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Moral Chaos And Despair

Last fall, Donald Trump shook up the political world by winning the presidency, largely on the strength of white, working-class voters, who favored him overwhelmingly and who, in so doing, reclaimed their title as the king- (or president-) makers of American politics.  For decades – centuries, even – the middle-American white working class, known variously as the Scots-Irish or “Jacksonians,” dominated politics, siding with virtually every successful presidential candidate for more than a hundred years.  All of that changed in 2008, however, when the Jacksonians’ candidate, Senator John McCain, was defeated by Barack Obama.  The same dynamic was played out again in 2012, when the Jacksonians sided with Governor Mitt Romney, who lost to the incumbent Obama by a wide margin.

Last year, the white working-class reclaimed its influence and put Donald Trump in the Oval Office.  That was not, however, a show of strength, a proud retrieval of political supremacy.  Rather, it was the last desperate cry of a people left behind by the globalization of the American dream.  While the rest of the country moved forward and continued to gain in physical and material well-being, the white working-class slid backward, dramatically and metaphorically leaving the comforts and progress of the First World for the devastation of the Third.

Two years ago, Anne Case and Angus Deaton, economics professors at Princeton, shocked the academic and political worlds with a ground-breaking study that showed the death rate among middle-aged, working-class whites has been actually increasing dramatically since the turn of the century.  Last month, in a follow-up study [1], Case and Deaton showed that the trends they first noted in 2015 are not merely continuing, but are, in fact, still increasing.  The death rate among their subject population is getting worse, even just two years later.

Now, if you unpack their results, what you see is a phenomenon confined exclusively to white, less-than-fully-educated Americans, including a great deal of what they call “death by despair,” i.e. death by overdose, suicide, and alcohol, in addition to an increasing rate of death by heart disease.  This phenomenon crosses gender lines, showing up among women as well as men, but it does not cross lines of race, ethnicity or nationality.  It is strictly a white, working-class “disease.”  More to the point, because it does not cross lines of race, this “disease” defies easy explanation.  It cannot be pinned exclusively on wages or unemployment, as these factors have remained more or less constant among the high-school educated populations of ALL races.  It also cannot be pinned exclusively on obesity or obesity-related illness (i.e. diabetes, heart disease) for much the same reason.  All of which is to say that there is something going on here that is far outside the normal range of explanations.

But if the normal explanations come up short in this case, then what, pray tell, is the problem?  Case and Deaton attempt to explain:

Some of the most convincing discussions of what has happened to working class whites emphasize a longterm process of decline, or of cumulative deprivation, rooted in the steady deterioration in job opportunities for people with low education….This process, which began for those leaving high school and entering the labor force after the early 1970s…worsened over time, and caused, or at least was accompanied by, other changes in society that made life more difficult for less-educated people, not only in their employment opportunities, but in their marriages, and in the lives of and prospects for their children.  Traditional structures of social and economic support slowly weakened; no longer was it possible for a man to follow his father and grandfather into a manufacturing job, or to join the union.  Marriage was no longer the only way to form intimate partnerships, or to rear children.  People moved away from the security of legacy religions or the churches of their parents and grandparents, towards churches that emphasized seeking an identity, or replaced membership with the search for connections . . . These changes left people with less structure when they came to choose their careers, their religion, and the nature of their family lives.  When such choices succeed, they are liberating; when they fail, the individual can only hold him or herself responsible.  In the worst cases of failure, this is a Durkheim-like recipe for suicide. . . .

As technical change and globalization reduced the quantity and quality of opportunity in the labor market for those with no more than a high school degree, a number of things happened that have been documented in an extensive literature.  Real wages of those with only a high school degree declined, and the college premium increased. . . .

Lower wages made men less marriageable, marriage rates declined, and there was a marked rise in cohabitation, then much less frowned upon than had been the case a generation before. . . . [B]eyond the cohort of 1940, men and women with less than a BA degree are less likely to have ever been married at any given age.  Again, this is not occurring among those with a four-year degree.  Unmarried cohabiting partnerships are less stable than marriages.  Moreover, among those who do marry, those without a college degree are also much more likely to divorce than are those with a degree….  Childbearing is common in cohabiting unions, and again less disapproved of than once was the case.  But, as a result, more men lose regular contact with their children, which is bad for them, and bad for the children, many of whom live with several men in childhood.

Case and Deaton concede that their explanation shares “much, though not all, with Murray’s (2012) account of decline among whites in his fictional ‘Fishtown.’”  Even so, they “emphasize the labor market, globalization and technical change as the fundamental forces, and put less focus on any loss of virtue.”

That’s understandable, but also short-sighted.  The fact of the matter is that the social collapse among the white working-class is, as Murray noted, especially about values and specifically about the nation’s social, political and cultural elites’ encouragement of the constituents to abandon what he calls the “Founding Virtues.”  As the great moral philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre noted in his classic After Virtue, the entire Enlightenment project has been building, over centuries, toward moral chaos and toward the supposition that right and wrong are mere human constructs that are not eternal and can and should change as dictated purely by human reason.

The white-working class is now suffering the consequences of this hubris.  Cut off from families, religion, social networks and traditional values and bonds, members of the white working-class have, in many cases, turned to despair.  And as it did with Judas, this despair is killing them.