The Crisis In White America the GOP Did Not Debate – But Democrats Must

Isaiah J. Poole

In an event that was supposed to highlight the Republican presidential candidates’ views on the economy and its woes, it’s surprising that the Fox Business Channel debate Tuesday did not address a newly urgent issue that is striking at a key segment of the Republican base – the rising mortality rate among lower-income white people.

Not even the word “white” was uttered during the two-hour-plus debate, which took place days after a bombshell report by two Princeton University professors that “documents a marked increase in the all-cause mortality of middle-aged white non-Hispanic men and women in the United States between 1999 and 2013.”

The report chronicles “increasing death rates from drug and alcohol poisonings, suicide, and chronic liver diseases and cirrhosis” among particularly lower-income and lower-educated whites that contrasted from improving health and mortality indicators among African Americans and Hispanics. The death-rate increase is just one of several signs of “growing distress in this population,” the report said.

The researchers, Anne Case and Angus Deaton, draw a correlation between declines in quality of life among working-class whites and changing economic conditions since the 1970s. “After the productivity slowdown in the early 1970s, and with widening income inequality, many of the baby-boom generation are the first to find, in midlife, that they will not be better off than were their parents. Growth in real median earnings has been slow for this group, especially those with only a high school education,” they write.

One might think this would have been a prime topic for discussion for the Republican presidential candidates at the Fox Business debate, who have all been using various degrees of government-bashing and immigrant-bashing to appeal to that same group of working-class whites.

But, then again, if the candidates were asked point-blank about the Case-Deaton study, the question may well take a form something like this: “Mr. Republican Candidate, there is a health crisis among white Americans that is showing up particularly starkly in states where lower-income whites have elected Republican governors and legislatures. Those political leaders have instituted right-to-work policies that help keep wages low and tax cuts that have enriched corporations but have not improved the day-to-day lives of struggling white families. Why, then, should whites continue to trust you when you are advocating continuing the policies that are proving literally deadly to your own political base?”

“Rising white midlife death isn’t so much a counterpoint to the narrative of racial segregation as it is a revelation about the long-term costs of structural inequality,” writes Michelle Chen at The Nation. “As the ‘middle class’ hollows out, whites who started life under more promising circumstances—when a high-school graduate could land a job for life on the assembly line—are finally seeing the floor fall out under them too.”

Chen notes that the “15-year death spike among middle-aged whites tracks the slow bleed of neoliberalism: the massive offshoring of manufacturing jobs, financial booms and busts, corporate deregulation.” It also tracks the bipartisan weakening of economic support systems (from Bill Clinton’s welfare “reform” to today’s Republican obstruction of Medicaid expansion and efforts to destroy the Affordable Care Act) and the near-disappearance of unions, which offered a source of communal support.

While the Case-Deaton study is new – as is an article published Wednesday by Health Affairs that says the mortality increase among middle-aged white people is particularly acute among women – the story itself is old. When the Rev. Jesse Jackson was running for president in 1988, he was drawing the parallels between the economic despair of urban, African-American communities and the same underlying economic conditions throughout white communities in red-state America.

It was Jackson who in his speech at the 1988 Democratic Convention challenged the delegates to “[t]hink of Appalachia and remember most poor people are not on welfare, they work every day. They do their heavy lifting. They take the early bus. They work the late shift. Most poor people are neither brown nor black. They’re white. They’re female. They’re young. They’re invisible. But they’re all God’s children.”

Today’s Republican presidential candidates and the conservative Fox Business moderators were unwilling to bring up increasing white mortality and its underlying causes. But studies like the one done by Case and Deaton are precisely why progressives need to press the case for bold economic reforms – and do so unapologetically.

When Rachel Maddow on Friday asked Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders how he would appeal to voters in South Carolina who are different from the voters who elected him to the Senate in Vermont, he point-blank said that one thing he would do is confront voters and ask them why they are voting against their own interests.

To do that, of course, means you have to present a compelling argument for what is in their best interest, and how the Republicans they have elected for years are betraying those interests, even as they deflect attention toward immigrants, “big government” or “Washington,” and the “liberal media.”

That will not be as easy as it sounds in an environment where mistrust of government is high. But, as pollster Stan Greenberg points out in a recent interview with OurFuture.org, we’ve been through similar periods of economic disruption and uncertainty before – and progressives have been able to mobilize each time to win a mandate for progressive change that rebalances the economic scales for working people.

When the Democrats gather for their debate Saturday, they would do well to talk directly to the white working-class voters in communities struggling with economic hopelessness, depression and addiction – in addition to black and brown people also struggling with the same issues. We are all in the same boat, they should point out, feeling the same seasickness from the same economic storms. We need to band together on a plan to seize control of this ship and steer it in a new direction, not turn over the helm to the candidates whose combination of hubris, cluelessness, and obeisance to the rich and powerful risks sinking us all.

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