Middle-aged whites are killing themselves, literally, and Josh Marshall thinks that explains a lot about today’s politics. (More)

“Increasing death rates from drug and alcohol poisonings, suicide, and chronic liver diseases and cirrhosis”

Rising life expectancy was one of the most important features of the 20th century. Although lifespans began to extend in the late 19th century, they skyrocketed in the 20th. In every developed country, and interrupted only by major wars, advances in medicine and nutrition helped more people live longer. And that’s still happening, in every developed country …

except for whites in the United States. That new study by Anne Case and Angus Deaton, published in September, found that life expectancy actually decreased for white Americans aged 30-64. What’s more, that change was unique to both the U.S. and to whites within the U.S. Life expectancy is still rising for whites in other countries, and for non-whites in the U.S.

Case and Deaton also identified the killers of middle-aged American whites as middle-aged American whites themselves:

This increase [in morbidity] for whites was largely accounted for by increasing death rates from drug and alcohol poisonings, suicide, and chronic liver diseases and cirrhosis. Although all education groups saw increases in mortality from suicide and poisonings, and an overall increase in external cause mortality, those with less education saw the most marked increases.

It’s not a small effect. Since 1998, Case and Deaton say this has resulted in 488,050 premature deaths. Only AIDS, which has killed 650,000 Americans since 1981, has been as lethal.

Case and Deaton don’t offer causes. They note that recent economic stressors – stagnant wages and rising household debt – are comparable for the U.S. and Europe. But, they also note, most Europeans still have defined benefit pension plans while most U.S. workers have been switched to defined contribution plans. They suggest this may be one stressor, and it would explain why they found no decrease in life expectancy for white seniors. But that wouldn’t explain why they found no decrease for people of color.

“The perceived and real loss of the social and economic advantages of being white”

But Talking Points Memo’s Josh Marshall has a theory:

I put this forward as no more than an educated hypothesis. But the most logical culprit is the social transformation that people across the ideological spectrum agree on but talk about in dramatically different ways. The relative decline of American whites (or as social scientists refer to them, “non-Hispanic whites”) versus other ethnic and racial groups – principally African-Americans and Hispanics.

It is always important to understand what ‘relative decline’ means. It doesn’t mean that that group in ‘relative decline’ is falling. It simply means that others are rising. And while we can quibble over how rapid the rise is, how we measure it and whether it’s happening fast enough, there’s little question that non-whites are rising in affluence, cultural influence, political power and on almost every other front. The simple fact, something we are all supposed to be happy about (and I hope we are) is that while being white still has numerous built-in and ingrained advantages, it is not as big an advantage as it once was. And there is every reason to think the advantage will continue to decline, as indeed the percentage of whites in the population continues to decline.

Let’s put this clearly: the stressor at work here is the perceived and real loss of the social and economic advantages of being white.

Marshall sees that resentment evident in today’s political climate:

This gets to why I think this study is such a critical contribution to our understanding of contemporary American politics. Several weeks ago I had lunch with a prominent US journalist who I’d been acquainted with for some time via email and social media but never met in person. In our conversation, this colleague spoke about the irreducible role of anger in the GOP presidential primaries and in the GOP Congress. As many have discussed, we’re now at the point where overthrowing leaders or shutting down the government isn’t simply a tool ready (perhaps too ready) at hand to achieve this or that policy goal. Rather it’s the desire to shut the government down and overthrow leaders that now appears to be the real goal and drive. Deciding whether it’s over the budget or Obamacare or Planned Parenthood or Syrian refugees is a secondary matter. Beneath the often febrile and sometimes race-tinged Republican talk about Obama “radically transforming” America, or being a socialist whose erasing American ‘exceptionalism’ or various other regular themes on Fox News, one fairly straightforward, clear message is almost always discernible: The country people know, their country, is being taken away from them. We have grown accustomed to seeing a large segment of the body politic ready, indeed almost relishing the opportunity to break the state if it cannot control it.
Reductive explanations almost always fall short. And I anticipate some will say I’m advancing such an argument today. I would only counter that I’m not suggesting a causal relationship. I’m suggesting that these two facts are closely associated and stem from a common cause. What sets these statistics apart is their apparently hard, numerical nature. We can make arguments about political dysfunction, unrealistic fears about political change, historically anomalous refusals to abide within constitutional norms, etc. But every theory about politics and political change is inherently subjective and compromised by our individual place on today’s partisan political spectrum. Numbers aren’t magic. Perhaps these numbers have some flaw or another interpretation. But that seems unlikely. White people and just white people – particularly at the ages and life statuses where the advantage of race has been most needed – have broken from a trend that is basically universal in wealthy countries for a century. That is real. And I don’t think we can understand the contemporary crisis of politics without it.

“They will not be so easily swept aside”

Salon’s Elias Isquith pointed to the same resentment fueling support for Donald Trump:

Besides a genius for self-promotion, what Trump has in common with [Huey Long and George Wallace] is this: He appeals to a large swathe of Americans who have not only lived through massive social disruption – the Great Depression and the Civil Rights Movement, respectfully – but who have had their fundamental assumptions about Americanness, and therefore themselves, challenged in the process. When his fans speak of “taking” their country back, they are not being tongue-in-cheek. They are deathly serious.
Like Long and Wallace before him, what Trump offers these people is not only a return to a glorious past, but also a reassurance. Specifically, Trump’s vision of a nation purged of immigrants – both documented and otherwise – and cleansed of “political correctness” suggests to these voters that America-as-they-knew-it is not historically contingent. And that the transformation of the country was not an inevitability. He promises them, in effect, that they will not be so easily swept aside.

“That’s what lions do”

That’s why – even as the Washington Post’s Dana Milbank correctly identifies Trump as “a racist and a bigot”conservatives like Terresa Monroe-Hamilton celebrate Trump’s ferocity:

If you go into the lion’s den and piss him off, he’s liable to eat you. That’s what lions do. Trump isn’t just popular with the fringe right by the way … he’s got broad appeal. He has Republicans, Democrats, Independents and people from all walks of life clamoring after him. It scares the crap out of the Left and many on the Right as well. I enjoy the heck out of it.

Monroe-Hamilton makes a huge stretch about Trump’s “broad appeal.” The Real Clear Politics rolling average shows Hillary Clinton with a solid lead over Trump, and a recent Arizona poll found that Trump’s nomination would hurt state and local GOP candidates. And GOP leaders around the country share that worry.

“This ongoing, moronic referendum on white victimhood”

Indeed Trump’s candidacy is mobilizing Hispanics for Hillary Clinton, but USA Today’s Jeff Nesbit writes that Trump and his supporters are banking on a whites-only win:

The emergence of this narrative in the GOP presidential primaries – the rise of the disaffected “white vote” – has confounded more than a few political writers of late.

“(We are) facing a future in which national elections will no longer be decided by ideas, but by numbers. It will be a turnout battle between people who believe in a multicultural vision for the country, and those who don’t,” Matt Taibbi wrote in Rolling Stone. “Every other issue, from taxes to surveillance to war to jobs to education, will take a distant back seat to this ongoing, moronic referendum on white victimhood.”

And reader comments at CNN suggest the data on declining white life expectancy will only reinforce that sense of victimhood:

Work ethic is trumped by social engineering in the work place. Might as well party.
With the rising rate of illegal immigrants collecting welfare and other free programs, White Americans are being expected to work longer and harder hours to pay for these programs. Thus burning out at an earlier age.

As aggrieved whites see it, their declining life expectancy – due almost entirely to suicide and drug and alcohol abuse – is happening because of affirmative action and immigration.

In other words: If we can’t have it all … why bother?


Photo Credit: Brendan McDermid (Reuters), CBS, Composition by Salon


Good day and good nuts