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The Rise of Despair and Conservative Politics

October 19, 2022

Summary: Anne Case & Angus Deaton are leaders in defining the links between rising hopelessness, declining health, and political division. A linchpin is the growing economic penalty from lacking a college degree; another is increasingly unaffordable healthcare. Single payer is harder to achieve in this polarized context, but more needed to overcome our political disarray.

There Are Two Americas Now: One With a B.A. and One Without
NY Times
October 5, 2022
By Thomas Edsall

The Republican Party has become crucially dependent on a segment of white voters suffering what analysts call a “mortality penalty.”

This penalty encompasses not only disproportionately high levels of so-called deaths of despair — suicide, drug overdoses and alcohol abuse — but also across-the-board increases in several categories of disease, injury and emotional disorder.

“Red states are now less healthy than blue states, a reversal of what was once the case,” Anne Case and Angus Deaton, economists at Princeton, argue in a paper they published in April, “The Great Divide: Education, Despair, and Death.”

… the correlation between Republican voting and life expectancy “goes from plus 0.42 when Gerald Ford was the Republican candidate — healthier states voted for Ford and against Carter — to minus 0.69 in 2016 and minus 0.64 in 2020. States classified as the least healthy voted for Trump and against Biden.”

… the ballots cast for Donald Trump by members of the white working class “are surely not for a president who will dismantle safety nets but against a Democratic Party that represents an alliance between minorities — whom working-class whites see as displacing them and challenging their once solid if unperceived privilege — and an educated elite that has benefited from globalization and from a soaring stock market, which was fueled by the rising profitability of those same firms that were increasingly denying jobs to the working class.”

The Great Divide: Education, Despair, and Death
Annual Review of Economics
April 2022
By Anne Case and Angus Deaton


Deaths of despair, morbidity, and emotional distress continue to rise in the United States, largely borne by those without a college degree—the majority of American adults—for many of whom the economy and society are no longer delivering. Concurrently, all-cause mortality in the United States is diverging by education in a way not seen in other rich countries. We review the rising prevalence of pain, despair, and suicide among those without a bachelor’s degree. Pain and despair created a baseline demand for opioids, but the escalation of addiction came from pharma and its political enablers. We examine the politics of despair, or how less-educated people have abandoned and been abandoned by the Democratic Party. Whereas healthier states once voted Republican in presidential elections, now the less-healthy states do. We review deaths during COVID-19, finding that mortality in 2020 maintained or exacerbated existing relative mortality differences between those with and without college degrees.


[T]he economy has increasingly come to serve some, but not all, Americans, and where a central division is between those who do and those who do not have a 4-year college degree. While the college wage premium has soared to unprecedented levels, the inequality between these two groups involves much more than money. The college degree has now become “a condition of dignified work and of social esteem” as well as a matter of life and death, with adult life expectancy rising for the college educated and falling for the rest.

In our book [2020], we developed an account of the rising tide of despair, focusing on declining employment opportunities for those without a BA, especially the fall in good jobs, those that offer a sense of belonging, meaning, and purpose and prospects for advancement. This was aggravated by an ever more expensive health care system—more than twice as expensive as in other rich countries—a fifth of which is financed by an approximately flat tax on workers in amounts that often make low-skilled workers unemployable. An employer-sponsored individual (family) health plan cost $7,470 ($21,342) in 2020, $3.73 ($10.67) per hour for a 2,000-hour year, money that comes out of wages and take-home pay (KFF 2020). We also noted the lack of a comprehensive safety net in the United States for those who are neither elderly nor children … Both the safety net and the financing of health care are radically different in other rich countries where—with a few exceptions—there are few deaths of despair. …[W]e emphasized the corrosive effects of American meritocracy on the unsuccessful, on Young’s “populists” who have to live with the meritocratic hubris of the well-credentialed … and who, as they strive not to blame themselves, believe—with much justification— that society is rigged against them. …

Deaths of despair among Blacks and among Hispanics began to rise after 2010; like those for Whites, the increases are largely confined to those without a 4-year college degree. About three-quarters of the increase for Blacks and Hispanics without a BA is accounted for by drug overdoses.

A Politics of Despair

If the majority of Americans are failing to thrive while a minority prospers, why does the democratic process not work to improve their material and health outcomes? … [L]iving in a functioning democracy is good in and of itself, and the lack of effective political voice is one reason to despair. Woolhandler et al. (2021) in a Lancet Commission report on public policy and health in the Trump era … describe a negative feedback loop in which “the neoliberal policies that inflicted economic hardship and worsened health” did not, as might have been expected in a well-functioning democratic state, generate a political demand for better safety nets and health provision, because less-educated whites see such policies as favoring minorities at their expense. … Blacks and more educated whites react in the opposite direction, widening political polarization, which on net favors the right and provides an opening for populist politicians such as Donald Trump. …

[A]fter the US presidential election of 2016, several studies noted correlations between deaths of despair, changes in life expectancy, and the Republican share of the vote (Monnat 2016, Bor 2017). Bor (2017) finds a correlation of −0.67 across counties between changes in life expectancy from 1980 and 2014 and the share of each county’s vote going to Trump. There is a similar cross-county correlation of Trump’s vote share with the fraction of each county’s White population without a college degree …

The economy began to turn against the white working class around 1970. Real wages began to decline for workers without a BA, and there was a long, slow decline—interrupted but never fully restored during economic booms—in job opportunities for less-educated men, much of which was driven by the decline in employment in American manufacturing. Globalization was important, though less important than automation, as was the relentless increase in the cost of health care, much of which is paid for through what is essentially a head tax on wages. …

Since the 1970s, there has been a slow-rolling and still ongoing divorce between Democrats and the white working class, a divorce that is central to the politics of despair. Especially after the catastrophic 1968 Democratic National Convention, the party slowly oriented itself away from its traditional working-class and union base toward what it is today, a coalition of minorities and educated professionals. …

Comment by: Don McCanne & Jim Kahn

The political realignment that has taken place has racial minorities joining the better educated professionals, improving their own educational levels and their own health status, whereas less educated largely white populations have aligned with the Republicans as their despair and sense of being abandoned has risen. Hence worse health and rising drugs, depression, and suicide in GOP-dominated states. With the conservatives more volubly exploiting these issues, our hopes for reaching social solidarity on a universal health care system diminish.

Is there pride in being uneducated? In being at high risk of those factors that lead to deaths of despair? Of having a shorter life expectancy? Of being used by the conservative political forces to impede social progress in our nation? If these concepts were better understood, we could raise social solidarity and accomplish goals such as health care justice for all.

Providing universal, stable, affordable, high-quality care would sharply decrease political alienation and hopelessness, and tangibly convey the virtues of a community orientation over private profit. No wonder single payer is so frightening to the conservative purveyors of political schism. Halloween is coming, time to embrace our worse fears!

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