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Justin Frank Headshot

The Hidden Danger of Change

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All change involves risk - whether one is a Democrat or Republican. It always does, or else it isn't genuine change. And with risk comes anxiety about the unknown. But most unrecognized is that with change comes loss - loss of the familiar, as well as loss of predictability. What had once been absolute fact can become mere fantasy.

In 2003 the Bush Administration was sure that the Iraqi people would greet American invaders as liberators. But what they thought was fact was actually an assumption, a wish. What got lost along the way their belief that might and right are in lockstep, and that everyone in the world feels the same way we do.

Something similar, emboldened by graphs and economic analysis, is what drove Wall Street into the ground. If only Wall Street and banks were unfettered by government regulation America would endlessly prosper. Again there was loss, and not just financial. This time what was lost was a belief that unfettered capitalism would usher in permanent prosperity. What was also lost was the confidence that left to their own devices, Wall Street and banks could govern themselves.

Many people - both American exceptionalists and free market fanatics - still bridle at and refuse to accept these losses.

In 2008 candidate Obama brought about a huge change that was felt by some white Republicans to be catastrophic. And it too provoked intolerable feelings of loss. In January 2009 America had a black president and a black first family in the White House. That change became unbearable, and led to massive opposition to anything Obama proposed. What remains unrecognized, as the Republican Convention begins, is that both their frustration and rage stem in part from this most overwhelming loss.

What exactly is the loss? It is the loss of what had been unconscious confidence that America would always have a white man as President - and with that loss comes rage. What had been usual and predictable throughout our history was no longer an expectable fact we could count on. It was reduced to a belief system, a wish. We've always had partisan fights over deficits, government intervention, and wars. But having a black president goes beyond these familiar disputes.

What was brought to conscious awareness was that we had undergone an enormous change - a change as enormous as when 9/11 destroyed the New York cityscape while fracturing our unspoken fantasies of being safe and strong, protected by two oceans and military might. I maintain that for many Republicans gathered in Tampa the Obama Presidency remains catastrophic: many still can only see him as an invader, a foreign agent, or a socialist who is destroying American traditions. Loss of certainty has that effect on many people.

Accepting change requires acknowledging loss. As President Obama told John McCain in February 2010, "The election's over John." Accepting change also necessitates keeping divergent feelings and thoughts in mind at the same time. People who had always seen the world in either/or terms cannot bear powerful emotions that that threaten to break down these familiar divisions of good and bad. For instance, acknowledging other nations is seen as a betrayal of our own.

So to protect themselves from having their familiar world-views overturned, many Republican men and women arriving in Tampa must convert these disturbingly discordant feelings of loss into action. Senator McConnell's long-held plan to deny Obama a second term drives their convention; it remains a compelling desire to undo that devastating change, to assuage that loss, and to return painful disbelief into comforting fact once more.

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