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How Conservative Policies and Rhetoric Kill People

Study after study says it: Right-wing policies and rhetoric lead to more homicides and suicides. Why don’t more people know this?

Scott Olson/Getty Images

Want to die young? Immerse yourself in conservative media, and vote Republican. Seriously. We should have known, but, still, the science is shocking: When conservatives run governments, suicides and homicides go up; when liberals run governments, suicides and homicides go down.

We got the first clue back in 2002, when, in a 100-year longitudinal study published that year in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, Australian researchers found that the suicide rate in that country and the U.K. increased throughout the twentieth century whenever a Conservative government was in power and declined measurably when the Labour Party was in charge.

The BBC picked it up, under a headline that was unambiguous: “More Suicides Under Conservative Rule.” The piece read: “When the Conservatives ruled both state and federal governments, men were 17 percent more likely to commit suicide than when Labour was in power. Women were 40 percent more likely to kill themselves.”

Referencing the researchers’ work, the BBC concluded: “Overall, they say, the figures suggest that 35,000 people would not have died had the Conservatives not been in power, equivalent to one suicide for every day of the 20th century or two for every day that the Conservatives ruled.”

More recently, here in the United States, a 2014 study by Bandy X. Lee, Bruce E. Wexler, and James Gilligan published in the journal Aggression and Violent Behavior found pretty much the same outcomes for periods of Republican versus Democratic rule in our country.

Arguing that “violence is not random but a problem in public health and preventive medicine,” the researchers were blunt: “Suicide, homicide, and combined suicide/homicide rates from 1900 to 2010 were found to be associated with an increase under Republican presidents and a decrease under Democratic ones with statistical significance.”

On Thursday, I interviewed Lee. She was emphatic about their findings:

“My colleagues and I did a study about 10 years ago looking at the two different parties in the United States—not in terms of ideology or policies but purely in terms of violent death rates—and, astonishingly, we found that over a 110-year period, almost without exception, whenever there was a Republican president who was elected, the murder and suicide rates would double, and whenever there was a Democratic president elected, the murder and suicide rates would halve.”

She added that people don’t generally notice this because there’s a roughly two-year time lag between elections and the time the increases or decreases in suicide and homicide measurably set in.

And, she said, it wasn’t just the economic policies of the parties that was driving the violence; it was primarily how they talked about America and thus caused us to think about ourselves and each other: “Whenever Democrats are elected, we tend to do well, to prosper not only in terms of unemployment but also in terms of rising GDP, but [we] also see a change in violent death rates, so that showed that there was not just an ideological difference or a policy driven difference, but a difference based on whatever the party brings, whether it’s rhetoric or public perception. The party alone made the difference in violence rates.”

We’re apparently seeing that dynamic right now. Murder, suicide, and violent crime rates increased during the Trump presidency and began a rapid downward slide by the second year of President Joe Biden’s tenure.

As the Brennan Center for Justice noted seven weeks ago:

“In 2020, President Trump’s last year in office, murder rates climbed by nearly 30 percent and assault rates by more than 10 percent.…

“But since 2021, violent crime has started to fall. According to the FBI, as of 2022 violent crime rates had fallen by 4 percent and murder rates by roughly 7 percent since 2020. Preliminary data suggests those declines accelerated in 2023.”

If, as Dr. Lee suggests, a major factor is the kind of rhetoric that Democrats use (“we, us”) versus Republicans (“they, them”) then Trump’s constant rants about Americans from “shithole countries” and “murderers and rapists” from south of the border apparently drove some Americans into a homicidal or suicidal frenzy.

Republicans, after all, lean heavily on hate and fear as primary motivators to get people to the polls: Gays are coming for your kids, immigrants want to rape or kill your wife, Black people are stealing your job, and Democrats love to kill babies the minute they’re born.

When people are marinated in such rhetoric, it’s almost impossible not to end up drenched in fear, anger, and hate—the necessary precursors to violence and self-harm.

This isn’t new. Back in 1996, Virginia Tech’s Dr. L. David Roper did a single-year analysis of suicide rates in states that voted for Democratic President Bill Clinton versus states that went for Republican Senator Bob Dole. He found: “Democratic votes for the states had a 57% negative correlation with increasing [suicide rates] and the Republican votes had a 45% positive correlation. States with high suicide death rate vote much more Republican than Democratic and vice versa.”

Another study, published by the peer-reviewed, open-access journal Plos One in 2022, looked at the relationship between political policy and mortality rates between 1999 and 2019. They found strikingly similar statistics:

We modeled the associations between working-age mortality rates and state policies during 1999 to 2019. We used annual data from the 1999–2019 National Vital Statistics System to calculate state-level age-adjusted mortality rates for deaths from all causes and from [cardiovascular disease], alcohol-induced causes, suicide, and drug poisoning among adults ages 25–64 years.…

Especially strong associations were observed between certain domains and specific causes of death: between the gun safety domain and suicide mortality among men, between the labor domain and alcohol-induced mortality, and between both the economic tax and tobacco tax domains and CVD mortality.

Simulations indicate that changing all policy domains in all states to a fully liberal orientation might have saved 171,030 lives in 2019, while changing them to a fully conservative orientation might have cost 217,635 lives.

NBC News, reporting on the study, quoted Syracuse University sociology professor Dr. Jennifer Karas Montez, one of the study’s authors, who summarized the consequences of states putting Republicans or Democrats in charge of policy:

“This analysis points to another major player, and that’s state policymakers. Policymakers may not feel that they’re responsible for our health or think that they’re responsible for our health, but the reality is every decision that they make affects our health and our risk of dying prematurely.”

Ya think?