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Neurosis and the Curley Effect
The politics of mental health, and the mental health of politics
So I’ve been thinking: Is there a link between shrinking marriage rates, the proliferation of neurosis, and the Curley Effect?
Looking around at our politics, it’s hard not to feel that there’s an increasingly neurotic strain to them. During Covid, we had a lot of policies that were designed to make people feel safe, even if their feelings were irrational. As Issues and Insights editorialized at the time:
Certainly everyone is free to express their opinions about masks, and everyone is also free to decide to shop elsewhere if they don’t like the Trader Joe’s policy. Yet the response concerns us. Will enough Nervous Nancies and Timorous Toms boycott Trader Joe’s, Walmart, Costco and others that have liberalized their mask policies to force the companies to backtrack on their decisions (which will help restore the humanity dignity that was ripped away by mask rules)? Will they actively picket in front of stores in an effort to bully executives into yielding to their neuroses, fixations, and superstitions?
More than that, though, we are troubled by what this tells about America has become. The coronavirus pandemic revealed in stark terms a truth about this country that many of us have long suspected. We’ve grown soft, fearful, perpetually nagging and paralyzed by safetyism. Our prosperity has allowed many of us to feed our eccentricities and disorders, taking us down dark alleys and through doors that lead to grand halls of odd behavior.
(For example, one late pop star’s wealth enabled him to create a fantasy world around his life and to change his appearance in bizarre ways. Had his life been an exercise in basic subsistence, he would not have been able to afford to accommodate the quirks of his personality.)
To see just how deep this nation has plunged into a rancid broth of fear, take a look at this STAT-Harris poll taken after last fall’s election. It found that 75% of the public supported the idea of Joe Biden mandating mask-wearing, while two-thirds of Americans thought he “should ban gatherings involving more than 10 people.”
A March poll by the Morning Consult determined that “57% of voters said they would continue to fully adhere to precautions like mask-wearing and social distancing even if state requirements were lifted.” A poll taken earlier this week, with infections and deaths falling, and vaccinations rising, found that 42% still believe everyone in their “area should continue to wear masks outdoors regardless” of the Centers for Disease Controls new recommendations that say the fully vaccinated don’t have to mask-up outside unless in large crowds; 39% said Americans should follow the guidelines.
I&I called this behavior neurotic, and I think that’s right. It’s irrational behavior, based on irrational feelings and obsessions rather than reality.
As Tyler Cowen observes, “I’ve said this before, but the evidence for the proposition continues to mount: current political debate in America cannot be understood without the concept of neuroticism — as a formal concept from personality psychology — front and center.’
And we seem to be getting more neurotic all the time, as a society. Though really, the sector that’s growing neurotic the fastest is single, liberal women, who as Michael Barone points out are really outliers in the electorate.
And then there is the gender gap, the difference between male and female voters, which became statistically significant in 1980. In the years since, and despite the quip attributed to Henry Kissinger that there’s too much fraternizing with the enemy, it has grown wider.
But not uniformly. As American Enterprise Institute’s ace polling expert Karlyn Bowman together with Ruy Teixeira have pointed out, it’s more of a marriage gap.
The exit poll in the almost even 2022 House (Republicans won the popular vote 50% to 47%) shows that married men voted 59% to 39% Republican, and unmarried men also went Republican by a smaller but significant 52% to 45% margin.
Married women, however, also voted Republican by a landslide 56% to 42% margin. So, why was the election so close? Because unmarried women favored Democrats 68% to 31%.
Note that married men and married women both made up 30% of the electorate. But there are a lot more unmarried women voters, 23% of the electorate, than unmarried men, 16%.
That reflects not only longer female lifespans but also female dominance in higher education, with women making up 60% of college and university students these days, and the trend toward later first marriages.
The upshot is that about one-third of Democratic voters are single women, which helps explain, as the Washington Examiner’s Conn Carroll points out, the 2012 Obama “Life of Julia” cartoons, which showed government helping unattached women through life.
In general, women are more risk-averse than men, and thus more supportive of welfare state measures and more reluctant to support military action. They are also, as we have seen on female-dominated campuses, more willing to suppress speech that is seen as irritating or hurtful. “Highly educated women,” as Australian educator Lorenzo Warby writes, “are proving all too willing to trash other people’s freedoms to protect their emotions.”
Surveys show that, after 50 years of feminism, American women are increasingly likely to report themselves as unhappy, a characteristic especially marked in unmarried young liberal women with no religious connection.
Likewise, Jonathan Haidt notes that the rapid decline in mental health among young (under 35) people took place first and fastest among young liberal women, and the charts he displays are dramatic.
In September 2020, Zach Goldberg, who was then a graduate student at Georgia State University, discovered something interesting in a dataset made public by Pew Research. Pew surveyed about 12,000 people in March 2020, during the first month of the Covid shutdowns. The survey included this item: “Has a doctor or other healthcare provider EVER told you that you have a mental health condition?” Goldberg graphed the percentage of respondents who said “yes” to that item as a function of their self-placement on the liberal-conservative 5-point scale and found that white liberals were much more likely to say yes than white moderates and conservatives. (His analyses for non-white groups generally found small or inconsistent relationships with politics.)
I wrote to Goldberg and asked him to redo it for men and women separately, and for young vs. old separately. He did, and he found that the relationship to politics was much stronger for young (white) women. You can see Goldberg’s graph here, but I find it hard to interpret a three-way interaction using bar charts, so I downloaded the Pew dataset and created line graphs, which make it easier to interpret.
Here’s the same data, showing three main effects: gender (women higher), age (youngest groups higher), and politics (liberals higher). The graphs also show three two-way interactions (young women higher, liberal women higher, young liberals higher). And there’s an important three-way interaction: it is the young liberal women who are highest. They are so high that a majority of them said yes, they had been told that they have a mental health condition. . . .
Gimbrone et al. found that prior to 2012 there were no sex differences and only a small difference between liberals and conservatives. But beginning in 2012, the liberal girls began to rise, and they rose the most. The other three groups followed suit, although none rose as much, in absolute terms, as did the liberal girls (who rose .73 points since 2010, on a 5-point scale where the standard deviation is .89).
Haidt quotes a piece by Matthew Yglesias, which blames, basically, the messaging of woke politics for making young people depressed:
I am increasingly convinced that there are tremendously negative long-term consequences, especially to young people, coming from this reliance on the language of harm and accusations that things one finds offensive are “deeply problematic” or even violent. Just about everything researchers understand about resilience and mental well-being suggests that people who feel like they are the chief architects of their own life — to mix metaphors, that they captain their own ship, not that they are simply being tossed around by an uncontrollable ocean — are vastly better off than people whose default position is victimization, hurt, and a sense that life simply happens to them and they have no control over their response.
Reading all of these pieces I’m seeing a story that goes something like this: Depressed, neurotic people (especially single women) are more likely to support Democrats. Democrats support policies and messaging that produce more depressed, neurotic people, especially single women.
Now maybe this is an accident, but maybe it isn’t. Enter the “Curley Effect.” As this Harvard paper notes, “James Michael Curley, a four-time mayor of Boston, used wasteful redistribu-
tion to his poor Irish constituents and incendiary rhetoric to encourage richer citizens to emigrate from Boston, thereby shaping the electorate in his favor. As a consequence, Boston stagnated, but Curley kept winning elections. . . . We call this strategy—increasing the relative size of one’s political base through distortionary, wealth-reducing policies—the Curley effect. But it is hardly unique to Curley.”
Making the populace (especially women) more fearful, depressed, and neurotic is undoubtedly bad for societal wealth and happiness. But does it yield votes for Democrats? Clearly yes. Are they doing it on purpose?
Who knows? But it does seem that many of the policies advocated by Democrats and the left tend to promote unfavorable mental states. Cui bono?