Book Review: Why Some Politicians Are More Dangerous Than Others, by James Gilligan

By Babak Moussavi

The USA has always appeared to suffer from high rates of violence, at least in the eyes of Europeans. The recent murder of peaceful Sikh worshippers in Wisconsin again affirms this perception. Some have attributed this to the culture of gun-ownership, or to the Wild West mentality of harsh individualism. Others (notably, those of a conservative bent) have suggested that it is because the innocents have been discouraged from using force to protect themselves.

The rates of violent death (including both suicides and homicide, which often correspond) have not been held at a constant level since 1900, however. Although they have always been high by the ‘developed’ world’s standards, they have fluctuated wildly. James Gilligan, an epidemiologist at NYU and formerly of Harvard, inquired into this curious pattern in order to seek an explanation for why people were changing their killing habits. As a doctor, his main aim was the prevention of a disease: in this case, the social disease of violent death. And yet, in doing so, he stumbled into politics. His findings, presented in the book Why Some Politicians Are More Dangerous Than Others, are shocking.

Dr Gilligan found that the variations in lethal violence were explained by which party occupied the White House. The spikes in violent deaths occurred under Republican presidents.

In the period from 1900 to 2007, when Republicans were in power, violent death rates rose to “epidemic levels” (defined as an average violent death rate of between 19.4 and 26.5 per 100,000). When Democrats were in power, however, the rates dropped to “normal” levels, which were below 19.4. Only under Republican presidents did the violent death rates rise to epidemic levels, and only under Democratic presidents did they fall from epidemic levels to normal levels. Dwight D Eisenhower was the only Republican president under whom the violent death rate did not become an epidemic, and Jimmy Carter was the only Democrat who failed to normalise the violent death rate.

The results were statistically significant: the magnitude and consistency of the correlation were such that it could not be attributed to chance alone. Correlation, however, does not prove causation, as Dr Gilligan – being a highly experienced scientist – is quick to point out. And yet, the initial findings themselves are startling:

During the entire 107-year period, there was a net cumulative increase of 19.9 violent deaths per 100,000 population during the 59 years Republicans were in power, and an almost exactly equal net decrease of 18.3 during the 48 years of Democratic administrations.

If that sounds confusing, then bear in mind that, at the current US population level, an increase of a single digit in the violent death rate signifies 3,000 additional violent deaths per year – roughly the same number that died in the terrorist attacks of September 11th 2001.

Nixon launched a “war on crime”. It failed.

Dr Gilligan goes through the different presidents and their effects on the violent death rate, showing that Democrats such as Woodrow Wilson, Franklin D Roosevelt and Bill Clinton all succeeded in lowering the epidemic levels of violent deaths that they had inherited from their Republican predecessors. He also shows how Republican presidents, such as George W Bush, Warren Harding and Richard Nixon (who, somewhat ironically, claimed to launch a “war on crime”), elevated these levels once more. Dr Gilligan is not a professional historian, but his brief tour through the data emphasises his point.

The important question remains though: does this show causality? The correlations may not be due to chance alone, but they may be a result of a hidden ‘third factor’ that has not been accounted for. Here, however, Dr Gilligan delves into his expertise in medicine to explain a causal relationship between the party affiliation of the White House incumbent and the rates of lethal violence.

As may seem obvious, a party label is a proxy for ideological stance. What matters are the policies enacted, and whether they are ‘conservative’ (those that generally increase inequality and relative poverty by promoting individualism and the free-market, and opposing welfare, social security, and other forms of social or economic government intervention) or whether they are ‘progressive’ (more egalitarian, inclusive, rehabilitative, and aimed at alleviating poverty and improving opportunities for the poor, often funded through higher rates of taxation). In a two-party system like America’s, party identity is a good substitute.

What we come to see is that conservative policies (enacted by Republican presidents), which increase inequality and fracture the social safety net, have a damaging effect on the rates of lethal violence. Progressive (Democratic) policies, however, which are more egalitarian and place more emphasis on alleviating poverty, decrease the frequency of violent death. This phenomenon can be seen across the country as a whole (when the different parties are in the White House) as well as in different states, depending on their general political leanings. Southern states, for example, which generally vote Republican, have higher violent death rates than ‘liberal’ New England states.

Dr Gilligan explains this using his knowledge of psychology and medicine, as well as his extensive work with prisoners in the US. In a chapter entitled ‘The Shame of it All’, he explains the role of shame and humiliation in leading to violent death. Indeed, although shame is not a sufficient condition for violence, “when violence does occur, experiences of shame and humiliation or the fear of undergoing these experiences, is an ever-present prerequisite.” When interviewing murderers in prison, they regularly told him they had committed the crime because they “felt disrespected”.

A lengthy discussion of “shame-ethics” follows (as well as a brief contrasting examination of the more passive, egalitarian “guilt-ethics”), in which Dr Gilligan examines the psychology of shame, and its role in society, citing numerous anthropological studies, as well as philosophical treatises on shame. He describes how shame appears more frequently and powerfully in more unequal, hierarchical societies, and how it can lead to outbreaks of violent behaviour when its function as an adaptive mechanism that leads to self-improvement is curtailed by a lack of constructive opportunities (such as access to education or meaningful work). A ruthless, stressful, individualistic culture of every-man-for-himself, provides fertile grounds for violence. This violence can be directed towards others, or oneself (hence the correspondence of homicide and suicide rates in such cultures), when the shame becomes overbearing.

By seeing that Republican policies tend to promote the conditions of such a culture, the connection with their policies and the spikes in lethal violence can be made. In the same way that smoking ‘causes’ cancer, he writes (and demonstrates, using the same conditions of causality as the International Agency for Research on Cancer), the Republicans cause a spike in violent deaths. Their policies of building more prisons, increasing the use of the death penalty, or adopting zero tolerance tactics do not explain falls in violent crime rates. Often, such policies were brutally counter-productive. Tough on crime, this party is not.


Criminal (and economic) doublespeak

As an example of how the Republicans are engaging in Orwellian ‘doublespeak’ when they claim to be the party that cuts crime, Dr Gilligan shows the perverse thinking of one Republican Governor who he dealt with (the Governor remains unnamed, and the year is unspecified). When working in a Massachusetts prison (prisons being the most effective tool for “turning a non-violent person into a violent one”), he found that one rehabilitative pilot programme had an incredible 100% success rate in preventing recidivism. This was an education programme that allowed prisoners to study college-credit courses while in jail, in classes taught by volunteering Boston University professors, with the possibility of earning a full bachelor’s degree. Over a 25-year period, not a single one of the hundreds of prisoners who had taken part had returned to prison for a new crime. For some perspective, the average recidivism rate in the US is 65% over three years. When Dr Gilligan gave a series of lectures on these exciting findings at Harvard, a report was sent to the Governor. Instead of applauding the results and increasing funding for it, he did the opposite, and shut it down, on the despicable grounds that it might incentivise law-abiding citizens to commit crimes so as to earn a degree!

So how have the Republicans been getting away with it? Dr Gilligan does not pull his punches. They are evidently not stronger on crime, given that the incidence of the worst sort of crime (murder) explodes under them. Perhaps, he posits, the Republicans have been better at managing the economy than the Democrats, and this compensates for their social failings? Perhaps voters are aware, however, that the Republicans are not as strong socially, but trust them to handle the economy more effectively. Again, the data is just as clear: this is certainly not the case.

  • To begin with, recessions began three times more frequently under Republicans than during Democratic administrations, and lasted 45 per cent longer. Republicans were also four times more likely to bequeath a recession to their Democratic successor than the other way round.
  • Moreover, between 1948 and 2005, in the years that the Republicans were in power, the real (inflation-adjusted) per-capita GNP growth rate was 1.64 per cent. The average rate for the Democrats was 2.78 per cent – a full percentage point higher, or 70 per cent higher than the Republicans’ score.
  • As for unemployment, between 1900 and 2007, “both the rate and the duration have increased during every Republican administration and decreased under every Democratic one, without a single exception.” Average unemployment rates under Republicans were 30 per cent higher than under Democrats.
  • Finally, inflation is an area where conservative governments tend to focus, but even here the Republicans do not shine. From 1948 to 2005, Republican administrations achieved an average inflation rate of 3.76 per cent, whereas the Democrats were marginally higher at 3.97 per cent. Given the increased overall prosperity that the Democrats bring (through higher GNP per capita growth), this counts for nothing.

Watch out, America

Those economic figures are worth pondering over, just as the statistics about lethal violence are. But the conclusion seems inescapable: the Republicans have been disastrous for Americans (the question about how bad they have been for the rest of the world can be kept for another day). And yet, they continue to bombard Americans through the airwaves with campaigns of disinformation about being stronger on crime and better for the economy and ‘free enterprise’. Welfare and other social security policies of the Democrats are often ludicrously derided as ‘Soviet’ or ‘Communist’, but would greatly benefit – and pacify – society as a whole by lowering inequality from its malign levels (and, by investing in things such as education and infrastructure, they may even provide a solid platform for economic growth). Divide-and-rule tactics have served the Republican Party well, by stratifying society and making groups and individuals look down upon the ‘less hard-working’ members below them. But the data shows that the only ones who benefit from Republican rule are at the very, very top.

Dr Gilligan concludes his book with a call for an evidence-based approach to politics, in the same way that medicine is grounded in empirical research and scientific understanding. It is a nice hope. Maybe it will take a doctor to cure America of its mendacious politics. The findings in Why Some Politicians Are More Dangerous Than Others would feature prominently in such an enlightenment.

With Paul Ryan – the man with the plan to eviscerate social spending and roll back the state to a pre-modern era – being touted as the next Republican hero, however, we can be sure that the road to that better sort of politics will be long. But the real tragedy is that it will be littered with many more violent – and preventable – deaths.

  1. Why is this not in the news ?

    Republicans have produced political stalemate, extreme inequality, and climate disruption and are oblivious to our low rank in national well-being: poverty, inequality, democracy, education, social mobility, infrastructure, health, environment, militarization, etc. Their ‘values’ are about money, corporate profits, and the projection of national power.

    Larry Bartels (see his book ‘Unequal Democracy”) found that “the real incomes of middle class families have grown twice as fast under Democrats as they have under Republicans, while the real incomes of working poor families have grown six times as fast under Democrats as they have under Republicans.”

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