The Republican Mind: Don't Worry, Be Happy
These may be dark times for President Bush and the GOP, but Republicans are happy. Or at least happier than Democrats. That's the unsurprising conclusion of the annual survey of American happiness ("Are We Happy Yet?") by the Pew Research Center. Just as predictably, conservatives like George Will are happier still about what they see as vindication for their blighted ideology.
On this as on so many other topics, Will has the morality play utterly backwards.
But first a little background. In the Pew survey, 45% of Republicans reported that they were "very happy," compared to only 30% of Democrats. The difference can't be attributed to the conventional wisdom that followers of the GOP are generally better off. Self-proclaimed Republicans were happier than Democrats across all income levels, especially between $30,000 and $50,000. And as depressed and disheartened as Democrats may be about the conservative ascendancy and the Bush presidency (only 9% of Democrats approve of President Bush in the latest Pew research), the "contentment gap" is not a new phenomenon. Democrats' relative joylessness has been confirmed in every Pew poll since the days of Nixon in 1972...
For Will, of course, the Pew study confirms the superiority of his conservative philosophy and the concomitant failure of liberals' "grim and scolding" creed. Conservatives, he argues, are inherently pessimistic and so "when they are wrong, they are happy to be so." This is a rehash of the old saw that liberals believe in the perfectibility of human nature, which conservatives see as essentially evil and unchanging.
Will's principal explanation of Republicans' comparative joy, though, is their belief in rugged individualism versus Democrats' supposed faith in big government. Whereas Republicans "accept that happiness is a function of fending for oneself," Will preens, "liberals think the attainment of happiness itself, understood in terms of security and material well-being, is an entitlement that government has created and can deliver." Citing Amity Shlaes, Will claims that Democrats' original sin was the New Deal and their Satan FDR. "The New Deal had a purpose beyond curing the Depression. It was to make people look to Washington for help at all times."
But Democrats' ongoing season of discontent has nothing to do with handouts from a beneficent government, but with their belief in a shared vision of increasing prosperity and liberty for all Americans. Democrats don't believe in the potential perfection of human nature, but in the incremental improvement over time of American society - and Americans' lives. They take seriously the Constitution's admonition to "form a more Union." Democrats will never rest easy with 46 million uninsured, out-of-control health care costs, stagnant wages, declining median family incomes, surging income inequality at home and an America isolated and at risk abroad.
Democrats fundamentally believe that we Americans are in this together. This isn't socialism, but a commitment to an unwritten agreement that links all Americans. That bargain holds that in exchange for their hard work, personal responsibility and shared commitment to public institutions, Americans should enjoy expanded social mobility, growing prosperity and protected personal freedoms. All the bargain requires is that those disproportionately benefiting from the American system disproportionately contribute to its maintenance.
In stark contrast, the bar for the Republicans' cramped, myopic and inward-looking philosophy is much lower. It is much easier to be happy when your moral universe doesn't extend beyond your front door. It's no wonder that conservatives' push to privatize social services like education, health care, and retirement, while rewarding Americans for withdrawing their support from their country, their government, their communities, their schools - and each other. The Republican vision of an "Opt Out Society" represents an all-out assault on common national purpose in the United States. Government not only can't solve problems, it has no moral claim on its citizens' participation in a shared national effort to try. At the end of the day, you're on your own in a Hobbesian struggle of each against all; the government's role is to stand aside and let you fight it out.
So the message of George Will and the conservative chattering class - Don't Worry, Be Happy - seems to be working. Its success is all the more striking given the consistently higher levels of social pathology in Red State America. After all, across a wide range of indicators - such as working conditions, divorce, murder rates and out of wedlock birth rates - societal dysfunction is the most pronounced in those states where the Republican majority is most solid.
Which brings us back to another interesting if predictable finding of the Pew study on American happiness. Aside from party affiliation, the other certain predictor of contentment is church attendance. Catholic or Protestant, the more often you go to church, the happier you'll be.
That fact doesn't just speak to the reassurance and sense of meaning most Americans find in their faith. It suggests that in Republican America, you can take comfort and find happiness in this world knowing that your neighbors may have to wait for the next.