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Peter A. Ubel Headshot

Republican Death Wish

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"With luck, Ted Kennedy will be dead soon."

She uttered these words two minutes after expressing hope that the nation would rally behind Obama. A lifelong Republican, she had voted for McCain. I expect she harbored concerned about Obama's terrorist pals and his anti-American pastor. But with Obama now newly elected as president, she was already beginning to forget what she used to find so terrifying about him. As an American, and as someone who worried about the stiff challenges facing our country, she had no choice but to wish him well. To hope for Obama to fail would, after all, be to hope for America to fail.

But Ted Kennedy -- that was a whole other matter. Out of nowhere, in what had otherwise been a pleasant conversation, she brought up his name. "Did you know," she asked, "that he never graduated from law school?" I didn't actually. "Did you know how wild he was when he first became a senator?" she asked. I had heard a bit about that, but wasn't that, like, 40 years ago? "I hope he dies soon. I really do," she said.

I was dumbfounded. Home for the holidays, I had known that I would be surrounded by ardent Republicans from both sides of the family. My children, you see, have four Republican grandparents and a slew of Republican aunts and uncles. Politically speaking, I think of myself as a flaming moderate, but both sides of my family think of me as a pinko -- for not supporting our initial invasion of Iraq; for questioning the wonders of the free market (horror of horrors: I even have a book out now called Free Market Madness!)

But while I expected to hear people complain about how liberals are ruining America, I did not expect to hear anyone call for the death of an ailing senator. This sentiment was so raw, so primal, it flabbergasted me. What had Ted Kennedy done lately to deserve such vitriol? Had his passionate pursuit of universal health care earned him such enmity?

No. None of the complaints she uttered concerned any recent aspect of Kennedy's life. (I'm leaving her identity unnamed, but I want to clarify that the person I'm writing about was neither an aunt nor grandmother of my children.) In her 70s, she was clearly stuck in the 60s.

I've drawn a lesson from this conversation, about the challenges Obama will face trying to bring our country together. The 60's may have happened forty years ago, but the cultural battles begun back then have not completely run their course. Many elderly conservatives still hate democrats with great passion. And though they find it hard to direct that hatred toward Obama, they have plenty of other people to direct their hatred towards.

And direct this hatred they will! Psychologists have long known that when people's world views are threatened, they grasp for ways to affirm their beliefs. A recent study published in the prestigious journal Psychological Science reveals the strange depths to which we humans will plunge to affirm our beliefs.

In stage one of the study, a research assistant asked participants to fill out a questionnaire. The research assistant was a moderately attractive blonde haired young woman in a scarf. I mention this not because I'm sexist, but because her physical appearance is important for the study. You see, the research assistant headed off to the file cabinet to get a copy of the survey, and in doing so, switched places with another moderately attractive blonde haired young woman wearing an identical sweater and scarf. The two research assistants shared moderate similarities in their appearance, but anybody looking at the two of them at the same time could easily tell them apart.

However, the research participants weren't looking at the two at the same time and comparing them. They were in a situation where they expected that they were interacting with a single research assistant. And when the second research assistant came back with a copy of the survey, most of them didn't realize that this was a different person. Instead, something felt wrong about the situation. Their world view had been challenged. They assumed they were doing a simple survey in a comfortable setting, but instead found themselves feeling acutely uncomfortable for reasons they couldn't quite grasp.

That's when stage two of the study takes place. In this stage, the participants filled out the survey, which presented them with a hypothetical report about the arrest of a prostitute. Participants were asked to play the role of a judge and determine proper bail for this woman.

The research participants -- still feeling all these negative emotions, still knowing that something in their view of the world wasn't fitting together correctly -- slapped a huge bail on the hypothetical prostitute, a dollar amount significantly greater than the value chosen by a control group who had not experienced the surreptitious switching of their research coordinator's identity.

When people's world views are threatened, they look for ways to confirm other parts of their world view, often with vigor. When they cannot detest Obama, therefore, they revisit the sins of Ted Kennedy's youth with righteous vengeance.

Many Republicans are feeling quite threatened right now. The validity of their world view has been questioned, by events and also by the majority of American voters. We can all hope that Obama will be able to unite people across this partisan divide. But we should be prepared for many ardent Republicans to respond to these threats by looking for fresh targets.

There are many reasons we can hope that Ted Kennedy will overcome his brain tumor and live a long time. But now there is a new reason to hope for this -- the longer he lives, the more he can soak up Republican ire, and reduce the chance that Republicans will redirect their negative emotions toward our new president.

For more information on my book, Free Market Madness, check out my website at http://www.peterubel.com/.