|Animated GIF by Bill Domonkos (2014).|
"What's the matter with Kansas?" wondered Thomas Frank in his celebrated 2004 book, meaning the political problem of what makes middle-class Kansans such self-defeating voters, continually giving themselves government by a Republican party that seems determined to make their lives worse in more or less every respect, impoverishing them materially (with an unbending insistence on freedom for the employer class, from taxes and regulation) and spiritually and intellectually (with an intolerance for heterodox views in education and religion).
But I'm wondering whether we should start thinking of it as a medical problem, following Shannon Monnat's research finding powerful correlations between the Trump vote and death rates from drugs, alcohol, and suicide in Rust Belt counties, what she refers to as "deaths of despair", or Kathleen Frydl's work focusing on opioid overdoses in Ohio and Pennsylvania in particular, or the study done by The Economist, which got comparable results without considering any drugs other than alcohol:
The Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington has compiled county-level data on life expectancy and the prevalence of obesity, diabetes, heavy drinking and regular physical activity (or lack thereof). Together, these variables explain 43% of Mr Trump’s gains over Mr Romney, just edging out the 41% accounted for by the share of non-college whites (see chart).It's sort of like the effort of the CDC to study gun violence as a public health issue, which was shut down by the Republican Congress in 1996 on the grounds that gun violence is not a proper disease. Of course it absolutely is a public health issue, in that it's the health care system that has to deal with it, generally in emergency rooms, and paid for by tax dollars. You don't need to be a sentimental liberal to see this point. Indeed, you have to be a sentimental conservative to be able to not see it, with a weepy and blurred attachment to the Second Amendment in your own stupid misinterpretation.
In the same way, voting conservative might be thought of as a pathological response to hopeless conditions, not so different from becoming addicted to narcotic drugs (painkillers, inducers of sleep), and voting for Trump an especially virulent and dangerous form, like suicidal behavior. Because as has repeatedly been noticed, these people weren't voting for Trump in the expectation of seeing him keep his promises, but for the satisfaction of some darker impulse, and certainly a destructive one, an inchoate desire to "smash everything". And it really isn't a healthy reaction.
There's a sense in which you might almost say David Brooks is right; white folks out there where they shuttered the factories 20 years ago and more are suffering from something that makes some fat and diabetic, others drug-dependent, and still others conservative, which you could just about specify in Brooksian terms as a dearth of meaning, which leads some to this absurd form of self-harm.
Where Brooks goes wrong is in supposing the remedy is the Burkean approach of restoring some sort of traditional authority structure to dictate the meaning of life to us. As a matter of fact, the people who suffer from this meaning deficit to this extreme degree, leading them to shoot themselves or vote for ignorant and helpless psychopath politicians, are generally already members of one or more authoritarian cultural structures, in particular a conservative Evangelical denomination, the Republican party, or both. Not to mention the rigidly patriarchal marriages/families that have become unstable nowadays because women don't have to put up with them.
Whereas those of us who are free of such structures, cultural relativists and religious skeptics, with the privilege of education that has been denied to those WWC unfortunates, may worry about the meaning of life too, but have more options, from psychotherapy to yoga, and suffer much less on the whole, and indeed get ourselves a little meaningfulness rush from our liberal politics, by voting for the general welfare instead of the bank accounts of the wealthy.
Brooks himself is the limiting case that proves the rule: abusing his freedom to voluntarily cage himself in an absurd ideology, and projecting his own resulting wretchedness on everybody else.
Trump voting is a serious health issue, brought on the victims' imprisonment, economic and spiritual. and the cure, take it from an old hippy, is liberation.
I like the kind of religion that isn't mucked up with all those damn words.
On gun violence, by the way:
The other day I was looking at First Amendment commentary in pursuit of an argument with that National Review American history hack hack Arthur Milikh, who was suggesting that freedom of speech under the Constitution really only applies to "respectable speech"—no, it really wasn't worth bothering, though it might have been funny for a paragraph or two, because as we've seen before he's a truly terrible writer.
Anyhow in the process I bumped into the 1833 commentary on the Second Amendment by that most standard and significant of early interpreters, Mr. Justice Joseph Story, who was Chief Justice Marshall's steadiest and most scholarly ally from 1812 through 1832 (and afterwards one of Chief Justice Taney's most stalwart opponents), and it's absolutely clear that the initial understanding of the Amendment had everything to do with the maintenance of state militias in opposition to a federal standing army, and no relation whatever to any conjectured "individual" right to bear arms as imagined by Antonin Scalia in his Heller decision of 2008:
§ 1890. The importance of this article will scarcely be doubted by any persons, who have duly reflected upon the subject. The militia is the natural defence of a free country against sudden foreign invasions, domestic insurrections, and domestic usurpations of power by rulers. It is against sound policy for a free people to keep up large military establishments and standing armies in time of peace, both from the enormous expenses, with which they are attended, and the facile means, which they afford to ambitious and unprincipled rulers, to subvert the government, or trample upon the rights of the people. The right of the citizens to keep and bear arms has justly been considered, as the palladium of the liberties of a republic; since it offers a strong moral check against the usurpation and arbitrary power of rulers; and will generally, even if these are successful in the first instance, enable the people to resist and triumph over them. And yet, though this truth would seem so clear, and the importance of a well regulated militia would seem so undeniable, it cannot be disguised, that among the American people there is a growing indifference to any system of militia discipline, and a strong disposition, from a sense of its burthens, to be rid of all regulations. How it is practicable to keep the people duly armed without some organization, it is difficult to see. There is certainly no small danger, that indifference may lead to disgust, and disgust to contempt; and thus gradually undermine all the protection intended by this clause of our national bill of rights.
§ 1891. A similar provision in favour of protestants (for to them it is confined) is to be found in the bill of rights of 1688, it being declared, "that the subjects, which are protestants, may have arms for their defence suitable to their condition, and as allowed by law." But under various pretences the effect of this provision has been greatly narrowed; and it is at present in England more nominal than real, as a defensive privilege.
Obviously I'm not the first person to notice this, see for instance this comment by Richard Posner, but I thought it was worth pointing out that there's nothing obscure or legalistic about it: it is unmistakably the case that that first clause, "A well regulated Militia being necessary to the security of a free State," says exactly what it seems to say about the rest of the sentence, as any moderately educated layperson can see. It is astonishing to me that the "conservative" Scalia had so little respect for the Story tradition, and even more that so many people especially in the press are willing, apparently out of misguided respect for Scalia, to pretend there's any ambiguity at all.