In her 1969 work titled “On Death and Dying” psychiatrist Elisabeth Kubler-Ross postulated that there are five stages of grief in a pattern of adjustment to a diagnosis of a terminal illness. She had observed that all persons go through these stages, although not always in order or through all of the stages when they are confronted with a terminal illness. People who survive the loss of a loved one to a terminal illness also display the progression through Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression and Acceptance.
It has been observed that there is a similar phenomenon in people that are faced with the loss of trust in their government. The rise of the Tea Party movement has produced a pattern of adjustment to dissent that follows the pattern of the Kubler-Ross terminal illness model. The current administration’s agenda for a socialist remaking of America has left a large percentage of Americans wondering what has happened to their government and why does it not act with the usual predictability that Americans have come to expect and to rely upon.
The leaders and veterans of the tea party groups have noted some of the particular – and foreseeable – behavior of the newcomers to the movement. There is a typical mindset to those who are just recently “awakened” to the political situation. When these newcomers attend a first protest or a first meeting of a group, the statements that they make and the attitudes that they display are, on first impression, scripted and surprisingly predictable.
A typical scenario is that of an average American who will attend a tea party, find one of the organizers and state “I thought that I was alone in feeling this way. I have been so depressed about where our nation is going – I don’t recognize America anymore. I can’t live with this situation; I have to DO something! Please, give me something to do. Can you tell me what to do?” This outcry is nearer to the middle of the cycle and far from the beginning of the process.
The first stage is that of SHOCK. One cannot believe or accept that the United States government is undertaking an action or passage of legislation that is so clearly “un-American” or “unconstitutional” – “this is not the way we do things.” This stage is most often precipitated by the passage by Congress of a piece of legislation that has the overt appearance of being contrary to the US Constitution such as the bailout of the automotive manufacturers GM and Chrysler; or of the financial banks such as Bank of America or Citicorp. The initial shock comes from doing what we as Americans have always assumed our government would not, and could not do.
This shock is followed by the realization that the perception of what has been done is truly illegal, unconstitutional, immoral or unethical and that the underlying effect is to reshape the nation into something other than what the average American views as “America.” There is an immense sense of betrayal that is then carried through the remaining stages whether verbalized or even realized. This first stage may last just a few hours or up to as much as a week. The person is totally removed from any discussion or ability to interact with another beyond a rudimentary level. The individual most often cannot put their feelings into words beyond “I cannot believe that MY government would do this to me!”
The next stage is that of ANGER. Once the individual has grasped that the government is indeed moving in the direction the individual assumes, their shock turns to fear which quickly manifests as an intense anger at the President or the Congress. The realization of the government’s action becomes confused by the individual’s interpretation of the law and the limits of government resulting in the opinion that the individual, as a member of American society, has been grievously wronged.
In this state, few, if any, Americans are able to develop a coherent ability to rationalize the behavior of the government nor are they able to interact with others effectively on a political plane. The state of mind is so enraged that any attempt to channel the emotion is futile as is any attempt to calm the individual. Rarely is there an expression of a desire to create change in the situation other than to revoke the recent actions of government. This stage may last from several days to as long as several months. It is in this stage that many people “percolate” and begin to fixate on the issues. This stage runs its course when the individual is simply emotionally exhausted by the level of emotional intensity required to focus on the sense of injury.
The third stage in the pattern of adjustment is that of DEPRESSION. The individual is now so exhausted, but still mentally aware of the situation, that the energy level has been depleted. The attitude becomes “It’s the government, what can I do about it?” This stage lasts the longest – unless the individual is one of the few who are able to be reached and convinced in this stage that there are alternatives to the government’s actions.
It is during this depression stage that people begin to come out of the anger driven state of mind that clouds perception. People begin to look for ways to “strike back” within the system. They will become further depressed by the ineffectiveness of the standard political responses such as running for office or protesting. Their mind turns to dwelling on finding a way to respond to the government’s actions.
The fixation on finding a legal response will in time lift the individual from depression to the next stage, FRUSTRATION, as the subconscious becomes convinced that there must be a legitimate response to the government. The majority of dissenting citizens live in a state of resignation and will usually go no farther than this state. This fourth stage is usually the final stage of the citizen’s response to the change in government tactics. It is in the early days of this stage that people are seeking out other people with whom they can commiserate and hopefully find answers.
People who are attending a first tea party or group meeting are almost always in their frustration stage and looking for answers from the people that they meet at the tea party or group meeting. Finding like-minded people and a common cause is cathartic and works to alleviate the frustration nearly immediately. The role of the tea party leadership then involves providing some direction to the newcomer.
While many are satisfied to protest and to participate in groups, other individuals quickly revert to frustration when they perceive that they are not getting the response from government that they desire. At this point, a fifth stage may be entered, that of ACTIVISM. When this stage is reached, people begin to band together and look for creative methods of dissent. It is at this point that the movement finds itself with people working to affect change in innovative ways and drawing in new people that are eager to challenge the government.
The pattern of adjustment for dissent within the American electorate and the tea party movement is then: Shock, Anger, Depression, and Frustration and in some instances, Activism. Interviews conducted with new group members indicate that this phenomenon is strongly universal. Awareness of the process may help tea party groups to assist new members to contribute more effectively and to mitigate the frustration that these new members feel.