Red State Culture and Cornered Animals

Following up the last post on what might reduce gun violence, and what won’t.

There have been several mass shootings since I started this series, including one in a Tulsa hospital a couple of days ago. What we’ve heard so far about that one is that the gunman had recently had back surgery and had been discharged. He had been calling his surgeon asking for help with continued back pain and was not getting a satisfactory response. So he purchased an “AR-15-style weapon” at a gun shop and went to the hospital. He shot and killed his surgeon and another doctor, plus a patient and a receptionist, and then killed himself.  So I guess he’s over the back pain now.

A big chunk of our problem appears to be cultural, and I’m not sure how to address that. But culture is somehow driving growing differences between red and blue states. See Paul Krugman, America’s Red State Death Trip, from December 2019.

Democratic-leaning areas used to look similar to Republican-leaning areas in terms of productivity, income and education. But they have been rapidly diverging, with blue areas getting more productive, richer and better educated. In the close presidential election of 2000, counties that supported Al Gore over George W. Bush accounted for only a little over half the nation’s economic output. In the close election of 2016, counties that supported Hillary Clinton accounted for 64 percent of output, almost twice the share of Trump country.

The thing is, the red-blue divide isn’t just about money. It’s also, increasingly, a matter of life and death….

…The death gap has, however, widened considerably in recent years as a result of increased mortality among working-age Americans. This rise in mortality has, in turn, been largely a result of rising “deaths of despair”: drug overdoses, suicides and alcohol. And the rise in these deaths has led to declining overall life expectancy for the past few years.

What I haven’t seen emphasized is the divergence in life expectancy within the United States and its close correlation with political orientation. True, a recent Times article on the phenomenon noted that life expectancy in coastal metropolitan areas is still rising about as fast as life expectancy in other advanced countries. But the regional divide goes deeper than that.

This was before covid, mind you. Covid hit the cities first, of course. But within a few months we were seeing the same red state-blue state death gap, with rates of hospitalizations and deaths from covid far higher in counties that voted for Trump in 2016 than in counties that voted for Clinton. And this trend continues. See For red and blue America, a glaring divide in COVID-19 death rates persists 2 years later by Arielle Mitropoulos, ABC News, March 28, 2022. Experts traced this to political beliefs. Blue state folks wore masks and got vaccinated at higher rates than red state folks, and so there is a death gap.

(I live in one of those red counties. Last week I decided it was time to get a second covid booster, and got it the same day, easy peasy, at no cost at a local Walgreens. Currently the vaccination rate in St. Francois County is only 44 percent, and the current positivity rate is 14 percent.)

Regarding suicide, a few days ago I wrote a post about the Southern Baptist scandal and ended up writing about the rot in the patriarchy. I quoted this:

The data also contains a sociological mystery even the experts are unsure how to explainfully: Of the 45,979 people who died by suicide in the United States in 2020, about 70 percent were White men, who are just 30 percent of the country’s overall population. That makes White men the highest-risk group for suicide in the country, especially in middle age, even as they are overrepresented in positions of powerand stature in the United States. The rate that has steadily climbed over the past 20 years.

Some clinical researchers and suicidologists are now asking whether there is something particular about White American masculinity worth interrogating further.The implications are significant: On average, there are more than twice as many deaths by suicide than by homicide each year in the United States.

Men have tended to have higher rates of suicide than women for a long time, probably since anybody started keeping track of rates of suicide. This suggests to me that in spite of our famous raging hormones, women on the whole tend to be more emotionally stable than men. But it seems to me that the gap between male and female suicides is a lot bigger than it used to be. And, as Krugman says, suicide rates are higher in red states than blue ones. It looks here like the more rural the state, the higher the suicide rate.

Krugman’s column referred to another 2019 column by Thomas Edsall, Red and Blue Voters Live in Different Economies. Much of this column discussed the 2016 election and the argument many of us had at the time about whether support for Trump was driven more by economic anxiety or by racial and cultural animus. Racial and cultural animus was a more obvious reason, but I don’t think you can separate the two. As Krugman pointed out, since 2000 the wealth gap between red and blue voting districts has been growing along with the death gap. Individual Trump voters may be doing perfectly well, but the communities they live in mostly aren’t.

And there is a connection between the economic deterioration and the rise of authoritarianism, along with racism and cultural animus generally. The two things are very much connected. I argued this in 2019 also. “If you want people to not become klansmen and nazis, think about how the economy is working for working-class folks,” I wrote at the time.

Red state voters are angry and think the rest of the country is cheating them or out to get them, somehow. They don’t trust the government except for the Republican side. They watch Fox News and get told everything going wrong is Joe Biden’s fault, or the Squad’s, or Hunter Biden’s laptop, or racial minorities’, or the fault of liberals in general. And the angrier they get the more guns they buy.

Because their states are run by Republicans the kinds of public investments that could attract new high-end business — such as in education and infrastructure — aren’t being made; instead, it’s all about cutting taxes and then cutting education and government services to pay for the tax cuts. So businesses that offer better payings jobs, businesses that require an educated workforce, communities employees want to live in, and good infrastructure, don’t come. It’s a downward spiral. (See How to Kill a State from 2016.)

No wonder “great replacement theory” makes sense to them. From their perspective, there’s not much of a future for them. All the good stuff seems to be diverted elsewhere.

And then there’s good ol’ toxic masulinity. IMO a lot of the male suicide issue stems from a lack of relatable role models for 21st century American men. The old John Wayne / “Dirty Harry” / “Rambo” model of years past really has no function in the modern world. Nobody really needs men who don’t communicate, are emotionally stifled, and solve problems mostly by shooting them. I don’t know that anybody ever needed that sort of man, actually.

I’ve read enough history, and enough Civil War letters, to know that 19th century men weren’t nearly as emotionally frozen as men came to be later. Something happened to American men in the 20th century that wasn’t healthy. Maybe it was the two world wars. I don’t know.

Men, white men especially, are assumed to be the lords of the universe, but most of them aren’t. Most of them are just pawns in the mighty U.S. economy. Their lives are being shaped by forces way beyond their control that they don’t understand. They want to have some control, and they imagine they’ve been cheated of some control or power they should have had. It shouldn’t be a surprise that they seized Donald Trump as a hero, because like any good huckster he knows how to say what people want to hear. Trump articulated their frustration, and they project onto him strength and power and knowledge he doesn’t actually have. But he’s just using them, and they haven’t figured that out yet.

Let’s think about the young folks. We learned that the Uvalde shooter had been the victim of bullying. We also learned he liked to threaten teen girls online.

He could be cryptic, demeaning and scary, sending angry messages and photos of guns. If they didn’t respond how he wanted, he sometimes threatened to rape or kidnap them — then laughed it off as some big joke.

But the girls and young women who talked with Salvador Ramos online in the months before he killed 19 children in an elementary school in Uvalde, Tex., rarely reported him. His threats seemed too vague, several said in interviews with The Washington Post. One teen who reported Ramos on the social app Yubo said nothing happened as a result.

Some also suspected this was just how teen boys talked on the Internet these days — a blend of rage and misogyny so predictable they could barely tell each one apart. One girl, discussing moments when he had been creepy and threatening, said that was just “how online is.”

That’s just how it is. Almost sixty years after Betty Friedan published The Feminine Mystique. I assume a lot of these boys don’t behave that badly around girls in real-world situations — I could be wrong — but all that rage and misogyny doesn’t go away. It’s part of the dysfunctionality of current male role models.

(Right on schedule — Rep. Billy Long, U.S. congressman from Missouri and Trump-endorsed Senate candidate, has declared that all these mass shootings are happening because women have abortion rights.)

All these angry, alienated young men are growing up in angry, alienated cultures, and their parents probably are too wrapped up in their own problems to be much help. They have no useful role models of masculinity to follow, and often the world doesn’t seem to have a place for them. There was a time in their own communities that a young man could graduate high school and pretty much be guaranteed a job at the local factory or mill or mine or quarry, if he couldn’t think of anything else he wanted to do. Often those were Union jobs, so he could expect to sail into adulthood with good wages and benefits that would support a family. Now, more often, there’s nothing but food service and other minimum wage, dead end jobs for this kid, unless he’s willing to move or maybe get some additional training somewhere. The adult world of marriage,  maintaining a household and raising a family must seem impossibly far away. That may be why so many seem stuck in adolescence well into their 20s and 30s.

See also Young men, guns and the prefrontal cortex at the Washington Post. This is worth reading all the way through, so I took down the firewall for this one. Basically, it says that the young men are going through adolescence feeling isolated and alienated from everything around them, and our culture doesn’t give them any guidance for handling these feelings except to be macho and aggressive. And, of course, social media acts as a reinforcement for alienation and aggression. Many of them drift into a violent fantasy world in which taking “revenge” on black church goers or Asian women may seem like a fine idea. Further, “for every mass shooter who fits a certain profile, there are millions more like him who never act violently.”

So what can these drifting young men do to feel like men? The firearm industry has an answer. In recent years they’ve increasingly turned to marketing firearms as “objects of masculinity.” And you don’t need a Ph.D. in Freud to see the firearm-phallus connection.

In brief, we’ve got a perfect storm of conditions that cause firearm violence, and there are no quick fixes. Gun control will be only part of it. But making any meaningful change is nearly impossible because of red state culture and the way our Constitutional system allows red states to have veto power over progressive form. Joan Walsh wrote recently of what red state culture has become.

It’s a world where marriage is between a man and a woman, the man is king, LGBTQ people have no rights, and women few. Where abortion is criminalized and the social safety net shredded—so that the women forced to bear children must lean on men, or live in desperate poverty. Where guns are everywhere (parents and teachers should be armed to protect kids!), schools are private, medical care returns to private charities, and only the right (mainly white) kind of people vote. It’s an atomized world, where we rely on male-headed nuclear families, churches, the occasional self-interested generosity of oligarchs, and maybe local, homogenous mutual-aid societies—if we so choose.

It’s the dystopian opposite of the world most Americans want: a world where women, LGBTQ people, and non-white Americans enjoy full citizenship, the right to privacy, autonomy, and the pursuit of happiness. Here, the Second Amendment is respected, but the right to carry lethal weapons is restricted in myriad sensible ways. Everyone who’s eligible can vote here, and everyone over 18 is eligible. And yes, there are churches, synagogues, mosques, and vibrant community-based organizations, but the most effective mutual aid resides in democratically elected governments, local, state, and federal, that guarantee health, safety, education, and economic security for everyone.

Red state culture is something like the last desperate aggressions of a wounded or cornered animal. It’s white supremacy and the patriarchy lashing out at cultural change that leaves no place for them. I’d like to think that in a couple more generations we will all have moved past this nonsense, but I’m not sure the U.S. will survive as a first-world democracy for a couple more generations. We’re living in terrifying times.

19 thoughts on “Red State Culture and Cornered Animals

  1. Very recently I saw the headline for an article about Canada investigating what measures their country can/would/should take if/when America begins to dissolve.

    Unfortunately, that was all I saw of the article.

    I'd like to know what our Canadian neighbors are planning, to see if I can get me and mine in a better position.  Them, more than me.

    • Interesting that our neighbor to the north had the foresight to do what our leaders are paid not to do and put in legislation that restricts access to guns.  Easy access to guns are a big part of the problem, but so are the cultural issues and the increasingly toxic masculinity that poisons our culture, that says "solving" issues with guns is increasingly the way to go.  Canada says let's head this off at the pass, and put in place gun restrictions lest that craziness spreads across the boarder.

      • "Missed it"?  That's what I was obviously referring to!  That the Canadians had the foresight to put in common sense restrictions on guns, over and above what they already have.

        I also lamented the fact that we don't have enough leaders with the integrity to do the same.

        PS – I try to avoid posting links in comments, as I know the effect that can have, that are or should be common knowledge.

  2. In 2020 the 2016 gap was greater, with Biden winning 509 counties with 71% of national output and Trump winning 2547 counties with 29% of economic output. The gap was greater because Biden flipped some big counties that Clinton lost. 

    And blue counties have priority preferences that have little relevance in mostly rural red America, where mass transit doesn’t make much sense. 

    • And blue counties have priority preferences that have little relevance in mostly rural red America, where mass transit doesn’t make much sense. 

      Local mass transit is a state/local issue though. I can assure you that rural people could use better train and bus service, train service especially. I got used to trains when I lived out East and miss them mightily now that I'm in the rural Midwest. 

      • On a historical note, the first railroad to get federal permission to drop passenger service was The Frisco—The Saint Louis San Francisco Railroad—which was headquartered in Saint Louis.

      • I learned a long time ago that west of the Mississippi, you either have a car or you don't go anywhere.

        • One of the things I loved about living in the greater NYC area was that if I wanted to go to Boston or Philadelphia or Washington DC or anywhere in the eastern corridor, I could just take a train. A lot less hasssle than planes or driving myself and a lot more comfortable, and door to door sometimes the train was faster. You don't have to show up two hours early at the train station to be sure you get on your ride.  

  3. Thank you for mentioning the elephant in the room: the pitiful white male who evidently doesn't know what a man is. And wouldn't recognize one if he saw one. For all the rest of us it is increasingly frightening to have to live among these people.

    I do feel our culture has left men with a paltry set of activities and attitudes that are considered appropriate for them to incorporate into their lives

    On the other hand the narratives they are living by are increasingly dangerous and the rest of just can't afford their using us for targets for scapegoats for being criminalized for breathing.

    I was reading an article about abortion and of the women interviewed only one mentioned the male involved who wanted her to get the abortion. I have not read or heard one male person since the leak of the draft come out and talk about their role in the abortion of the woman in their life. Not one admission of how it benefited them. I can't help but reflect how they want to be able to kill but they don't want women to have that power. If abortion is outlawed i don't think they have thought of the ramifications for themselves.

    • I own a small business in rural country and I try not to hire Maga-types because they tend to be antagonistic towards other workers and more distracted by their cell phone dramas. Like the old adage good money chases out bad; I guess what their replacement theory adds up to be.


  4. It's interesting that the red states (and I don't have statistics) seem to be the epicenters of gun violence. I can't celebrate that kids in TX got slaughtered. But there seems to be a disproportionate number in red states. If anyone sees stats on gun deaths per capita of population, red states v blue, it would be interesting. 

    I agree – a lot of  'stuff' is the result of men with totally warped value systems. And because they can't have what they think they deserve, they strike out blindly. Or eat a bullet, or croak themselves with narcotics. Like the kids in TX, it's not something to celebrate. 

    I used to deliver the mail – and not all routes are equal. It's often MUCH more expensive to deliver to rural areas where the houses are spread out, compared to an apartment complex with the same number of deliveries as a 40-mile route. And the price is the same. Which means the city routes are subsidizing the rural routes.

    The rural areas are the ones that need to be subsidized. Doctors are unable to make enough, especially specialists, to stay in a small town. Hospitals closing in rural areas is a critical problem. People in the rural areas are the most resistant to socialized programs or socialized medicine where the law of supply and demand is killing them. 

    Red state legislatures will override the voters when they opt for federally subsidized health care. And with the state legislature literally killing them, they will vote in a new batch of Republicans. How do you save lemmings?

  5. As far as the red-blue divide, one can fly from blue to blue in one flight, that is, going hub to hub.  Flying from red to red would be either two flights, regional airport to hub to regional airport, or three flights regional to hub to hub to regional in which case one must fly out early in the morning to avoid over-nighting en route.

  6. "…whether support for Trump was driven more by economic anxiety or by racial and cultural animus."

    They are feeling economic pain but have traditionally been taught the reasons for it are those racially and culturally different from them, and not those at the top who control the economy and have been freed by their own representatives, paid off as they are, to put the screws to them.  Thus republicans spend all their time on racism and culture wars, ratcheting up the hatred, ginning up and validating those fears, distracting them from reality.  And that, unfortunately for all of us, successfully serves as a satisfying solution for them, absent any real addressing of the economic issues that continue to get worse. Its become a circular dynamic that feeds on it self, getting more virulent as it progresses on its downward spiral.

    When, where and how does it end?  Given the direction we're headed and the rate we seem to be going, and given the vice grip those in control have on media, and its increasing power and effectiveness to influence and distract, I don't think the solution, if there is to be one, is going to come from the top down.  Unless more of us wake up, the idea of "America" is doomed.

  7. I pretty much agree with the argument of this post–masculinism, racism, and ressentiment are a hell of a drug cocktail.  But I don't think you can infer poor male mental health only from higher male suicide rates.  It's true that men have always been more likely to commit suicide, but women are more likely to attempt suicide.  

  8. One of the deterrents for me to committing suicide is the idea that I want to live long enough to see Trump incarcerated. I live for the day that that big bag of shit is standing convicted infront of a Federal Judge shackled hand and foot with belly chain while sobbing uncontrollably. That will be justice like the world has never seen before!

    And I wouldn't want to miss it.

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