This week, part of the answer might come to us in the shared space between health and economics.
The headlines would have been hard to miss.
The Washington Post: "Study: Death rates rising in middle-aged whites"
The New York Times: "Death Rates Rising for Middle-Aged White Americans, Study Finds"
But it's the content deep in those stories that should really be noted.
A team of researchers has uncovered something profound: Between 1999 and 2013 — a period of 14 years — the death rate among one group has been climbing. That group is white Americans, particularly those who are middle-aged and have a high school diploma or less. And they are dying earlier because of real spikes in depression and its sometimes-tragic culmination — suicide — or because of addiction and substance-abuse-related illness.
(The researchers pointed to long-known but little-discussed facts such as data showing white Americans are more likely to commit suicide and statistically more likely to be prescribed opioid painkillers if and when they complain to their doctors of pain.)
In fact, most of the much-reported narrowing of the life expectancy gap between black and white Americans is because white American health is in decline. And all of this has happened during a period in which the vast majority of Americans of all races have seen their wages, their job options and their economic prospects and standing decline. For white Americans with limited education, that's also come with a range of economic, social and legal changes that dispatched many of the jobs they used to hold overseas and eliminated their once-almost-exclusive claim to those that remain.
For white Americans accustomed to thinking of themselves as simply who and what it means to be American — rather than a subgroup worthy of study and dreary results — please take a deep breath. A moment of real talk about real numbers here: In the chart below, "USW" is an abbreviation for U.S. white death rate (the thick red line). And "USH" stands for U.S. Hispanic death rate (thick blue line). The others are references to death rates in other developed countries. You will note that only the U.S. white data seems to be growing in a clear way.
As unsettling as this information might be, these are not our in-house or haphazard conclusions. These are the findings of a pair of Princeton University economists, Anne Case and Angus Deaton. And Deaton won a Nobel Prize in October. These aren't ideas to be readily dismissed.
So perhaps a better question or start for those conversations about the state of the 2016 race mentioned at the outset here — among voters, reporters and observers alike — might be this: Why wouldn't all of the above also have some effect on politics?
It's almost a matter of uncontested truth that during times of peace or at least distant, technologically driven war, Americans are motivated to act politically and to vote, in large part, by economic conditions. As James Carville famously posted in Bill Clinton's 1992 campaign headquarters,"It's the economy, stupid."
People are just darn-near-obsessed with macroeconomic conditions. The only thing that tops that are concerns about their own financial situations and sense of prospects.
Americans have put their faith over the last 14 years in Congress and two men who, in comparison to some of the stars of the 2016 crop, have relatively traditional presidential resumes. Former Texas-governor-turned-Republican President George W. Bush's tenure ushered in the Great Recession. Former U.S. Senator-turned-Democratic President Barack Obama has overseen a tepid but sustained recovery.
All the enthusiasm and support for so-called "outsider" candidates might really be a conclusion that the other type of leaders haven't worked so well for them. So they might as well try something else.
In fairness, Donald Trump and Ben Carson have, in their very own ways, waged real campaigns with serious resources. But voters haven't required much from them when it comes to how they will compensate for their lack of governing experience. Instead, the fact that neither man has even managed a public budget, negotiated trade deals or wrestled with a legislature or national security matters is apparently a plus.
All of the above seem to have joined a long list created by voters and labeled, "Who Cares."
Trump infamously launched his campaign by branding illegal Mexican border-crossers as depraved and dangerous criminals. His other frequent talking point centers around luxurious levels of border-fencing to be financed by what he describes as a very shrewd Mexican government. He has since rolled out policy ideas on taxes, guns and veteran health care.
But the crux of his campaign is really this: Those things some people are saying about American decline and retreat — some of which are rumors and conspiracies I bolstered — might or might not be true. We need not deal in complicated details like facts or truth. We need simply to be stronger, tougher, more Trump-like and deal-oriented. And America will be great again.
Carson has run a much more sedate campaign where wild and unadvisable metaphors, comparisons and controversial claims delivered in dulcet tones stand in for Trump's seemingly inexhaustible font of ready insults and self-awarded superlatives. A tax system modeled after religious tithing? Check. Calls for "strategic cuts" such as an end to Medicare and the tyrannical Affordable Care Act? He has those too. If implemented, together that would take care of the country's finances, Carson has told us. Individual hard work and a real emphasis on morality would pretty much take care of the rest.
Those are essentially the messages that are propelling these men to alternating spots in the lead. Trump seems to have the edge with white Americans with a high school education or less. Carson has it with white Americans who identify as evangelicals.
Both are, it seems, in their own way setting themselves out as different types of a strongman leader — or at the very least, great men of singular accomplishments capable of managing anything.
Doubt that? Consider that the world has seen this before. All of it. As Lenny Bernstein and Joel Achenbach found in their Washington Post article about the new study:
An increase in the mortality rate for any large demographic group in an advanced nation has been virtually unheard of in recent decades, with the exception of Russian men after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
In the years after the Soviet Union's collapse, a former construction-industry chief turned municipal leader and rebel/outsider Communist party official, Boris Yeltsin, became Russia's president. The man who replaced him: Vladimir Putin. He's a career KGB agent turned member of the Yeltsin cabinet and advocate for greater influence and respect for faith — particularly the Russian-Orthodox church — in public and private life.