Something’s Gotta Give: O’Sullivan’s First Law and Political Gravitational Pull


I’ve often generalized about Republican’s and Democrats by saying that the former almost always play defense, and the latter always play offense.  The brilliant Mark Steyn recently said “when Democrats get elected, they govern; when Republicans get elected, they hold office.”  He also noted that in contrast to the popular line of the day, “government isn’t broken; if you’re a Democrat, it’s working perfectly fine.”

Steyn loves the Great American Songbook, and so do I.  Fittingly, as I thought through plans for this article, a Frank Sinatra classic came to mind; here’s how it begins:

Something’s Gotta Give

When an irresistible force such as you
Meets an old immovable object like me
You can bet just as sure as you live

Something’s gotta give
Something’s gotta give
Something’s gotta give

What triggered this article was hearing Rush Limbaugh mention “O’Sullivan’s First Law,” which dated back to the Maggie Thatcher era in Great Britain.  Thatcher, of course, was a staunch conservative, and an ideological soul-mate of Ronald Reagan, her contemporary and good friend.

O’Sullivan’s First Law

I hadn’t heard of it before, but it sounded insightful and profound.  Here’s what I found on the Powerline Blog:

O’Sullivan’s First Law, named for John O’Sullivan, former editor of National Review, speechwriter for Margaret Thatcher, and author of the fine book The President, The Pope, and the Prime Minister, goes as follows:  Any institution that is not explicitly right wing will become left wing over time.  Good examples (sic) include such seemingly anodyne institutions as (sic) the League of Women Voters, PTAs, National Public Radio, most professional associations like the American Bar Association, the Pew Charitable Trust (which actually was intended to be explicitly conservative, and still got captured by the left), and so forth.

From what I know, you can easily add the Ford Foundation to that list as well.  And all too many others who derived their fortunes from the blessings of liberty, limited government, and a free enterprise economic system.

Limbaugh went on to say something that really tweaked my interest: “the natural gravitational pull in the political system is to become liberal, unless you specifically espouse and advocate for conservative ideals” or thereabouts.

Newton’s Law of Gravitational Attraction

Ever the engineer, I recalled the law of gravitational attraction from my Physics classes many, many years ago.

In words, Newton’s law of universal gravitation states that any two bodies in the universe attract each other with a force that is directly proportional to the product of their masses (M, m) and inversely proportional to the square of the distance (r) between them.  The precise equation is shown in this visual, reminiscent of my college lecture halls:

Newtons law
The more I thought about it, the more I was attracted to the gravitational law as an analogy for what we see in Washington, and in Augusta, the capitol of Maine.  I had an idea it could be adapted to give more specificity to O’Sullivan’s premise, quantifying the effect to some degree.  (G is a constant irrelevant to our discussion.)

Characterizing Distance and Mass in the Political Universe

The R’s and D’s in Maine’s legislature (and any other) are very close together physically; they operate in the same building. So the square of the distance between them is very small when compared to planetary distances, proportionately increasing the forces that attract them to each other.

We’ll use the specifics of Maine’s circumstances to illuminate a proposed corollary to O’Sullivan.  The principles can be applied to any other state house, or the US Congress, by appropriate modification to the variables m and M, which I treat as compound terms.

Taken over the last 40 years, the mass of the Republican ‘body’ in Maine’s state house has been considerably less than the mass of the Democrat ‘body’ over the same years.  Especially when you account for the added mass of the lobbyists and special interest groups that ‘orbit’ each of the two primary bodies.

The force attracting each body to the other is quite strong but equal, per Newton’s law.  I define a body as the sum of it’s particles, by which I mean persons.  Newton’s equal gravitational force is distributed over far more particles in the Democrat body than the number of particles in the Republican body.  Hence, the gravitational pull to bring each R particle towards the D’s is far greater than the pull to bring each D particle towards the R’s.

Making things more pronounced is the effect of two multipliers I propose.  The first I call the devotion factor; it varies between 0 and 1, and represents the devotion of the individual to the traditional principles of their party caucus (body.)  For the R’s, this includes limited government, self-reliance, free markets, and related basics.  For the D’s, it refers to unlimited government, the welfare society, a centrally planned economy, and similar liberal ideals.

My judgment, based on experience, is that the devotion factor is 0.5 for the average R particle, and 1.0 for the average D particle.  The R’s in Augusta have very little courage of whatever convictions they do have, while the D’s are unified and committed to advancing their views.

I call the second multiplier in calculating political mass the magnitude factor.  It ranges between 0.5 and 2.0 for the aggregate of the particles in each body.  1.0 would represent commitment to the status quo for the size and scope of government.  0.5 would signify determination to shrink government by half, while 2.0 would infer a desire to double the scale of government in our lives.

Using poetic license, let’s set the magnitude factor for the R body at 1.0, and at 1.5 for the D body.

Moving to the bottom line, I estimate there are 100 particles in the R body in Maine, which includes the legislators,  their like-minded lobbyists, and their supportive non-profit advocacy groups.  On the D side, I estimate the total particle population at 250, since the like-minded lobbyists, non-profit advocacy groups, and reliable T-shirt wearing union members far outnumber the R particles.

100 times 0.5 (devotion factor) times 1.0 (magnitude factor) yields a compound net mass of 50 for the R body, or figuratively speaking, conservative ideals.

250 times 1.0 (devotion factor) times 1.5 (magnitude factor) gives a compound net mass of 375 for the D body, or liberal/progressive ideals.

Looking back at the basic law of gravitational attraction then, given total force applying to each body is equal, we find the force attracting an R particle to a D particle is 7.5 time stronger than the force attracting a D particle to an R particle.

If this sounds too complicated, we can summarize it this way:  the political gravitational force attracting a Republican to the liberal side of the political divide is nearly eight times stronger than the same force attracting a Democrat to the conservative side of policy principles.

Is it any surprise we get the results we do?  Or that the R’s respond so easily to an ‘irresistible’ force pulling them to the other side?  Most D observers would surely rate their side much higher on the irresistible force scale of things than R supporters would rate their side on the ‘immovable object’ scale.

black hole

The more pressing question is whether the ‘gravitational pull’ of the Democrat establishment can become so strong as to become a political black hole.  I found this informal definition of that term, and it fits the bill very nicely:

“a place where people or things, especially money, disappear without a trace, as in: the moribund economy has been a black hole for federal funds”

You could also think of the circumstances more simply this way: why is the sun not attracted to the earth? Rather, it’s the other way around.  So too in Augusta and Washington.  The path of least resistance is to go along to get along, so weaker actors with less intellectual stamina just drift to the attractions of the stronger group.  My contention here has been that political “Physics” resembles classical Physics.

In the end, it’s this phenomenon by which “death stars” (or black holes) kill lesser stars by sucking in everything that comes close.  Their attraction is so great that not even light (truth) escapes.

The closing words of the Sinatra standard seem perfect for signing off:

Fight, fight, fight, fight, fight it with all of our might
Chances are some heavenly star-spangled night
We’ll find out just as sure as we live

Something’s gotta give
Something’s gotta give
Something’s gotta give

Aww, let’s tear it up!


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