Donald Trump was especially successful in winning votes in regions hit hardest by drug and alcohol abuse, according to a new research paper.
Penn State sociologist Shannon Monnat examined election results and zeroed in on regions ravaged by "deaths of despair." This is the term employed to describe the fatal effects of alcohol, heroin and prescription opiates on people across the country, but especially white, middle-aged Americans, whose mortality rates have been rising in recent years.
"At the core of these diseases and deaths of despair is a desire to escape pain, stress, anxiety, hopelessness, shame," she said.
Monnat found that in Appalachia and New England, Trump outperformed Mitt Romney by 10 percent in the counties with the highest mortality rates. And in the Industrial Midwest, by 17 percent. The trend also applies locally, to Suffolk County and Staten Island, which flipped from Obama to Trump and have experienced rising numbers of drug overdose deaths.
Monnat said that many people, primarily white Americans without college degrees, were being jarred not simply by the loss of jobs or income but by the understanding that hard work doesn't necessarily translate into success.
"And this is a reality that people of color have contended with for a very long time. But downward mobility is the new normal in many of these former successful and largely white communities. And with that comes shame and frustration, anxiety and certainly anger."
Upon reviewing her findings, Dr. Andrew Kolodny, the Co-director of Opioid Policy Research at Brandeis University's Heller School for Social Policy and Management, said Monnat's research doesn't explain why the Pacific Northwest did not go for Trump, despite an opioid crisis there. Or, why states like Nebraska, Kansas, South Dakota and Wyoming went for Trump despite lower rates of opioid abuse.
"But to the extent that there were many working class white voters who went for Trump because they feel that government has failed them, I think that the opioid addiction epidemic is an example of government failing these groups. Because their families, their communities have been devastated by prescription opioids and heroin, and yet the federal government really ignored the problem, up until very recently."
Kolodny and Monnat hope that Trump will deliver on his promises to address the drug epidemic, including a tough stance on Big Pharma.