If the rate of lethal violence rises under Republican presidents and falls just as consistently under Democrats — as Dr. James Gilligan shows in Why Some Politicians Are More Dangerous Than Others — what factor might explain that curious correlation? According to Gilligan, criminologists and public health experts have long been aware of another striking set of data that reliably parallels increases in murder and suicide when traced over the past hundred years: the rate of unemployment.
The level of economic inequality likewise tracks homicide and suicide rates as they move up in tandem, and so does the general condition of the economy, which can be seen sinking as those figures rise. When inequality grows, violence follows; when the economy stagnates, violence predictably festers. Of course the traditional GOP message is that Republican presidents are “good for the economy.” But Gilligan writes that when he pulled together the numbers, he was surprised to discover just how false that claim is — and its brutal impact on American society.
Noting the apparent congruence between unemployment, economic inequality and recession across one dimension, and lethal violence across another, Gilligan put together his own statistical picture of economic conditions under American presidents since 1900, using data compiled by both the Bureau of Labor Statistics and the National Bureau of Economic Research. He saw what other academics and journalists have remarked upon from time to time (including me, in a 2003 book titled Big Lies) — namely that unemployment rates have gone up during every Republican administration and gone down during every Democratic administration, without exception. Every time a Republican president left the White House, unemployment was higher than when he came in, while the opposite was true whenever a Democratic president completed his term. Rates of unemployment stayed higher for longer periods under Republicans too.
Then he did some simple addition: “If we count up the net sum of all the increases that occurred during Republican administrations from 1900 through 2008, we find that the Republicans brought about a cumulative increase of 27.8 percent in the unemployment rate, and the Democrats an almost exactly equal decrease of 26.5 percent.” The net cumulative difference in the partisan effects was a staggering 53.8 percent. He also calculated the cumulative difference in duration of unemployment among the jobless during Republican and Democratic administrations, and again the numbers are enormous. From 1948 to 2003, Republicans oversaw a net cumulative increase of 24.6 weeks of unemployment, while Democrats oversaw a net decrease of 13.6 weeks — a difference of 38.2 weeks, or almost ten months.
Why is the unemployment record of the Republicans so awful? When Gilligan looked up the tabulations of expansion and recession tabulated by the National Bureau of Economic Research — an organization that was headed for many years, as he notes, by the conservative economist Martin Feldstein — he found a simple answer. The NBER numbers show that “from 1900 through October 2010, the country suffered approximately three times as many months of recession during the times Republicans were governing the country as during the times Democrats were: 246 months (more than 20 years) compared with 86 — a discrepancy that could not have happened by chance more than one time out of 10,000.” Moreover, recessions began 17 times during Republican presidencies and only six times during Democratic presidencies, and always lasted several months longer under Republicans as well.
Telling as all those statistics undoubtedly are, they cannot reveal the real suffering caused by economic failure. In case after case that Gilligan has seen in his clinical practice, people who lose their jobs and then lose hope of finding work, experience desperation, humiliation and a sense of personal worthlessness that all too often leads to deadly violence, usually inflicted on family members or oneself or both. That is the human story behind the numbers, repeated hundreds of thousands of times over from one political era to the next.
Yet Republicans habitually promote themselves and their party as the harbingers of economic growth, public safety and social order, even proclaiming that their latest draconian budget plan (which would drive the country into recession or worse) offers “the path to prosperity.” What remains difficult to understand is why their true record has so persistently remained “hidden in plain sight” as Gilligan puts it — and why so many American voters still believe their very big lies.