Why Some Politicians Are More Dangerous than Others

The law and order brigade actually makes the US a more violent place, Joanna Bourke learns

January 5, 2012

From 1900 to 2007, the Republican Party in the US has been responsible for reducing "the amount of equality, life, liberty, happiness, safety, domestic tranquillity, and general welfare enjoyed by the American people". This is the controversial claim made by James Gilligan, a clinical professor of psychiatry at New York University; he then leads readers systematically - even relentlessly - through the evidence. He convincingly shows that rates of homicide and suicide only ever began rising to epidemic levels after a Republican was elected president, and they only ever began a steep decline when a Democrat took office. Furthermore, these trends are strong and statistically significant. They are also cumulative: that is, the longer a Republican president was in office, the higher the violence; the longer a Democrat was in power, the more violence declined.

How can this be? This is the "murder mystery" that Gilligan seeks to solve.

The fact that Gilligan is a psychoanalytically orientated psychiatrist helps to explain his emphasis on individual feelings of shame as motivating factors in US aggression. However, his real attention remains focused on the social mechanisms that result in poverty. During Republican administrations, he shows, unemployment soars. Although the Republicans present themselves as the party of prosperity, in fact their policies dramatically increase inequality and poverty. Unemployment rates are nearly a third higher during Republican administrations than during Democratic ones. Rates of violent crime also increase under the Republicans, and Gilligan even goes so far as to argue that the high crime rates that Republican administrations are responsible for play to the party's advantage politically by reinforcing its calls for law and order.

Gilligan next attacks the lack of political will to reform society in ways that will reduce murder and violence. He has some striking comments to make on the "war on drugs" and the US legal system's reliance on harsh regimes of incarceration for criminals. For instance, he points out that illegal drugs such as heroin and marijuana actually inhibit violence. The most violence-inciting drug of all - alcohol - remains legal. He is not promoting illegal drug use, but he does suggest that illegal drugs should be treated as a public health issue, because they can cause serious medical problems, rather than as a criminal matter. Imprisoning drug addicts simply does not work. Indeed, the carceral obsession of the Republican Party is itself part of the problem. Gilligan points out that there is only one type of prison programme that manages to cut recidivism: those that enable prisoners to gain a college degree. Looking at a number of these programmes over a 25-year period in the US, recidivism was zero. When Gilligan triumphantly reported these results in a lecture at Harvard University in Massachusetts, the Republican governor of the state decided to close the programme down, claiming that people might start committing crimes in order to get a free education in prison. In Gilligan's words, "in the name of fighting crime, Republican politicians systematically and deliberately dismantled the single most effective program we have yet discovered for enabling people to leave a life of crime and violence". Naturally, he is equally dismissive of Republican policies on handguns. With devastating wit, Gilligan exposes the Orwellian doublespeak of Republican strategists.

This is a powerful book. The amount of evidence amassed here is substantial, and the book is a brilliant example of the power of calm yet compelling argumentation. At its heart is a profound anxiety about the lives of disadvantaged and disenfranchised men and women in today's America.

Why Some Politicians Are More Dangerous than Others

By James Gilligan

Polity Press, 180pp, £16.99

ISBN 9780745649818

Published 26 August 2011

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