Human Limits

Exploring performance and health with Michael J. Joyner, M.D.

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Grieving & “The Election”

The U.S. election a couple of weeks ago is being hailed as all sorts of things. However, if you look back over the last few elections it seems to me like the voters are pretty unsettled and that it more like a serve and volley between parties.   This has then led to a cycle of each side over-interpreting their “victories” as either a mandate for their world view, a repudiation of the other side’s, or both.   This over reading of things probably makes compromise on issues like entitlement reform, immigration, health care and energy policy harder rather than easier.   The lack of compromise then leads the voters to blame the party they see as in power and vote for the other side in the next election.   This summary may be an over simplification but it seems to me like it explains a lot of things.


Why is Compromise So Hard?

The standard answers to this question are about a politically polarized country, safe districts that reward uber-partisans, the 24 hour news cycle, and money in politics to name a few. However, is their a root cause of all of this? Could it be that both the political elite and general public are involved in a “grieving process” over the changes confronting the world and the challenges they are generating for the U.S. The steps in grieving include:

  • Denial
  • Anger
  • Bargaining
  • Depression
  • Acceptance


My medical colleagues who do palliative care tell me that the process is not linear and that patients and families hopscotch from one stage to another but almost everyone ends up at acceptance over time.


Grieving About Change?

The aging population, globalization, and technology are leading to a transformation of human society on the order of that seen with the adoption of agriculture about 10,000 years ago and the emergence of the Industrial Revolution over the last 3-400 years. The only difference is that the current changes are happening in only a few generations vs. hundreds or thousands of years. Along these lines, many of the assumptions that underpinned U.S. economic and political “clout” and perhaps made compromise easier after World War II were things like.

  • Plenty of workers for every retiree
  • Life expectancy at age 65 on the order of 10 years (it is now closer to 20 years)
  • Plenty of medium skilled high wage jobs in manufacturing
  • A huge industrial base after WW II compared to the devastation everywhere else
  • A monolithic foreign policy foe in the Soviet Union


All of this is gone and I would argue that a political grieving process is in full swing. I would also argue that these factors explain most or part of all sorts of things ranging from the burgeoning national debt, income stagnation and inequality, to our uncertainty about how to respond to the mess in the Middle East.


An Example

I see a combination of denial, anger and bargaining particularly over issues like Medicare and Social Security reform. These are signature programs for the Democrats that they are loathe to change. They are also on the road to financial insolvency over the next couple of decades. Some seniors get angry when the topic of change comes up falsely arguing they have paid for their benefits. The Republicans are for reform until they get worried about the political fall-out of change or can attack a Democrat for advocating change.


This example is just one of many about how both the political elite (who are likely aware of the big trends I have outlined) and the general public are having trouble coming to grips with how the world is changing. Some people have moved beyond denial, anger and bargaining to depression – an acquaintance of mine was so depressed about the situation he seriously considered not voting figuring that it was essentially impossible to address the problems confronting the country. But the point is that we need a realistic discussion about a host of topics and possible solutions as we try to adapt to the changes that are coming.


Not the Only Example

In the next couple of posts I am going to use the “grieving” model to discuss other topics like why so few people follow health living guidelines as I try to understand the mismatch between what people understand and what they do.


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