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Do Presidents Cause Increased Homicides (And Suicides)? The Data Says Yes

Memo Pad Politics

Do Presidents Cause Increased Homicides (And Suicides)? The Data Says Yes


As a noted psychiatrist and public health expert, Dr. James Gilligan has spent years at Harvard and New York University investigating the reasons (and possible remedies) for the deadly violence that has long marred American society and differentiated the United States from other advanced countries. Over the past four decades, his clinical work has brought him into contact with prisoners convicted of homicide, and with both prisoners and ordinary citizens who were close to suicide, the two major categories of lethal violence, which are generally classified as entirely different problems arising from criminal evil and mental illness, respectively.

But as Gilligan explains in his path-breaking new book Why Some Politicians Are More Dangerous Than Others, many years of studying homicide and suicide statistics in the United States led him to notice that the rates of both would rise and fall in tandem. During certain periods over the past hundred years or so, both homicides and suicides increased dramatically, and fell very quickly at other times; when laid out on a graph from 1900 to 2007 (the last year for which the government has assembled complete data), the combined violence data created a set of distinct peaks and valleys.

What Gilligan realized, as he charted levels of murder and self-murder, was that he had actually created a map showing three huge “epidemics of lethal violence” over the past century, interrupted by periods when the rates fell to lower, more “normal” levels.

And then, after trying to figure out what was causing those epidemics of violence, he noticed something else about them.

All three outbreaks of broad, sustained violence tracked very closely with the presidential election cycle: “Specifically, rates of suicide and homicide began rising to epidemic levels only after a Republican was elected president, and remained within that range throughout the time Republicans occupied the White House. The increase began during their first year or years in office, and peaked in their last year or years. They did not reverse direction and fall below epidemic levels until after Democrats took office, with the fall occurring within the first year or two of the new Democratic administration, and the rates [of lethal violence] usually reaching their lowest point during the last year or years in which a Democratic president occupied the White House.”

The correlation between politics and violence, however strong, did not necessarily indicate a causal relationship; proving that would require further and deeper research into what Gilligan calls a “murder mystery.”

But his first responsibility as a scientist was to make certain that the startling statistical relationship he had discovered was real. The U.S. government has been collecting annual data on all causes of death since 1900, which are available in databases maintained by the National Center for Health Statistics.

Gilligan took those figures and adjusted them for age, to ensure that changes in the percentage of young or old people in the population over time had not distorted the picture (since young people commit more murders and old people are more likely to commit suicide). He also had to account for the fact that not every state had sent its mortality data to Washington from the earliest days of statistical collection in 1900.

Yet no matter how he sliced and diced the numbers, those peaks and valleys of death still correlated neatly with Republican and Democratic presidencies.

Gilligan writes that he was surprised by his initial findings – and even more surprised to discover, upon further analysis, that the association between the political party of the president and the consistent, pronounced swings in suicide, homicide, and total lethal violence (combining suicide and homicide rates) were statistically significant. In other words, they were not the product of mere coincidence or chance. When he calculated the mean and median rates of violent death in America over the past century, he found that they were 19.4 and 20 per 100,000 population – and that periods when rates rose above those levels matched almost perfectly with Republican administrations, while periods when rates fell below those levels matched almost perfectly with Democratic administrations.

On page 12, Why Some Politicians Are More Dangerous Than Others includes a graph showing a sharp rise in the rates of violence between 1900 and 1916 (corresponding to the presidencies of William McKinley, Theodore Roosevelt, and William Howard Taft), which then fall from 1916 to 1920 (Woodrow Wilson), when they again start rising until they reach a high peak in 1932 (after Warren Harding, Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover).

Then total violence declines steadily and steeply from 1932 to 1944 (under Franklin Delano Roosevelt), with a single year of post-war increase that then disappears. Rates of violence remain low for the next two decades (from Harry Truman through Dwight Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson). The next substantial increase doesn’t begin until 1969 (under Richard Nixon), and the rates of violence then continue on an epidemic plateau for more than two decades (from Nixon through Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, and George H.W. Bush). Finally another precipitous decline commences in 1993 (following the inauguration of Bill Clinton), followed by another rise that begins in 2001 (when George W. Bush succeeds Clinton).

Not only have the rates of violence risen under Republicans and declined under Democrats, but it is possible to calculate, as Gilligan did, the cumulative number of additional violent deaths that occurred when Republicans were in power. Over the past 108 years, that cumulative increase in deaths per 100,000 was 38.2; when applied to the current U.S. population of roughly 300 million, that would come to about 114,000 additional deaths per year.

So based on the historical data, Republican administrations appear to be very dangerous, in the starkest sense, for public health. But is there a direct causal relationship between Republican presidents and rates of violent death?

Tomorrow we will see what Gilligan found when he looked behind the reasons that people kill each other and themselves – and why he believes those fatal decisions are so strongly influenced by presidential policy.

Joe Conason

A highly experienced journalist, author and editor, Joe Conason is the editor-in-chief of The National Memo, founded in July 2011. He was formerly the executive editor of the New York Observer, where he wrote a popular political column for many years. His columns are distributed by Creators Syndicate and his reporting and writing have appeared in many publications around the world, including the New York Times, the Washington Post, The New Yorker, The New Republic, The Nation, and Harpers.

Since November 2006, he has served as editor of The Investigative Fund, a nonprofit journalism center, where he has assigned and edited dozens of award-winning articles and broadcasts. He is also the author of two New York Times bestselling books, The Hunting of the President (St. Martins Press, 2000) and Big Lies: The Right-Wing Propaganda Machine and How It Distorts the Truth (St. Martins Press, 2003).

Currently he is working on a new book about former President Bill Clinton's life and work since leaving the White House in 2001. He is a frequent guest on radio and television, including MSNBC's Morning Joe, and lives in New York City with his wife and two children.

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  1. ewason August 23, 2011

    I am 81 years old. It did not take a researcher to discover this fact. In my lifetime, Republicans have always strenuously opposed any program that would better the life of the middle class and the poor, the disabled and anyone who does not have white skin and blue eyes. I have both. However, I do have a heart — and am aware of having a soul. I believe what Jesus Christ told us to do, but I would never ever want to associate my beliefs with those of the extreme fundamentalists who are “claiming” to be Christians today. They are not Christians; they are monotheists, the kind that always love war and destruction resulting in massive deaths. Their god is money. Always has been always will be.

  2. noreasterbybirth August 24, 2011

    I found this “research” a little hard to believe, so I looked up the numbers myself and here is what I found for murders in the US:
    1968: 13,800- 1972: 18,670 so yes it went up during Nixon’s first years in office, but remained stable until 1976: 18,780
    then from 1976 (18,780) it went up significantly to 23,040 in 1980 during Carter’s years. Reagan years 1980-1988 saw a drop from 23,040 in 1980 to 20,680 in 1988. Bush senior saw a rise from 20,680 in 1988 to 23,760 in 1992 and yes Clinton saw a large decrease in his term from 1992-2000 from 23,760-15,586. Bush juniors numbers stayed statistically the same: 15,586 in 2000 to 16,442 in 2008.
    So: Republicans: up during Nixon and Bush senior, down during Reagan and the same during Bush junior and Ford (didn’t include those numbers: 18,670 in 1972 and 18,780 in 1976.
    Democrats: Up during Carter and down during Clinton.
    Hardly clear cut, infallible evidence that murders increase during Republican terms and decrease during Democrats.

    1. Chris Shingirai Kwaramba June 13, 2015

      where did you get your data? if it was just a simple as googling some numbers on the internet even fourth graders would be doing it

  3. noreasterbybirth August 24, 2011

    Oh, sorry. The reference for the above data is the FBI, UNIFORM CRIME REPORTS. Available for each state separately or the entire US togehter.

  4. kurt.lorentzen August 24, 2011

    ewason just believes the study without question. After all it was conducted by a “Harvard Ph.D.” (Probably through a taxpayer-funded research grant). I think we all know that we can use selective data, creative graphing, etc. to make pretty much any point. But my question is, “what exactly IS the point”? noreasterbybirth found statistics from a reliable source that pretty much marginalize the conclusions of the study. But even if it were true, what’s to do about it? I wait with baited breath for part 2 where I’m sure we’ll find the justification for spending the money to produce such a report…

  5. historyfan August 24, 2011

    Go back and read ewason again. Your answers lie there. When people are so disrespected (all but the wealthy), poorly paid, given inadequate health care, not supported when they are in desperate need–why wouldn’t violence go up? It is violence against the people when people cannot make a living wage at their job, cannot go to the doctor, until they are in an emergency situation, cannot adequately feed and clothe their children, cannot get a decent education in K-12 because they live in a poor neighborhood, and are cut off from opportunity by exorbitant college tuition and other fees. THAT’S VIOLENCE.
    And too often these conservatives in fact do carry a violent message. Palin’s “reload.” the shot of Perry waving a gun over his head. The pretty much across the board stand on guns, no matter the consequences, and the rhetoric that some unbalanced people absorb that they think gives them leave to go out and kill someone–like Giffords, for example, or maybe a bunch of college kids.

  6. kurt.lorentzen August 25, 2011

    Never questioned those points. But to show causation with Republican Presidents means showing first that a real correlation exists (which is in doubt) and then that Americans (other than the rich ones) are consistently in a state of reduced prosperity under Republican administrations. I don’t see where either party has done a better job than the other in doing anything positive for the poor. Democrats just want to give people stuff at the expense of the economy, and Republicans throw money back at corportae America hoping they will solve problems. Like I said, there may be some correlation that can be shown to have a causation to Republican policies. But I still have to ask, “What’s the point?” Will it change anything? Is the Republcan party going to be banned? Are people who’s philosophy is firmly rooted in small government to be shot so as to prevent them from voting Republican? I’m not a Republican BTW (or a Democrat), just playing devil’s advocate 🙂


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