Other social science

Politics is a Matter of Life and Death (Times 23,000)

Jan 30 '12

That’s the message I take from a recent book by James Gilligan, a psychiatrist at New York University. In Why Some Politicians Are More Dangerous than Others, Gilligan documents a striking statistical connection between changing rates of violent death in the United States over the past century and the party of the president. He concludes that Republican administrations are “risk factors for lethal violence,” and that the only reason they have not produced “disastrously high epidemic levels” of suicides and homicides is that Democrats have repeatedly undone their damage. (I’ve added handsome hand-coloring to Gilligan’s key  figure in order to highlight the partisan pattern.)

Gilligan found that, over the 108 years covered by his analysis (1900-2007), the age-adjusted suicide rate increased by an average of 9.7 per million over each Republican four-year term but decreased by an average of 11.1 per million over each Democratic term. The age-adjusted homicide rate increased by an average of 3.6 per million over each Republican term but decreased by an average of 4.2 per million over each Democratic term.

These differences may sound small, but they are not. According to the CDC’s latest National Vital Statistics Report, there were 37,793 suicides in the U.S. in 2010 (122 per million population) and 16,065 homicides (52 per million population). Applying Gilligan’s figures to those baseline levels (and assuming 1% population growth per year) implies a projected total of 213,000 violent deaths over the next four years under a Democratic president, but 236,000 under a Republican—a difference of 23,000 lives. (These estimates reflect my calculations based on Gilligan’s data; even they greatly understate the long-run implications of the partisan differences he identifies, since a higher or lower death rate at the end of one term becomes a higher or lower baseline for subsequent fluctuations.)

Gilligan attributes these very different trends in violent death rates to consistent differences in the parties’ policies and performance with respect to unemployment, economic inequality, and recessions, which in turn have substantial effects on “individual emotional and psychological health and welfare.” (The first of these links draws, in part, upon my work.) He argues that intense shame or humiliation is usually “the immediate psychological motive, or cause,  of violent behavior,” and that “these feelings can be stimulated and exacerbated by many stressors in the social environment, one of the most powerful and common of which is the experience of being fired from one’s job, or for any other reason suffering a severe loss of socio-economic status; this experience has been more frequent and prolonged under Republican than under Democratic administrations throughout the twentieth century, and compensatory measures to reduce the intensity of the humiliation (e.g. the WPA under Roosevelt) have been more extensive and effective under Democratic than under Republican presidents.”

Gilligan argues that analyses like his “provide an empirical basis for evaluating different political parties and their social and economic policies and achievements—an assessment grounded in the human sciences, such as public health, preventive medicine, and economic and epidemiological statistics. These can serve as fact-based alternatives to the much more frequent opinion-based assertions and predictions concerning political parties, candidates, and  policies. At a time when every knowledgeable person is calling for evidence-based medicine, isn’t it time we also had evidence-based politics?”

This piece is cross-posted on the VU on Politics blog.