For some mysterious reason, the largely white, high school educated conservative base insists on voting against its own economic self-interest time and time again by voting Republican.
Presumably, they vote for prayer in the schools, opposing gay marriage, and constructing barriers against a perceived stampede of illegal immigrants and are instead given tax cuts for the wealthy, elimination of the progressive income tax replaced by a flat tax or increase in the sales tax, cuts in the capital gains tax rate, and more tax cuts for the wealthy.
In a fascinating article in Salon magazine written by Chauncey DeVega, it is revealed this pattern is likely becoming hazardous to their health.
The article, written as a letter to white America, links voting patterns among this demographic with the release of a recent study pointing to the increased mortality rates of white middle-aged Americans since 1999.
While all the other racial and ethnic groups in wealthy countries are enjoying increased longevity, deaths rates in this group have been rising, not falling. Whites younger than age 64 and more educated whites are bucking this trend. What is happening?
The study clearly shows this trend toward higher mortality of less educated whites is not the result of disease, like lung cancer or diabetes, rather it is the result of drug and alcohol addiction, and suicide. According to the Washington Post:
""Drugs and alcohol, and suicide . . . are clearly the proximate cause," said Angus Deaton, the 2015 Nobel laureate in economics, who co-authored the paper with his wife, Anne Case. Both are economics professors at Princeton University."
"The heroin death toll has quadrupled in the decade that ended in 2013, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention."
"A study in the journal JAMA Psychiatry last year reported that 90 percent of the people who tried heroin for the first time in the last decade were white. Three-quarters said they were introduced to heroin through the use of prescription drugs."
"In January, the CDC reported that an average of six people die every day because of alcohol poisoning and that 76 percent are ages 35 to 64. Three-quarters are men."
And it is in many of the red states where the social safety net is the thinnest that have been hardest hit by the problem of opiate addiction, indicating an underlying problem of despair and disillusionment. According to Aljazeera America:
"The use of prescription painkillers, as well as illegal drugs such as heroin that tamp down emotional pain, is on the rise, especially in states where limited educations are common. In Alabama, among the poorest states, doctors wrote 143 prescriptions for opioids such as Oxycontin for every 100 residents in 2012 -- the highest rate in the nation. Tennessee doctors write such prescriptions at more than 21 times the rate of Minnesota doctors."
Of course, with heroin addiction becoming a phenomenon now plaguing the Heartland, unlike the 1970's when it was largely a problem found in the urban black underclass, society is turning from a criminal justice approach to the problem to a medical approach, which recognizes counseling and treatment as the most effective intervention. Compassion for the problem of heroin addiction seems to be growing as the problem crosses the racial barrier and is entering largely rural and middle-class communities.
Surely, this group of whites have become more and more marginalized as manufacturing has abandoned America, replaced by nothing which allows a springboard into the middle class any longer without a college degree. Surely, this group is threatened by perceived gains by minorities and a certain loss of the privilege and status of being white in America. Surely, this group is threatened by the perception of undocumented immigrants taking the jobs that were once theirs, although so many of the undocumented do jobs that no one else desires.
The pain of this group is real and their economic fortunes are growing more and more precarious each year. However, this conservative demographic largely takes shelter in the Fox News, Rush Limbaugh information bubble which relies on vast conspiracy theories and disinformation to misinform. If I believed climate change was a conspiracy among scientists to impose socialism on us, that Muslims had terrorist training camps across America, and that Obama was coming for our guns or the U.N. was set to invade at any minute, I might react with growing hysteria and paranoia too.
If I believed, led on by Fox News, that minorities and illegal immigrants were responsible for my economic dislocation, I might be angry and fearful. If people do not believe they are in control of their lives, they are likely to be increasingly paranoid and isolated. Therefore, much of the misfortune of this group if being fed by the very instruments it looks to for consolation - the conservative media echo chamber.
The things which once gave life meaning, connectedness, and security are no longer. Particularly in the red conservative states the social safety net has been shredded. Right to work laws are the norm leading to lower wages than elsewhere. Unions have been decimated. Pensions, which once gave retirement a sense of security, have been replaced by 401k's with all the associated stock market risk they entail which are further enriching corporate profits and making life more comfortable for those who live off of capital gains at the expense of retirees.
At the same time, many red state governors are steadfast in their refusal to expand insurance coverage for their constituents through the Affordable Care Act. In fact, according to Joshua Holland writing in Bill Moyers.com: "Without those federal dollars coming in, a number of hospitals that serve low-income populations in refusing states have already been shuttered." Thus, despair is the new norm!
"White America -- its poor and working classes in the throes of depression and hopelessness about the future, and killing themselves, intentionally or otherwise -- must now summon up in itself the very same "personal responsibility" that the right so often uses to disparage the suffering of the black and brown poor. While globalization is most certainly pushing the white poor and working classes even further into a category of expendables, this same group of people must acknowledge their own complicity with such an outcome."
"The truth hurts."
"Poor and working class white Republicans, who vote for policies that hurt people like them, have contributed to this problem. White conservatives in the South, who flocked to the Republican Party because of anger about the civil rights movement, have caused this problem. Poor and working class white Republicans, who use the financial prosperity and success of the rich and upper classes as a barometer for how they should vote (a choice made even more absurd in a country where inter-generational upward mobility has been basically non-existent for decades), are a cause of this problem."
"Unfortunately, American history is replete with examples when white people chose racism and white racial affinity over shared class interests with people of color. When threatened, those who are invested in Whiteness as a type of property and psychological wage often double down on protecting it. Instead of embracing black and brown Americans, White America in crisis may wholly abandon the chimera of "post racial" politics and fully embrace a reactionary type of white racial identity politics--and perhaps even overt, old fashioned, bigotry."
No one wants to oversimplify the growing problem of opiate addiction in America.
However, the narcotic of voting for tax cuts for the wealthy, in an effort to punish the perceived condescension of cultural elites when the real bias should be against economic elites at a time when CEO's makes hundreds of times the salaries of the average employee who works for them, is detrimental to one's health.
As DeVega explains, the narcotic of feeding into the nativism of a Donald Trump and the "bigotry and resentment-based politics of the Republican party" is detrimental to one's health as well and the solution just may be less of an identification along racial lines and more of an identification along the lines of social class and income.
Of course, voting against one's own economic self-interest is a difficult addiction to shake!