Liberal Tears Win in the Marketplace of Ideas
Political hypochondria spreads because it works
Young people seem to be very sad these days, but then it’s hardly surprising when Suella Braverman is turning Britain into Nazi Germany, and J.K. Rowling is literally trying to kill them, while the entire human race will be wiped out by climate change before they ever own a home (which is never).
Certainly they seem more unhappy than when my generation were cheerfully singing along to the latest ditty by The Cure or Radiohead. In the United States, there has been a sharp rise in adolescent mental illness in the past decade, an increase that coincides with the spread of smartphones and social media use. The number of American college students suffering from depression increased by 135% between 2013 and 2021, while all psychiatric illnesses increased by 40%. In Britain the figures might be even more gloomy, with the worst rates of childhood depression in Europe.
The Atlantic’s Derek Thompson recently looked through the various accepted causes, including parenting strategies, lowered socialisation, social media use and ‘the world being more stressful.’ There is also the fact that self-reporting surveys are very subject to social mores, and people are now encouraged to identify any mental health problems where previously they might not have.
Jonathan Haidt is the main advocate for the social media theory and Richard Hanania, while sceptical of that idea, is also now a believer. But while there is a parallel between worsening mental health and the rise of smartphone technology, this trend also tracks the Great Awokening — and the rising anxiety affects liberals considerably more than conservatives. So is it liberalism, or more specifically runaway liberalism (‘wokeism’), making people sad and mad?
Columbia University’s Musa al-Gharbi, who has written a book on radicalisation of the 2010s, writes that ‘The timing in the meteoric rise in depression among young liberals correlates pretty tightly with the onset of the “Great Awokening” and ‘the rapid shifts in discourse, protest activity [and] political alignments’.
Matthew Yglesias suggests that it might be the natural result of progressive politics making people sadder, citing a 2021 paper titled ‘The politics of depression: Diverging trends in internalizing symptoms among US adolescents by political beliefs. ’
This showed not only a divergence by gender but by political ideology, too. Girls are far more depressed than boys, but liberal girls are the most depressed and conservative boys the least, although everyone is moving in the wrong direction.
Yglesias wonders if there is some selection effect, ‘with progressive politics becoming a more congenial home for people who are miserable’ but he also blames adult progressives for valorising mental illness. He is also sceptical of the argument that liberal teens are more depressed because they correctly perceive injustice in the world, namely climate change, Trump and racism. Instead, ‘The catalogue 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.
‘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.’
Yglesias links to a post by Jill Filipovic about how younger people have been taught that catastrophising is a good way to get what they want. Filipovic wrote that ‘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 event 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.’
In their book on politics and anxiety, The Coddling of the American Mind, Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff made the point that modern politics works as reverse cognitive behavioural therapy. If you ever try CBT, you will be told to avoid nine key areas of negative thought, which are:
Emotional Reasoning: letting feelings guide your interpretation of reality.
Catastrophising: focussing on the worst possible outcomes.
Overgeneralising: seeing a big pattern of negatives based on a single incident.
Dichotomous thinking: viewing events or people in all or nothing terms.
Mind reading: assuming you think you know what people are actually thinking.
Discounting positives and
Anyone who uses Twitter will be familiar with at least six of those, since the sort of social justice politics which has characterised social media since about 2012-3 encourages almost all those negative thought patterns in various forms; it’s hardly surprising that people encouraged to think that fascists are taking over America, or that transphobes threaten their safety, or even that a clumsily-phrased comment was actually a deliberate racial slur, are going to be incredibly miserable.
Political hypochondria is a real phenomenon, the widespread trend of people perceiving the rise of fascism everywhere, just as hypochondriacs see cancer all around (especially if their family has suffered from it). Just as quack doctors spread hypochondria online, political health anxiety grows because it suits a lot of people to cast their opponents as fascists.