In 2016, Donald J. Trump was elected the 45th president of the United States. This was quite a shock to many. What was once only a bad joke in an old Simpsons episode became a painful reality. Immediately, people went out searching for answers to try to explain how this happened. While there are many potential causes, there is one little often overlooked statistic that could potentially be a big part of the answer.
This number has to do with what some researchers have called “deaths of despair”. Angus Deaton and Anne Case, researchers from Princeton University, have conducted research in order to illuminate this troubling trend. In the past 20 years, deaths from suicides, alcohol poisoning, and drugs have skyrocketed, achieving numbers not seen since the 1930’s. What is interesting is that there is one demographic that has seen a rapid rise in these types of deaths: single white men.
An analysis of historical data from the Center for Disease Control (CDC) shows that the average rate of death from despair in the past few years is 2.5 times higher among men than women, and that rate rises to more than 4.5 times among white men. While you see that historically the rates of suicides among women have been quite steady (with just a slight spike in recent years among white women), the rate among men has been on the rise, being at the highest level since the Great Depression.
What is causing this troubling trend?
There are several potential causes for this, with the answer probably being a combination of factors coming together. Wage stagnation, unemployment and underemployment, the worsening of the dating market and the lower likelihood of finding a partner are all probably big contributors to this general feeling of malaise and despair.
A study done by the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis summarizes the economic side of things very well:
“ The white working class has declined both in size and relative well-being. Uniquely among major socioeconomic groups, the white working class decreased in absolute numbers and population share in recent decades. At the same time, the five measures of well-being we tracked all deteriorated for the white working class relative to the overall population. The shares of all income earned and wealth owned by the white working class fell even faster than their population share.”
The key sentence to understanding what is going on is the last one: the share of all income earned and wealth owned by the white working class fell even faster than their population share. While all the other groups are getting richer, the white working class (and particularly males) are getting poorer.
This type of downward trend can have great negative effects on the mindset of people. If you are feeling that your life is not improving, but actually getting worse, and that you will never be able to achieve the lifestyle that your parents (or even you) had in the past, your psyche can go into feelings of depression and despair. This then makes you much more prone to seeking radical solutions to your perceived problems.
The dating market is skewed
Another trend that is often overlooked has to do with the dynamics on the dating market. It has become much harder for men to get a date, not mentioning finding a suitable marriage partner. While for women the options have skyrocketed, most men are experiencing the opposite effect, with their options diminishing greatly.
This has a double negative effect, as it also reinforces the lack of motivation to perform on the labor market. As one research paper states:
“ Why have so many young men withdrawn from the U.S. labor force since 1965? This paper presents a model in which men invest time in employment to enhance their value as marriage partners. When the marriage market return on this investment declines, young men’s employment declines as well, in preparation for a less favorable marriage market.”
One reason for this is tied to the social dynamics of modern life, which have been exacerbated by recent trends in technology and the rise of social media and dating apps. One writer on Medium did an interesting Tinder experiment which can be used to illustrate what is happening out in the real world.
The conclusions of that experiment were that 80% of the girls on Tinder are chasing 20% of the best looking guys on Tinder, while the rest of the 80% of the guys are chasing the bottom 20% of the women. What this means is that the dating market has greater inequalities than the economic inequalities in the most unequal societies of the world.
The experimenter decided to use the Gini index in order to illustrate how unequal the dating market really is. The Gini index measures the distribution of incomes among a population, and is often used to show economic inequality in a given country. The US is one of the countries with the highest income inequalities in the developed world and its Gini co-efficient stands at 0.41. The Tinder co-efficient is 0.58, which puts it on the same level as the income inequality in Haiti!
This is corroborated by statistics from OKCupid on how women rate men and how men rate women. Basically, the men rate women according to a normal distribution, while the women rate the majority of men as below average.
What this leads to is loneliness, the new epidemic in the modern world, one that is rarely talked about. According to scientific studies, loneliness hits men much harder than women:
“ In their 2009 book, The Lonely American: Drifting Apart in the Twenty-first Century, Jacqueline Olds and Richard S. Schwartz, a married couple who are both psychiatrists and professors at Harvard Medical School, observed that it was common for men to form closer bonds with their spouses at the expense of other social connections. And, over their lifespans, men tended to lose the connections they did have with male friends, depriving them of the inoculating effect of social ties — which have been shown to increase happiness, help people cope with trauma, and extend longevity.”
According to the psychologists who conducted the study, men usually form much closer connections to their spouses than the other way around. Now imagine what type of pain can result when these men end up losing these spouses, or cannot even find them in the first place.
From anecdotal evidence you can see what types of difficulties many men are facing in the dating market. Many of these have been made much worse by Instagram, and especially dating apps. In an article titled “Tinder is destroying men’s self-esteem”, Christian Gollayan illustrates the effects through interviews. One person he talked to was a man named Ben Ellman:
“Dating in NYC feels like a meat market,” says Ellman, who’s now in a relationship. “Some people are like, ‘Well, if he only checks off three out of the seven things, that isn’t enough, so I’m gonna look for someone who checks off more things on my list’ … [It] can make people feel disposable.”
While before, as a guy you would realistically only get rejected by a few women in a given period of time, now you can get rejected by thousands in just a few hours. This can make men feel disposable and depressed. On the other hand, these dating apps built up women’s self-esteem, since now at the click of a button they have access to thousands of potential dates, meaning they don’t have to put too much effort into getting to know the individual guy and instead play the field.
“Take former Tinder user Taylor Costello, 24, who says that the dating app made her feel better about herself after men swiped right and showered her with compliments. “I’ve always been confident, but when you use this tool and get 50 people wanting to see you, it can definitely be a confidence boost,” says Costello, a bartender who lives in Hell’s Kitchen and ended up finding a boyfriend through the app.”
This can be corroborated by my own personal experience and that of my friends. Keep in mind that this is a highly specialized demographic, all highly educated guys (all master degree and above), with good jobs, in good shape, with pretty interesting lives. Most of them are either single, or in bad relationships. The single guys often have basically non-existent dating lives, and the ones in bad relationships are holding onto them, because if they become single, they know they will have problems finding a girlfriend.
My very limited number of dates usually end up like this Youtube video:
I go a date, end up having deep conversations, think that I had lots of fun and want to see the girl again to continue building up on this experience, only to be told that the girl didn’t feel a spark. No idea what this “spark” actually is, but my asshole friend (one who does everything that the Gillette commercial tells men not to do) sets women literally on fire, only to pump and dump them.
One of my most bizarre dates (I could probably have an award-winning tragic comedy series based on my dating experiences), happened quite recently. The girl literally spent an hour crying over a guy who pumped her and dumped her a few times. With tears in her eyes, she was telling me how he would never talk to her, but only show up at her place for sex, and how she was in love with him.
Then she spent another hour switching between asking me about how she should get revenge on him, and then immediately moving into wondering how she could get this asshole to fall in love with her. Here I was, originally wanting to get to know her better, and all she did was talk about some loser who did not give a damn about her.
As a guy, these types of experiences are very damaging to your psyche. However, among my limited sample of guys, only one has become a rabid Trump supporter. All the rest of us are either moderate centrists or moderate leftists. Instead, we have internalized the old Stoic mantra of concentrating on things that you can control, and forgetting about the rest, and found other ways of coping.
Me, until my back injury this year severely limited it, I have focused on self-improvement, especially getting stronger and fitter at the gym, and practicing martial arts. I had also started mountain climbing and exploring nature. Another guy went a bit more extreme and turned into a vegan, yoga-practicing cultist. Some other guys have however withdrawn completely, and instead lost themselves in their work, spending long hours at the office.
Why deaths of despair and why Trump?
However, if some guys are able to get beyond their problems, what explains the rise of deaths of despair and the rise of support for Donald Trump among certain men? Let’s look at the statistics again. The deaths are mostly among less educated white males, which is the same demographic that overwhelmingly supported Trump in the 2016 election.
If you further look at the statistics, there is a strong correlation between counties with high rates of deaths of despair among less educated white males, and votes for Trump. You can see that many of these men tried to solve their problems by doing extreme things: either drowning themselves in drugs and alcohol, committing suicide, or voting for Donald Trump.
An analysis from Kunal Sawarkar confirms the correlation between the rise in the deaths of despair in certain counties and their propensity to have voted for Trump.
Lack of economic prospects, lack of dating prospects, as well as other negative factors can cause a questioning of meaning and your place in the world. I would venture a guess, and speculate that more educated males have better ways of coping with this, while the less educated don’t. When a crisis of meaning hits, the better educated ones are probably better at finding meaning in other activities. However even they fall for despair, but can find other ways of channeling it.
Why do these things play with people’s minds? Using Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and his insights into what drives people, you can see which are the most important things for a person’s life. At the bottom, you have the basic needs, ones having to do with the basic inherent goals of a person: survival and reproduction.
These basic needs are the most important needs, and have to be satisfied before any other needs. They include food, shelter, sex. Food is something that in the developed world everyone has. However, after the economic crisis of 2008 which had much to do with housing, the fear for having a roof over your head increased. And of course with the lack of dating prospects, sex is also hard to come by for many men. So right off the bat, the most basic needs are not being satisfied, which causes anxiety.
However, as many ancient philosophers have noted, people are social animals and need contact with other human beings to prosper. Unfortunately, in the modern world, these basic connections between people are being lost, as the social space becomes more and more impersonal, with growing loneliness being the result.
Enter the alleged savior
Put yourself in the shoes of an average male in a town where the local industry is dying. You are out of work, or holding a dead-end job for constantly diminishing pay, you haven’t had a date in years, and probably won’t get one any time soon. Since you barely finished high school, you don’t really have too many prospects of getting out of this situation, and things seem to be getting worse.
Then suddenly, you are confronted with people saying that you are privileged based on your race or sex. You look around, notice your squalid surroundings, reflect on your meager job prospects, and your non-existing love life, and say to yourself: “privilege my ass!”
However, you continue facing attacks on your identity. You start taking these attacks more and more personally, as they lower your self-esteem even more. You start feeling as if you are under attack.
What happens to a person who feels that they are under attack? What happens to their sense of identity? While before you might not have cared, this sense of threat makes you try to identify more with other people from the same group as you who might also feel under threat.
As scientific research shows:
“ Any threat to self-esteem can lead an individual to increase identification with groups that offer high status and support for self-esteem.”
Different people might react in various ways when confronted with these circumstances. Some of them might get even more depressed, and feel that the world is against them, and there is no one to support them. They might start abusing alcohol or drugs, and in extreme cases even commit suicide. So here the deaths of despair statistic is incredibly telling.
Others might react differently. They might start feeling more threatened and this sense of threat can raise their levels of anger and rage against the perceived unfairness of the world. They then start looking for more radical answers to their problems. This is especially dangerous when a perception of outside threat forces them to buckle down on their identity and fuse it tightly with their sense of self. This is what James Hamblin noted in an article:
“ In fusion, a perceived challenge to the group’s ideology is a challenge to the self. Arguments about climate change, for example, might not actually be about climate change, and instead about people protecting their basic sense of order and consistency.”
That’s when the political entrepreneur comes in. Donald Trump sensed this anxiety and sense of threat among the white working class (and especially men), and exploited it to his advantage. Since no one was caring about their problems, he saw a hole in the market and started giving a false sense of security aimed at this group. It doesn’t really matter that these were all false promises, often all is needed to get a group on your side is words.
The alt-right rabbit hole
Today’s toxic climate creates the right conditions for normal people to fall through the alt-right rabbit hole. There is an interesting article where a journalist describes how his young son became sympathetic to the ideas of the alt-right. It all started with a false accusation:
“ One morning during first period, a male friend of Sam’s mentioned a meme whose suggestive name was an inside joke between the two of them. Sam laughed. A girl at the table overheard their private conversation, misconstrued it as a sexual reference, and reported it as sexual harassment. Sam’s guidance counselor pulled him out of his next class and accused him of “breaking the law.” Before long, he was in the office of a male administrator who informed him that the exchange was “illegal,” hinted that the police were coming, and delivered him into the custody of the school’s resource officer. At the administrator’s instruction, that man ushered Sam into an empty room, handed him a blank sheet of paper, and instructed him to write a “statement of guilt.””
This sense of unfair mistreatment sent young Sam searching for answers. He found them online among the alt-right.
“ But the transfer, midyear, to a new school — after he’d been wrongly accused, unfairly treated, then unceremoniously dropped by his friends — shattered Sam. He felt totally alone. I counseled patience, naively unprepared for what came next: when he found people to talk to on Reddit and 4chan.”
Attacks on your identity, and a toxic atmosphere, create conditions ripe for the rise of political entrepreneurs like Donald Trump. People have a need to belong. They are tribal in nature, which is very easy to exploit in pitting people against each other and creating “us” versus “them” types of dichotomies. Shame based political discourse as practiced by woke social justice warriors, not only doesn’t improve social justice for minorities, it just degenerates the political discourse and is incredibly counter-productive.
In extreme cases, these types of dynamics can result in what some psychologists call identity fusion, where personal identities fuse with group identities and take on a life of their own. This type of fusion can be perceived among the radical alt-right supporters of Donald Trump, but also among the social justice warriors of the alt-left. This type of fusion can cloud the mind and result in people justifying bad acts against their opponents:
“The Yale and Oslo team found that Americans who fused with Trump — as opposed to simply agreeing with or supporting him — were more willing to engage in various extreme behaviors, such as personally fighting to protect the U.S. border from an “immigrant caravan,” persecuting Muslims, or violently challenging election results.”
Where can this lead to?
The deaths of despair statistic among males, and more particularly the really high rate of these types of deaths among white males, is incredibly telling. There is a problem, and this problem is not being addressed. The fact that this rate is correlated with the rise of support for Donald Trump shows that people when they feel anxiety about their personal situation can try to solve their problems in extreme ways.
What we are seeing now is rise in extreme rhetoric on both sides of the aisle, with a sense of common identity being torn apart and groups based on “us” versus “them” types of discourse forming and entrenching themselves. This does not bode for democracy. We have seen these types of dynamics before and many times they ended up in the fall of democracy and in the creation of dictatorships.
One telling analogy is what happened when the Roman Republic fell, to be replaced by the Roman Empire. While the circumstances were different, the social dynamics were quite similar to the situation of today. In one of my articles I analyzed the views of ancient Romans on what caused the fall of the Republic and compared it with the situation today. What is significant is how the fall in status and wealth of the ordinary Roman citizens radicalized them. This sense of anxiety and anger was then often exploited by populist demagogues for their own purposes.
Plutarch in his biography of Tiberius Gracchus, a social reformer, noted how the ordinary citizens fell on hard times, even though originally they might have been quite privileged.
“ They fight and die to support others in wealth and luxury, and though they are styled masters of the world, they have not a single clod of earth that is their own.”
This perception of a fall in status of certain groups of Roman citizens was one of the leading factors in the fall of the Republic. The lesson is that declining feelings of well-being and an increase in the sense of worry for the future can have people start looking for extreme solutions to their problems. This cannot be underestimated or taken lightly.
What should be done about this?
Polls show that continued exclusive rhetoric from the social justice warriors will most likely once again deliver the White House to Donald Trump in 2020. This type of rhetoric risks alienating a key demographic that is needed in order to win the presidential race.
The thing is that these guys are not necessarily racist or sexist. Many of them voted for Obama when he ran, but they switched to Trump. The same effect could happen again, unless they feel that their concerns are being legitimately addressed. Nate Cohn, a social researcher, ran a poll in order to gain some insights into how the future elections might turn out.
This quote from an interview with him is quite revealing:
“The next group is not so obviously disposed against a left-leaning candidate but really doesn’t like Warren that much. One question we asked that may be telling about the reason they don’t like Warren is whether they thought that the women who run for President aren’t very likable. About forty per cent of the voters who support Biden but not Warren said they agreed with that statement. I think this group also holds some conservative views on cultural issues. They believe whites face about as much discrimination as nonwhite people do, or they think political correctness has gotten out of control in this country. This is a disproportionately working-class group, and it is disproportionately male.”
This of course doesn’t mean that issues that racial minorities are facing should be neglected. The thing is that these issues can be addressed quite well in a message that unites instead of divides. Tackling issues like poverty, education, or loneliness will benefit all types of people no matter their walk of life or background.
When Nelson Mandela took over South Africa, he took great care to frame issues in such a way, as not to alienate the white Afrikaner minority which had ruled the country previously. When some of the radicals from his party tried to take cheap shots at the Afrikaners by for example taking rugby away from them, Mandela went against this and instead embraced its symbolism. This is portrayed quite well in the movie “Invictus”. He took a symbol which previously had stood for the white Afrikaners, and wrapped it in the language of unity.
Woke culture and calling people out not only creates divisions, but doesn’t help the people it is supposed to help. Most people coming from minority background don’t care about political correctness. In fact, they want the same things that people from the deprived white male working-class want. This can serve as a basis to build a message of unity, and prevent democracy from sliding into the pits of the abyss.
We need to stop thinking of politics as a zero sum game, where one group needs to lose in order for the other one to win. What we need to do is to think in terms of win-win, where all the groups win.