Do Republicans Still Matter?

There have been recent signs that the Republicans could bounce back from their devastating defeat last fall in the upcoming midterm elections. As I wrote a month ago, the early signs are that the Democrats may lose ground in the 2010 elections. Now the Washington Post reports that the Democrats are raising substantially less money than they were able to two years ago, in part because large donors have been turned off by the Democrats attempt to regulate big business.

But while the Democrats are likely to lose seats in the House and Senate in 2010, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the Republican Party is about to return to its old prominence. For all the noise generated by “tea party” protests around the country, polls still show that around twice as many people have a favorable view of Democrats as have a favorable view of Republicans.


For years, the traditionally Republican segment of the population has been shrinking. As Michael Grunwald wrote back in May, the American electorate is steadily becoming “less white, less rural, less Christian—in short, less demographically Republican.” And the most conservative group of voters—the elderly—are gradually dying off.

Instead of altering its platform to attract a broader segment of the changing electorate, the Republican Party has purged most of its more moderate members. In the Senate, for example, with the defections of Lincoln Chafee (I-VT) and Arlen Specter (D-PA), Olympia Snowe (R-ME) and Susan Collins (R-ME) are all that remains of the once sizable group of moderate Republicans. And the current stars of the Republican Party—people like Sarah Palin and Liz Cheney—are not likely to win over many moderate swing voters. The Republicans are gambling that a more unified party with a clearer ideological message will be more compelling. Sen. Jim DeMint (R-SC) summed up their strategy when he said that he would “rather have 30 Republicans in the Senate who really believe in principles of limited government, free markets, free people, than to have 60 people who don’t have a set of beliefs.”

The result has been a more energized party, but one with less broad national appeal. Today, as Steve Benen points out, most of the country has a starkly unfavorable view of the Republican Party. For years Republicans won elections pursuing “a southern strategy,” but as a consequence the South is now the only region where more people view the party favorably than unfavorably. As Andrew Sullivan says—repeating a reader’s remark—the Republican Party is in danger of turning into our version of Canada’s Parti Quebecois. It is becoming, in other words, essentially a regional party, which can do little more than voice its protest at the national level.

That’s why the major policy debates right now—like the debate over health care reform—are primarily going on within the Democratic Party. All Republicans can do is disrupt the process from the sidelines in hopes of making the Democrats look bad. The Republican Party has become “the Party of No,” opposing everything as a matter of principle. But that’s not a viable long-term strategy. As long as the Republicans don’t try to reach out to political moderates, they are likely to remain vocal, passionate, and marginal.

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Yale scientists restore brain function to 32 clinically dead pigs

Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

Still from John Stephenson's 1999 rendition of Animal Farm.
Surprising Science
  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

Scientists see 'rarest event ever recorded' in search for dark matter

The team caught a glimpse of a process that takes 18,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 years.

Image source: Pixabay
Surprising Science
  • In Italy, a team of scientists is using a highly sophisticated detector to hunt for dark matter.
  • The team observed an ultra-rare particle interaction that reveals the half-life of a xenon-124 atom to be 18 sextillion years.
  • The half-life of a process is how long it takes for half of the radioactive nuclei present in a sample to decay.
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