It’s been over a week since the election.  Over a week since the time that many conservative-leaning Americans sat around their televisions and computers, and watched in amazement as the election did exactly the opposite of what they thought it would do.  Rather than Mitt Romney arising triumphant, ready to right the wrongs of the past four-to-twelve years, we saw state after state we believed was in close contention step solidly into Barack Obama’s column, guaranteeing that he spend another four years residing at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.  And conservatism after losing has not been a fun political movement to watch.

Many have begun theorizing about the nature of the Republican party, the conservative movement in general, and the future of the country.  While all of those things have value, it’s important for conservatives to not get too heavily mired in this conversation.  It’s still too soon after the fact to make a completely honest strategic assessment of what was done right or wrong, and many people have been arguing over completely senseless things as a result.  In the last week, I have personally seen more vitriolic nonsense on the internet both from left-leaning ungracious winners and right-leaning sore losers.

I think that many conservatives are stuck somewhere in the middle of the five stages of grief as they deal with the election’s painful loss.  So using that as a guide, I’m going to highlight the five biggest things conservatives need to do to move on and get back into the political saddle.

Stage 1: Denial or Isolation – Accept The Reality

We saw some of this on election night, in particular when Karl Rove famously resisted Fox News’ call on Ohio.  We saw a bit more of this in the lead up to the election itself, when it was discovered that many of the major polls had a heavy Democrat-leaning skew that assumed a left-leaning voter turnout even larger than the 2008 election.  Many conservatives – including myself – assumed that this bias had at least a small impact on the accuracy of those polls, and that we were in a better position than the numbers reflected.  Not enough to kick back and stop fighting, maybe, but enough to breathe a bit easier.

Well, we were wrong – and lost.  Nate Silver, the New York Times data analyst who accurately predicted the electoral vote outcome, clearly w0n.  And that was the problem.  Many conservatives – including myself, to an extent – were so caught up in the push for victory that we didn’t stay grounded enough to check out how things were playing on the ground.  Take, for example, the election post-mortem found on blogger Robert Stacy McCain’s (aka The Other McCain) website:  “…we were wrong about the polls and Nate Silver was right; our desire to believe that America was still a center-right nation blinded us to the ugly reality of the polls, and as happens every time you wish away bad news or unpleasant facts, they come back to bite you.”

At this point, conservative’s can’t afford to put up with illusions that we were robbed.  Sure, there may have been some fraud – maybe even quite a bit, as WND and others are asserting – but that’s likely not near enough to force the kind of electoral recounts that would turn enough states back from blue to red to upend the 67+ Electoral College votes Romney would need to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.  If there’s evidence of fraud, let’s prosecute the cases and do the recounts as needed – but don’t let that distract us from the more realistic point that Obama is still the president, and we still have to deal with that reality.

Stage 2: Anger – No More Secession Talk

This one should be an obvious one.  Many conservatives are pissed off – pissed off at the prospect of what Obama may do in a second term, pissed off at the potential fraud I mentioned above, or just generally pissed off at American society for being dumb enough to go for the guy in a second term.  Well, unfortunately, being pissed off doesn’t really do us much good unless it’s channeled in the appropriate way.

Joining a local political group and getting more deeply involved in the cause?  Good way to channel anger.  Applying to secede from the United States of America?  Bad way to channel anger.

I’d have thought this one was a no-brainer, but seriously?  Trying to leave the country after your candidate lost is pretty much the political equivalent of threatening to take your toys and go home because the older kids were mean to you.  Seriously, you’re better than that.  Putting that aside, Glenn Beck has a really good practical argument for why the whole signing-a-secession-petition-online thing is generally a bad idea anyway.

Stage 3: Bargaining – Stop Post-Game Quarterbacking

At this point, trying to armchair quarterback the election after-the-fact is not helpful.  It basically amount to spinning our wheels in the mud: it slings a lot of mess around without really moving anywhere. Some people have chosen to remind us that only Ron Paul could have brought home the win – or at least, his voters could have if Mitt had somehow made peace with them before November 6.  Others, like Alfonzo Rachel, have reminded us that only Herman Cain had the ability to fight Obama for the much-coveted black vote.

While both those points are entirely true, it’s worth a grand total of jack and squat at this point. We nominated Mitt.  Mitt lost. All people do now by bickering over the woulds, coulds, and shoulds is cause a lot of unnecessary hurt and conflict inside the movement.

Making “If only we had done X” statements isn’t helpful, unless it’s in a posture that helps us better understand how we might improve in the future.  This is where both the above stories on Paul’s voters and Cain’s value as a candidate are positive reflections rather than negative ones: the numbers on Ron Paul’s voters in key battleground states are very compelling reasons for conservatives to try to better work with libertarians in the future, and Rachel’s argument for Herman Cain places Cain’s candidacy into the wider context of Democrat narratives on race – a compelling argument to listen to for a party that has in recent decades struggled with black voters.

Stage 4: Depression – Don’t Dump the Principles

According to the definition of the five stages of depression I cited in the introduction, there are two types of depression associated with serious loss.  The second is the more quiet, grieving depression associated with saying goodbye to a loved one.  The first, however, is more openly loud and deals with the practical matters of the loss – what went wrong, how to do damage control and manage the situation, and how to proceed from here.

Some have indeed become abjectly depressed: Ron Paul, in what could amount to his farewell address before Congress, said that the Constitution has failed to stop authoritarian government.  But I believe that the second, more practical kind of depression is the kind that has come to grip many political pundits and conservative commentators in the weeks after Mitt’s loss.  Take, for example, the case of Bill Kristol.

As Editor of the Weekly Standard, one of the longer-standing mainline conservative publications, Kristol’s political opinion carries just a bit of weight.  He recently stated that Republicans would be well advised to engage with Obama on the matter of raising taxes on wealthy Americans.  In his defense, it appears that he’s made some statements to this effect in the past.  But the timing of these statements couldn’t have been worse: so soon after the election, they come across as cheap pandering to the opposite side of the aisle.  Other pundits have made similar arguments that conservatives need to moderate their positions, especially when it comes to social issues like immigration, gay marriage, and abortion.  (The Blaze has a good analysis of these issues and their impact on the election here.)

While there do need to be serious conversations about how conservative politicians and groups present themselves in light of Mitt’s loss, abandoning principles is not an instantaneous recipe for success.  It’s true that the loss seems to have challenged the traditional notion that America is a center-right nation, and a lot of folks are depressed about that idea.  But as I stated earlier, it is far too early to get an all-encompassing picture that we can truly work with.  Responding to that depression with the knee-jerk reaction of abandoning key ideological positions could be one of the most serious forms of harm inflicted upon the conservative movement in the long run – even more harmful than the loss itself.

5) Acceptance – Actually Fight For Those Who Still Need It

Though there are still going to be a lot of tumultuous emotions surrounding this loss and what it means politically, the ultimate goal should be the calm and empowering acceptance of that loss.  I say “empowering” because realizing what has happened and dealing with it in a positive way is what will equip and enable conservatives to still make a positive impact in the future.

Case in point: on the day the Supreme Court handed down the Obamacare decision, I was given a unique opportunity.  Someone I know, a practicing doctor, allowed me to sit in with him and listen to a conference call with Congressman Andy Harris, the only practicing anesthesiologist serving in Congress.  The medical professionals on the call with him were all extremely interested in the case, and wanted to know what implications the decision had not only for the Obamacare law itself, but also what the law would mean for their careers and practices.

Anesthesiologists – those wonderful medical professionals who help oversee your surgical care and keep you pain-free and unconscious during operations – have traditionally received the short end of the stick where the law is concerned.  Medicare undercuts their services greatly, paying only 33% of what private insurers pay.  The Affordable Care Act is no exception: while the American Society of Anesthesiologists has sought to partner with the administration to promote certain aspects of patient care under the ACA, it has also strongly opposed many negative aspects of the ACA law, including the Independent Payment Advisory Board (IPAB).

The anesthesiologists on the phone that I listened to were very aware of the law and how it might negatively impact their ability to practice medicine.  And while they wanted answers to their questions, it was clear that they also needed the political clout to undo the worst elements of the Affordable Care Act.

That is exactly why conservatives need to get over themselves and move on to the business of being effective politically.  Laws like the ACA, Dodd-Frank, and other awful policies shoved through in Obama’s first four years are things we’re stuck with for the time being.  However, there are still hundreds of thousands of Americans who will face the negative effects of these policies.  If conservatives are spending their valuable time and energy on themselves, who will help these people in the political battles ahead?  Certainly not the ones who put the bad policies into practice, that’s for sure!

As we move forward into 2013, conservatives will have to be much more strategic in how they try to combat the negative policies America is likely to face.  Instead of looking backward at the missteps and failures of Mitt’s campaign, we must instead look forward at the possible actions we can take to help others.

I hope that more and more people can move along the path from denial to acceptance, and help the conservative movement get back on the right track.

David Giffin | Emory University | @D_Giffin