I was standing outside a small-town courthouse, chatting with a clutch of town and county officials, on a fall evening a few years ago, when the conversation turned to their constituents. We were on a break from a sparsely attended candidates’ forum inside, and I asked them what was on the voters’ minds that year. After a little bit of this and a little bit of that, they reached sudden and enthusiastic consensus (after making sure that no one from the local paper was in earshot): in general, the voters don’t give a shit.
Now this is at a level of politics that big money has not been able to lock down, simply because in a race for a few thousand votes to get elected to the county commission, there’s nothing on which to spend big money. At this level, votes decide, but the voters don’t care. The only way to get a crowd at a political debate is to open with Beyonce. At higher levels, where money rules, it might seem reasonable to think that money has driven people out of politics. In presidential elections since WWII, about 40% of those registered to vote have not bothered to do so, never mind those who did not bother to register. But if money locked them out, why have they also abandoned politics at the level where they could still rule?
We still have a free-ish press, capable if it wants to of informing us about the depredations of politicians and the financiers they are in bed with, the abuses of industry, the cataclysmic advance of of climate change, all the existential threats toward which we are drifting, rudderless and leaderless. You can look it all up. So where’s the outrage? Where the rallies, not just of protest but of support for making a change?
Whacked out on drugs, it turns out. And I’m not talking about “controlled substances” bought in dark alleys: more Americans are addicted to legal prescription drugs than the illegal kind. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, American doctors wrote 259 million prescriptions in 2012, one for every man, woman and child in the country, just for highly addictive painkillers. That represents 80% of the world’s supply. Of the 41,000 drug-overdose deaths recorded in 2011, 41% involved narcotic painkillers.
That’s just one category of medicine misuse. One in every 10 Americans — one of every four middle-aged women — is on an antidepressant medication. A recent study found massive over-diagnosis of depression by doctors wielding the power of the prescriptive pen.
Shall we turn to the young people, then, to save us? According to the Health Care Institute, in 2010 the average teenager in America is on 1.2 prescriptions for drugs that affect the central nervous system to try to counter the effects of attention deficit disorder, depression and the like.
In all, the Mayo Clinic found last year, 70% of us take at least one prescribed medication (primarily antibiotics, painkillers and antidepressants), 50% of us take two, and 20%, five. In 2000, only 44% of Americans were on a prescription. (And you thought all those ads saying, “Call your doctor…” weren’t working?)
Obviously, taking an antibiotic will not interfere with the discharge of your civic duties. Just as obviously, not everyone on one or five prescriptions is impaired by them. The extent to which the collective mind has been addled by all these chemicals is hard to divine. But if the scale of seriousness runs from no downside at all on the one hand to 113 overdose deaths every single day on the other, (this death rate has been rising steadily for 20 years and is now the leading cause of injury death in the United States) it seems reasonable to assume that we are dealing with a substantial chunk of our citizenry that is not playing with a full mental deck.
Anecdotal evidence: The National Transportation Safety Board has recently reported that four of every ten pilots killed in the crash of their airplanes in 2011 had drugs in their system, prominently including painkillers and over-the-counter sleep aids. The rate of occurrence is quadruple what it was in 1990. The substances that impair the ability to fly a plane surely have some effect on the ability to guide a country.
More anecdotal evidence: Half of all older adults — you know, the kind who vote — take sleeping aids. A study just published in the British Medical Journal says taking sleeping pills for three months increases by over half the risk of Alzheimer’s disease. Alzheimer’s patients don’t vote.
I used to blame the mass narcotic television for the dereliction of the American voter. Maybe those trips to the medicine cabinet during commercial breaks should get some attention as well.