Lives (And Deaths) Of Quiet Desperation

After years of increasing longevity, studies are showing that the death rate is rising, but only for one group — white Americans between the ages of 45 and 54.  The divergence in the trend lines may be inexplicable, but it is unmistakable.  While death rates are falling in other first-world countries, and for African-Americans and Hispanics in the United States, they are rising for middle-aged whites.

The circumstances of the deaths all point to mental health issues as an underlying cause for the anomaly.  As the Wall Street Journal reports, between 1999 and 2013 deaths from suicide, drug overdoses, alcohol abuse, and chronic liver disease all increased for that population demographic, even as the incidence of other common causes for mortality, such as lung cancer, declined.  The studies also show that the increase in the mental health-related causes of death is particularly notable among middle-aged whites with no more than a high school education, although increases also were observed among better-educated segments of the population, too.

The experts aren’t sure why the mortality trend is affecting this particular group.  Some point to increases in mental health issues among white Americans and musculoskeletal problems that have left people in chronic pain — and therefore ripe for self-medication through alcohol or addiction to powerful painkillers — but those don’t seem like reasons that should target one demographic group to the exclusion of others, or for that matter should affect Americans but not Germans, British, or Canadians.

Other experts say that “economic stress” is the culprit, and that many Americans have reached middle age only to find that they are less well off than their parents, when the “American Dream” we heard about growing up is supposed to result in increases in wealth and happiness from generation to generation.  That rationale might explain why Americans are being affected as opposed to those in other countries — but is belief in the “American Dream” really so profoundly different among different demographic groups that it would explain the different death rates?

In Walden, Henry D. Thoreau wrote:  “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.”  Many of us know people who have succumbed to that desperation, but we aren’t sure precisely why.  We don’t know why they are prone to addiction, or depression, or suicidal thoughts when others in similar circumstances manage to deal with their problems and forge ahead — but these studies indicate that their stories are sufficiently commonplace to create a clear and disturbing statistical trend.

Our grandparents and parents would scoff at the idea that the “American Dream” was a bad thing.  Could it be that its aspirational notions have created expectations that, if unrealized, produce disappointment so crushing that it cannot be borne?  I’m skeptical of that conclusion, but I nevertheless wonder why so many people apparently are so desperately unhappy about their lives, and what we can do to change that trend.

The GOP’s Diversity Conundrum

Many commentators made fun of the Republican Party at its convention last week, lampooning the fact that the diversity of the speakers really doesn’t match the diversity of party membership.  The parade of African-Americans, Latinos, and women, they argued, was like a Potemkin Village designed to mask a party that lacks meaningful diversity.

GOP congressional candidate Mia Love

The diversity issue is an obvious challenge for the GOP.  It’s hard to imagine any party having long-term success if it must begin each election by writing off large, growing segments of the American populace because those segments think the party has no interest in them and nothing to offer them.  The only way for Republicans to overcome that perception, I think, is to show that there are diverse members of the party who have been successful.  It’s a lot easier to convince people to check out your tent if they can peek inside and see a few friendly faces.

And it’s not as if the convention speakers weren’t accomplished in their own right.  The Republicans don’t have to reach down to the county level to find successful Latinos, African-Americans, and women; the diverse speakers at last week’s convention included sitting governors and Senators, a former Secretary of State, and current candidates for the Senate and the House of Representatives.  They were an impressive bunch — and if, like me, you were unaware of people like Susana Martinez, the governor of New Mexico, Brian Sandoval, the governor of Nevada, Nikki Haley, the governor of South Carolina, or Mia Love, a congressional candidate from Utah, it was a bit of a revelation.

The stories these folks told about their families, and the opportunities that they were able to enjoy in America through hard work and sacrifice, were compelling — and might actually cause wavering diverse voters to pause and question whether the Republican Party is worth a look. The themes of sacrifice, and hard work, and America as the land of opportunity run deep in families that have immigrated to this country during the last few generations.  I’m guessing that Latinos and other recent immigrants who watched any of the convention learned to their surprise that they had a lot in common with the speakers behind the podium.

New Mexico Governor Susana Martinez

I don’t think Democrats are in danger of losing their stranglehold on African-American and, to a lesser extent, Latino voters this year, but if I were a Democrat I’d be wondering how my party lost a member like Susana Martinez.  Martinez had the tough assignment of following Condoleezza Rice and preceding Paul Ryan on Wednesday night, and she rose to the occasion and gave a terrific, memorable speech.  She began her political life as a Democrat, like her parents before her, and one day she and her husband were invited to lunch by two Republicans whom she suspected would raise the issue of joining the GOP.  The Martinezes went to the lunch out of politeness and talked with the two Republicans about issues like welfare and the size of government.  After the lunch ended, an astonished Martinez turned to her husband and said:  “I’ll be damned, we’re Republicans!”

The GOP is hoping that, if it continues to produce and then feature office-holders and candidates of the quality of Susana Martinez and the other people who stood before the Republican convention, it won’t be long before many more diverse Americans realize, with a start, that they also should be Republicans.  Based on what I saw last week, that strategy just might work.