The opposition is focusing on fictitious extremes rather than addressing issues seriously.

A consequence of the positive loop of amplified lunacy might well be that Republicans cease to be a national political force. The voice of the GOP is now the likes of Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck and Bill O'Reilly, which positions the Republican Party more as a fringe group like the LaRouche movement rather than as a major player on the national scene.

In the throes of death, Republicans may experience an intermediate stage of irrelevance on their slide to extinction as a consequence of inner-party splits as extremists pull ever harder to the right. The rise and fall of the short-lived Bull Moose Party might be informative as an historic comparison. During the presidential election of 1912, Theodore Roosevelt formed the new party (formally called the Progressive Party) after losing the nomination to William Howard Taft. The new party, named popularly from Roosevelt's assertion that he was "as strong as a bull moose," won 27% of the vote compared to Taft's 23% during the election. The resulting split allowed Wilson to win with 42% of the vote. The Bull Moose Party was on scene only briefly but had a significant impact on American politics.

We might also witness a trajectory in which the Republicans simply cease to exist at all. We of course have precedent for the demise of important political parties. The Federalist Party comes to mind. But the most telling historic parallel would be the rise and fall of the Whig Party, established in 1834 as a reaction to the growing executive clout of Andrew Jackson. States' rights were a major party platform.

While now nothing but a distant memory, Whigs at one time were a powerful force in national politics, boasting three presidents to its credit. William Henry Harrison and Zachary Taylor were elected president as Whig candidates. Millard Fillmore, also a Whig, became president after Taylor's death. During the height of Whig power nobody would have predicted that the party would cease to exist.

Ironically, the Whigs died in the face of the new Republican Party of Abraham Lincoln when the issue of slavery divided the nation, and Lincoln's Party attracted more Whigs than anti-slavery Democrats. The Republicans might soon experience the same fate as Lincoln inflicted on the Whigs. Major parties can die.

The death of the Republican Party would be no cause for celebration. Excess on the left is as dangerous as right-wing craziness. The only way to weave a path to the middle is through reasonable opposition that prevents the extremes of either group from gaining too much influence. Moderate Republicans have much to offer that would be sorely missed if the GOP declines to the point of irrelevancy. The ideals of smaller government and reduced taxation are laudable, if tempered by realism. But Republicans have truly lost their bearings as the moderate wind of change pushes conservatives to ever greater extremes, responding with growing amplitude to that resonant frequency of crazy. Let's look at some examples.

Republican Claim: We want government off the backs of the American people.

Reality: Republicans insert government into our schools, hospitals and homes. They want government to control the most personal aspects of our daily lives. Conservatives, for example, want the government to deny a woman's right to choose her own reproductive destiny, and to deny gay couples the right to wed. The right wants the government to tell us what to teach and what research can be done, opposing stem cell research in our universities and proposing that Intelligent Design be taught in our public schools. They want government to favor one religion over others, defending the display of Christian religious symbols on government property. But even more egregious examples can be found in Republican support for increasing the role of government intrusion into the most intimate and private decisions we make. Leaders of the Republican Party interfered directly with the family's end-of-life decisions in the Terry Schiavo case. Republicans supported the Bush policy of illegal wire tapping and the erosion of our civil liberties through illegal arrests and suspension of habeas corpus. These gross expansions of government power under conservative rule are the first death throes, the initial terminal spasms, as traditional Republicans leave a Party that has left them.

Republican Claim: We are fiscal conservatives who want a small government, while Democrats just want to tax and spend their way to ever bigger government.

Reality: Republicans expanded a prescription drug benefit to Medicare, with no means to pay the $400 billion price tag. Republicans created the swollen Transportation Security Administration and the resource hungry Department of Homeland Security. Republicans implemented the largest tax increase in U.S. history under the leadership of their beloved Ronald Reagan. He was forced to do so following his tax cuts because the philosophy of trickle-down economics proved disastrous. Reagan was responsible for the most bloated growth of the federal government. Reagan created, with his proposed budgets (not that of the Democratic Congress), the largest debts and deficits in history at that time. Then we have Bush, who epitomizes financial mismanagement. He ballooned our debt to $10 trillion and exploded our deficits in an orgy of profligate spending with no off-setting revenue. Only when a Democrat sits in the Oval Office do Republicans become concerned with the national debt. They suddenly become "worried" about spending. We see here the second spasm of death for the GOP as more moderates abandon the Party in the face of this hypocrisy, leaving behind an increasingly extreme core.

Republican Claim: We are the Party of family values.

Republican Reality: The GOP is the Party of sex scandals, gay love and divorce. Nevada Senator John Ensign had an affair with a campaign staffer. Mark Sanford cheated on his wife while pretending to uphold family values as the governor of conservative South Carolina. John McCain, Newt Gingrich and Rudy Giuliani had sordid affairs followed by ugly divorces, all the while touting family values on the national scene. U.S. Representative Mark Foley liked male pages, urging one to "get a ruler and measure it for me." Ted Haggard, then head of the National Association of Evangelicals, apparently paid male prostitutes for sex while using crystal meth. He held weekly meetings with George Bush, teaching the president that homosexuality is an abomination. U.S. Senator Larry Craig was charged with soliciting sex in an airport bathroom. He was a vocal, loud and prominent opponent of gay marriage. Bob Allen, a Republican Congressman in the Florida House of Representatives, was charged with paying an undercover cop $20.00 for the pleasure of offering the officer oral sex. He was an active sponsor of anti-gay legislation. Glen Murphy, Jr., while National Chairman of Young Republicans, allegedly got some young Republicans drunk, and then decided to practice oral sex on the inebriated. Republican State Representative Richard Curtis from Spokane, Washington was involved in a gay sex scandal. Donald Fleischman, Chairman of the Republican Party in Brown County in Green Bay, WI, was ensnared in his own scandal of homosexual yearnings. This list is not comprehensive, and excludes the more than 4000 priests who have faced sex abuse charges in the past 50 years, involving more than 10,000 kids, mostly boys. Another death spasm, another breeze from the gentle wind.

Republican Claim: The free market functions best with minimal regulation and interference from the government.

Republican Reality: When lax regulation bordering on criminal neglect and a policy of looking the other way as bankers and brokers raped the American people finally led to financial collapse, Republicans quickly set aside their rhetoric about the magic of the market. They turned immediately to the government that Reagan famously claimed was "the problem not the solution" to solve the problem of their own making. The GOP used government funding to bail out Wall Street through the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP), an effort inspired and implemented by a Republican administration and supported by a critical mass of conservative allies on the Hill. This may represent the final death throes of the Party as all pretenses at fiscal responsibility and rationality are abandoned. As the winds of crazy blow, these same folks wail in complaint when Obama uses government funds to clean up their mess.

The realities of governance have shredded the ideals of the Republican Party beyond recognition. The GOP is not the party of small government and lower taxes. They are the Party of borrow and spend, big government and sex scandals. They are the Party of governors who cut and run midterm and who skulk to Argentina for a tryst with a foreign lover. They are the Party of fabrication and lies. What remains are the inanities of O'Reilly and the absurdities of Glenn Beck. The latter claimed in 2008 that we have a broken health care system designed to do nothing but push patients out the door when he was treated for an unspecified condition. He claimed is surgery went "horribly awry" and that his hospital care was "phenomenally bad." Yet one year later we endure his shrill railing against Obama for tinkering with "the best health care system in the world." You could not make this stuff up. This shrill rhetoric is perhaps the final push on the swing before going over the top of the bar out of control.

The violent extremism of the Republican Party seen in the health care debate is likely the last gasp of a terminal patient. Sadly, "the best health care system in the world" will be unable to save the GOP from death. After all, our hospitals are "phenomenally bad."

Witness the destruction wrought by the resonant frequency of crazy.