Maybe because they’re wrong

Matthew Yglesias:

Earlier this month the CDC released the results of its Youth Risk Behavior Survey of American teenagers. The findings have been much discussed, with the focus largely and understandably on the fact that teenage girls are suffering from extraordinarily high levels of sadness and depression. But I think the conversation has overlooked a few things.

One possible culprit for this widespread sadness is that social media apps are especially damaging to girls’ psychological health, a thesis long championed by Jonathan Haidt. And even though on its face Haidt’s point seems left-wing (new technology has downside risks and big companies need to be regulated more), the idea has taken on a mostly right-wing inflection, with Josh Hawley as its most vocal champion in the Senate.

Social media is good at generating polarization, and some of the left-inflected pushback has essentially argued that maybe teens aren’t depressed because of phones but because, in Taylor Lorenz’s words, “we’re living in a late stage capitalist hellscape during an ongoing deadly pandemic w record wealth inequality, 0 social safety net/job security, as climate change cooks the world.” Noah Smith and Eric Levitz both wrote good articles questioning the veracity of that doomer narrative, and Michelle Goldberg did an excellent piece trying to reframe the issue, arguing correctly that “the idea that unaccountable corporate behemoths are harming kids with their products shouldn’t be a hard one for liberals to accept, even if figures like Hawley believe it as well.”1

But I want to talk about something Goldberg mentions but doesn’t focus on: a 2021 paper by Catherine Gimbrone, Lisa Bates, Seth Prins, and Katherine Keyes titled “The politics of depression: Diverging trends in internalizing symptoms among US adolescents by political beliefs.” The CDC survey doesn’t ask teens about their political beliefs, but Gimbrone et. al. find not only divergence by gender, but divergence by political ideology. Breaking things down by gender and ideology, they find that liberal girls have the highest increase in depressive affect and conservative boys have the least. But liberal boys are more depressed than conservative girls, suggesting an important independent role for political ideology.

I think the discussion around gender and the role of social media is an important one. But I also don’t believe that liberal boys are experiencing more depression than conservative girls because they are disproportionately hung up on Instagram-induced body image issues — I think there’s also something specific to politics going on.

Some of it might be selection effect, with progressive politics becoming a more congenial home for people who are miserable. But I think some of it is poor behavior by adult progressives, many of whom now valorize depressive affect as a sign of political commitment. The thing about depression, though, is that it’s bad. Separate from the Smith/Levitz project of arguing about recent political trends, I think we need some kind of society-level cognitive behavioral therapy to convince people that whatever it is they are worried about, depression is not the answer. Because it never is.

Three of the politics of depression paper’s authors are also co-authors on a newer paper arguing that “as efforts to increase policing and roll back criminal legal system reforms in major U.S. cities rise, the collateral consequences of increased criminalization remain critical to document” and looking at the idea that “criminalization may contribute to racial disparities in mental health.” Like most academics, they seem to be quite left-wing. If there were more Republicans working as professors, we’d probably balance out this line of inquiry with papers asking whether rising levels of shootings and homicides also contribute to racial disparities in mental health.2 But there aren’t. So even when all the research being done is good, we primarily see research looking at the questions that progressives think are interesting.

In keeping with that, the politics of depression authors seem very interested in the idea that liberal teens are depressed because they correctly perceive injustice in the world:

Adolescents in the 2010s endured a series of significant political events that may have influenced their mental health. The first Black president, Democrat Barack Obama, was elected to office in 2008, during which time the Great Recession crippled the US economy (Mukunda 2018), widened income inequality (Kochhar & Fry 2014) and exacerbated the student debt crisis (Stiglitz 2013). The following year, Republicans took control of the Congress and then, in 2014, of the Senate. Just two years later, Republican Donald Trump was elected to office, appointing a conservative supreme court and deeply polarizing the nation through erratic leadership (Abeshouse 2019). Throughout this period, war, climate change (O’Brien, Selboe, & Hawyard 2019), school shootings (Witt 2019), structural racism (Worland 2020), police violence against Black people (Obasogie 2020), pervasive sexism and sexual assault (Morrison-Beedy & Grove 2019), and rampant socioeconomic inequality (Kochhar & Cilluffo 2019) became unavoidable features of political discourse. In response, youth movements promoting direct action and political change emerged in the face of inaction by policymakers to address critical issues (Fisher & Nasrin 2021, Haenschen & Tedesco 2020). Liberal adolescents may have therefore experienced alienation within a growing conservative political climate such that their mental health suffered in comparison to that of their conservative peers whose hegemonic views were flourishing.

I’m not saying any of those particular points are wrong. But if these Columbia epidemiologists walked down the street to talk to Columbia economist Richard Clarida, I wonder how he would characterize political trends over the last 20 years. Clarida was Assistant Secretary of Treasury for Economic Policy under George W. Bush, and in terms of the big political fights of the mid-Bush years — the Iraq War, gay marriage, Social Security privatization — liberals totally ran the table. The collapse in political support for Bush-style free trade policies has been so complete that hardly anyone even remembers that’s what the conservative view was.

So is it really true that in some objective sense, conservative views are flourishing and hegemonic?

It’s really hard to definitely prove that one side or the other is “winning” the game of American politics. The answer depends on how you weigh different topics, and people often shift their views on the relative importance of things depending on the context. What I think is most relevant from a mental health perspective is that like most things in life, politics is a bit of a mixed bag that could be looked at in different ways.

The catalog of woes offered in the paper sounds less to me like a causal explanation of why progressive teens have more depressive affect than it does like listening to a depressed liberal give an account of recent American politics. Note for example the negative framing of the fact that progressives have used their agenda-setting power to make structural racism, pervasive sexism, and rampant socioeconomic inequality into unavoidable features of political discourse. One could instead say this is what the path to victory looks like — progressive activists and intellectuals have succeeded in getting more people to pay attention to what they think are the most important problems.

Mentally processing ambiguous events with a negative spin is just what depression is. And while the finding that liberals are disproportionately likely to do it is interesting and important, it’s not sound practice to celebrate that or tell them that they are right to do it.

There is an old phrase attributed to Winston Churchill that if you are not a liberal at 20 you have no heart, but if you are not a conservative at 40 you have no brain. Perhaps young progressives get depressed not by the state of the world (which will always be flawed because of humans) but when they start to realize that what they think is true is not.

What is known as “liberalism” or progressivism today is guaranteed to make its believers unhappy. It requires that they believe things that are false — for instance, that every member of a particular group is the same (i.e. all white conservative men are racists, and all members of minority groups are victims). Liberalism also appeals to emotion, whereas conservatism should (but doesn’t always; see Trump, Donald) appeal to facts and reason.

The thing about young political idealism — actually young idealism of any sort — is that it lacks knowledge and therefore wisdom. That is not to say that older people are smarter. But one of the most important aspects of growing older is learning perspective, as in your ability to change things being in direct proportion with how close something is to you.



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