February 2, 2012
The Money Cage
By Larry Bartels
That’s the message I take from a recent book by James Gilligan, a psychiatrist at New York University. In Why Some Politicians Are More Dangerous than Others, Gilligan documents a striking statistical connection between changing rates of violent death in the United States over the past century and the party of the president. He concludes that Republican administrations are “risk factors for lethal violence,” and that the only reason they have not produced “disastrously high epidemic levels” of suicides and homicides is that Democrats have repeatedly undone their damage. (I’ve added handsome hand-coloring to Gilligan’s key figure in order to highlight the partisan pattern.)
Gilligan found that, over the 108 years covered by his analysis (1900-2007), the age-adjusted suicide rate increased by an average of 9.7 per million over each Republican four-year term but decreased by an average of 11.1 per million over each Democratic term. The age-adjusted homicide rate increased by an average of 3.6 per million over each Republican term but decreased by an average of 4.2 per million over each Democratic term.
These differences may sound small, but they are not. According to the CDC’s latest National Vital Statistics Report, there were 37,793 suicides in the U.S. in 2010 (122 per million population) and 16,065 homicides (52 per million population). Applying Gilligan’s figures to those baseline levels (and assuming 1% population growth per year) implies a projected total of 213,000 violent deaths over the next four years under a Democratic president, but 236,000 under a Republican—a difference of 23,000 lives. (These estimates reflect my calculations based on Gilligan’s data; even they greatly understate the long-run implications of the partisan differences he identifies, since a higher or lower death rate at the end of one term becomes a higher or lower baseline for subsequent fluctuations.)