How the ‘hideous state of’ US politics is eroding Americans’ mental health

How the ‘hideous state of’ US politics is eroding Americans’ mental health

During a CNN appearance in November 2021, “Real Time” host Bill Maher stressed that while Republicans and Democrats often “fought like cats and dogs” back in the 1970s and 1980s, most of them recognized the other as the loyal opposition. Today’s Trumpified GOP, Maher lamented, has taken an extremist far-right turn and no longer plays by the rule of democracy. The political environment in the United States has become increasingly toxic, and liberal New York Times opinion writer Michelle Goldberg — in her January 21 column — warns that politics are taking their toll on Americans’ mental health.

“In the last few years, the hideous state of our politics has often kept me up at night,” Goldberg writes. “But until recently, I thought I was an outlier. Even when I’ve written about political despair as a problem for Democrats, I assumed it was something that applied to activists and base voters — the sort of people who go through their days silently cursing Joe Manchin. But a striking new study from Kevin B. Smith, chair of the Political Science Department at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, suggests the universe of people who find our politics a torment might be much larger than I’d realized.”

Smith’s study is called “Politics Is Making Us Sick: The Negative Impact of Political Engagement on Public Health During the Trump Administration,” and he found that 40% of Americans “consistently identify politics as a significant source of stress in their lives.” Goldberg finds it especially “shocking” that around 5% of Americans have even considered suicide because of political events.

“I’m fascinated by Smith’s work for a couple of reasons,” Goldberg notes. “The first is partisan. People from both parties reported that political stress during the Trump years has damaged their health, but Democrats have, unsurprisingly, had it worse. While Donald Trump was in office, they were able to turn their rage and fear into fuel, but I’m not sure how sustainable this is. The more politics becomes a pageant of infuriating Democratic impotence in the face of relentless right-wing spite, the more I fear people will disengage as a means of self-protection.”

Goldberg adds, “But I’m also interested (in) the role politics plays in the disastrous state of American mental health, which is one of the overarching stories in the country right now. For all our division, there’s a pretty broad consensus that the country is, psychologically, in an awful place.”

The Times columnist, a frequent guest on MSNBC, writes that although most Americans “aren’t political junkies” and “aren’t on Twitter,” Smith “speculates that even those who aren’t intensely interested in politics are still affected by the ambient climate of hatred, chaos and dysfunction.”

When Republican Vice President George H.W. Bush defeated Democratic Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis in 1988’s presidential election, many Dukakis voters complained that Bush, with the help of Lee Atwater, had run a dirty and racist campaign. But they also licked their wounds and went about their lives; Bush 41 didn’t keep them up at night — and prominent Democrats like Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware, now president, congratulated Bush and made it clear that they looked forward to working with him.

Bush 41’s supporters didn’t storm the U.S. Capitol Building when he lost to Bill Clinton in 1992, or plot to throw out the electoral votes that Clinton won. Nor did they plot to kidnap and possibly murder the governor of Michigan. In retrospect, the political battles of the 1980s and early 1990s seem quaint compared to the horrors of Trumpism.

Goldberg ends her column by emphasizing that as toxic as the United States’ political environment has become, withdrawing from politics will only make things worse.

“It is depressing to live in a dying empire whose sclerotic political institutions have largely ceased to function; this is a collective problem without individual solutions,” Goldberg writes. “There’s an awful dilemma here. Any way out of the gloom of our current political situation will almost certainly involve even more politics.”

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