As George Will’s columns go, I suppose his Feb. 23 offering wasn’t the worst. It was pretty awful, though. Having apparently grown tired of what must be a madding job of trying to come up with something — anything — good to say about his fellow conservatives in Congress and the White House, he went, instead, for a fluff piece.
His topic was the recent Pew Research Center poll which purports to show that Republicans, as a group, are much happier than Democrats. Here’s what Pew found: While fully 45 percent of Republicans said they were “very happy,” only 30 percent of Democrats and 29 percent of independents said they were. These numbers are apparently fairly consistent with earlier polls going back to 1972, and, at least according to Pew’s analysis, this difference in happiness level cannot be explained away on the basis of either income disparity, or the fact the Republicans, instead of the Democrats, are in power.
I’ll give my take on this below, but first let’s see what Will has to say. Since I’m a bleeding heart liberal, and thus dedicated to the prevention of unnecessary human suffering, I’ll spare you most of Will’s banter and get right down to the nitty gritty. In what seems to be his primary point, he suggests that Conservatives are happy because they distrust big government,
Begin with a paradox: Conservatives are happier than liberals because they are more pessimistic. Conservatives think the Book of Job got it right (”Man is born unto trouble as the sparks fly upward”), as did Adam Smith (”There is a great deal of ruin in a nation”). Conservatives understand that society in its complexity resembles a giant Calder mobile — touch it here and things jiggle there, and there, and way over there. Hence conservatives acknowledge the Law of Unintended Consequences, which is: The unintended consequences of bold government undertakings are apt to be larger than, and contrary to, the intended ones.
Conservatives’ pessimism is conducive to their happiness in three ways. First, they are rarely surprised — they are right more often than not about the course of events. Second, when they are wrong, they are happy to be so. Third, because pessimistic conservatives put not their faith in princes — government — they accept that happiness is a function of fending for oneself. They believe that happiness is an activity — it is inseparable from the pursuit of happiness.
So, in other words, conservatives tend to be happy because they are rugged individualists who oppose big government.
What was that famous line the character Annie spoke near the end of the movie Bull Durham? Oh yeah, “The world is made for people who aren’t cursed with self-awareness.”
In fact, it’s hard not to wonder whether Will slept through George W. Bush’s entire first five (big spending) years in office. Describing conservatives as anti-big government is just so 1970s.
And while we’re on the subject: Since when do rugged individualists prosper through crony capitalism, corporate welfare and wide-scale bribery.
There’s a lot of other nonsense in the column, most of which we’ll take a pass on. But one thing’s just too good to skip by. Here the Great One continues,
But, then, conscientious liberals cannot enjoy automobiles because there is global warming to worry about, and the perils of corporate-driven consumerism, which is the handmaiden of bourgeoisie materialism. And high-powered cars (how many liberals drive Corvettes?) are metaphors (for America’s reckless foreign policy, for machismo rampant, etc.). And then there is — was — all that rustic beauty paved over for highways. (And for those giant parking lots at exurban mega-churches. The less said about them the better.) And automobiles discourage the egalitarian enjoyment of mass transit. And automobiles, by facilitating suburban sprawl, deny sprawl’s victims — that word must make an appearance in liberal laments; and lament is what liberals do — the uplifting communitarian experience of high-density living. And automobiles . . .
What Will is saying, I guess, is that liberals are unhappy because we worry too much about silly things like global warming. You know, that nasty business about the earth’s atmosphere becoming hotter as a result of human conduct, leading to a series of catastrophic consequences including flooding of low-lying areas, migration of tropical diseases, mass species extinctions, widespread famine and the like. Conservatives, on the other hand, understand that the key to happiness is to just forget all that shit and party hardy.
It kind of makes you wonder whether that new book is right when it says that happiness is seriously overrated, doesn’t it?
And while we’re on the subject, let me ask: If Republicans are so darn happy, then why do they kill themselves and get divorced so often?
As to suicide, Michael Craig Miller, MD, the editor-in-chief of the Harvard Mental Health Letter (who, I should hasten to add, wasn’t making a partisan point), summed things up a year-and-a-half ago this way,
Thirteen states and the District of Columbia have lower than average suicide rates. All but one voted for Al Gore. Of the remaining 37 states, 29 voted for George W. Bush. The five states with the most lopsided Bush vote (Alaska, Montana, Wyoming, Utah and Idaho, with a margin of 25 percent or more) were all among the top eight for suicide.
And as to marriage, here’s what Andrew Sullivan, of all people, had to say after the last election,
Ask yourself a simple question: which state has the highest divorce rate? Marriage was a key issue in the last election, with Massachusetts’ gay marriages becoming a symbol of alleged blue state decadence and moral decay. But in fact Massachusetts has the lowest divorce rate in the country at 2.4 divorces per 1,000 inhabitants. Texas, which until recently made private gay sex a crime, has a divorce rate of 4.1.
A fluke? Not at all. The states with the highest divorce rates are Alabama, Arkansas, Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina and Texas. The states with the lowest divorce rates are: Connecticut, Massachusetts, Maine, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and Vermont.
Every one of the high divorce rate states went for Bush. Every one of the low divorce rate states went for Kerry. The Bible Belt divorce rate is roughly 50% higher than the national average.
So, since when are high suicide and divorce rates the product of happy people?
Here, for what it’s worth, is my take: I don’t think it’s true that conservatives are substantially happier than liberals; I just think they’re substantially more likely to tell pollsters that they are.
Why? A big part of the answer, I suspect, lies in a fundamental difference in the ways liberals and conservatives view unhappiness. To liberals, unhappiness is misfortune, while to conservatives, it’s sin. And the disdain conservatives feel toward unhappy people, and the tendency this creates for individual conservatives to deny their own unhappiness, applies to both the Religious Right and the traditional pro-business branches of the Republican Party.
Let’s start with faith-based right wingers. If you ever go to a gathering of the new breed of politically conservative Christian fundamentalists, the megachurch crowd, take a close look at the faces of the congregants. You may well be struck by the sense that you’ve somehow stumbled onto the set of The Stepford Wives: Almost everyone will be smiling. And many of the smiles will have the pasted-on look you often encounter in the family receiving line following a funeral.
The motivation for these (often) faux smiles isn’t hard to understand: Remember that faith is supposed to bring joy, and since evangelical Christians (although not all evangelicals are fundamentalist) believe that they have been called upon to share their faith, it necessarily follows that they have also been called upon to share their joy. A smile is part of the uniform.
But this goes deeper than just good salesmanship. There’s also a fundamental question of self-image involved: Because if joy is to be regarded as the reward for faith, it naturally follows that a lack of joy equates to a lack of faith, which, in turn, equates with sin. To concede unhappiness, therefore, is, in a very real sense, to excommunicate oneself from the flock and, by so doing, to embrace the fires of hell. So, it’s hardly surprising that members of conservative, and largely Republican, religious communities tend to declare themselves to be happy.
It’s pretty much the same story with business conservatives. Norman Vincent Peale may be dead and gone, but he lives on in the very heart of America’s corporate culture. The Power of Positive Thinking, the title of Peale’s most famous book, is metaphorically tattooed on the butt of almost every ambitious corporate executive.
And today’s corporate motivational speakers still sing Peale’s song: “Get up in the morning,” they enthusiastically cry out in their corporate seminars, “and shout into the mirror, ‘Today’s the day I win! Today’s the day I make that sale! Today’s the day I earn that promotion! Today will be my day!’”
And the white-collar working stiffs and middle managers dutifully scream back “Yes, yes and yes!” Then they go back to their desks to await the arrival of their pink slips, often just in time for their 50th birthday. But that’s okay, because as Barbara Ehrenreich demonstrates in her book, Bait and Switch, a whole new collection of “this is the first day of the rest of your life” happy talk specialists will be waiting for them — this time in the form of “job coaches” and “career counselors” — all ready, able and willing to tell them, for a price, mind you, that nothing’s holding them back except their own bad attitudes!
Don’t worry, be happy!
And if a pollster calls tell them you’re as happy as a mouse in a cheese factory, because, after all, unhappiness (and the creative rebelliousness it may produce) is for losers.
That said, I can’t deny that some small “happiness gap” probably does exist between Democrats and Republicans (though nothing like the huge difference suggested by the Pew poll results). This would certainly be consistent with other polling results indicating that important demographic groups which tend to trend Republican, like married people, report greater happiness, on average, than comparable groups, such as single people, who trend more Democratic.
Besides, why not just come right out and admit it? Self-satisfied complacency probably is a happier state of mind, in many ways, than following the dictum of Edward Kennedy’s funeral tribute to the spirit of his recently assassinated brother, Robert, “Some men see things as they are and ask why? I dream things that never were and ask why not?”
But then that takes us to the unavoidable question, doesn’t it? Just what is this happiness thing?
And while we’re at it: Just how important is it anyway, when compared to other aspects of life?
Not wanting to dive too deeply into something this, well, deep, let me approach it this way: Ex-presidents are always a good source for metaphor. So, who do you think has had the “happier” ex-presidency, George HW Bush, who largely uses his time to cash in on his name and play golf, or Jimmy Carter, who travels the globe promoting world peace and an end to human suffering?
Obviously, there’s no way we can know. What we can know beyond any doubt, however, is which has been the more worthwhile.
And maybe that’s all the answer we need.