October 26, 2008

On the Happiness of Conservatives

Justin Katz

Something has seemed tellingly erroneous about liberals' declarations of conservatives' desperateness and their premature schadenfreude related to the presumed outcome of the election. Liberals misapprehend something very basic in the conservative philosophy, which, although it varies in form and degree across the right-wing spectrum, is partly definitive. Those perplexed by the partisan or ideological happiness gap are missing the same something:

This year, when things seem so rosy for Democrats, the joy gulch yawns wider than ever. The fraction of very happy Republicans has never been so much larger than the very happy Democrats.

What's the Republicans' secret to feeling groovy?

"They have more money," Paul Taylor, director of the Pew Social & Demographic Trends project, writes in the new report. "They have more friends. They are more religious. They are healthier. They are more likely to be married. They like their communities better. They like their jobs more. They are more satisfied with their family life. They like the weather better." ...

Brooks says a lot hinges on the answer to this question: Do you believe that hard work and perseverance can overcome disadvantages? Conservatives are more likely to say yes.

Pew found that Democrats are more likely to say that success in life is mostly determined by outside forces. Republicans lean toward thinking that success is determined by one's own efforts.

The hypothesis: Those who think they can control their destinies are happier.

The notion of controlling one's destiny begins to go off the mark, because core to conservatism is a material realism. As Peter Robinson describes in a summary of an interview with Thomas Sowell:

He prefers an older way of looking at American politics--a much older way. In his classic 1987 work, A Conflict of Visions, Sowell identifies two competing worldviews, or visions, that have underlain the Western political tradition for centuries.

Sowell calls one worldview the "constrained vision." It sees human nature as flawed or fallen, seeking to make the best of the possibilities that exist within that constraint. The competing worldview, which Sowell terms the "unconstrained vision," instead sees human nature as capable of continual improvement.

You can trace the constrained vision back to Aristotle; the unconstrained vision to Plato. But the neatest illustration of the two visions occurred during the great upheavals of the 18th century, the American and French revolutions.

The American Revolution embodied the constrained vision. "In the United States," Sowell says, "it was assumed from the outset that what you needed to do above all was minimize [the damage that could be done by] the flaws in human nature." The founders did so by composing a constitution of checks and balances. More than two centuries later, their work remains in place.

The French Revolution, by contrast, embodied the unconstrained vision. "In France," Sowell says, "the idea was that if you put the right people in charge--if you had a political Messiah--then problems would just go away." The result? The Terror, Napoleon and so many decades of instability that France finally sorted itself out only when Charles de Gaulle declared the Fifth Republic.

What role have the two visions played in the campaign? Sen. John McCain, who is trailing, has by and large embraced the constrained vision; Sen. Barack Obama, who is leading, the unconstrained vision. Asked if Obama represents the purest expression of the unconstrained vision since Franklin Roosevelt, Sowell, himself an African-American, replies: "No. Since the beginning of American politics. This man [Obama] has been a left ideologue for 20 years."

In the constrained vision, in contemporary politics, there's no such thing as perfectibility, so its implication for mood is to be happy anyway — to do our best. The unconstrained vision, ever chasing impossible structure insists that our work is not done, and it doesn't take much objectivity to see that our work can never be done. The Right sees the world's ebbs and flows and seeks meaning that isn't essentially linked to floods; the Left creates a narrative of progress, ever tangibly near, too often thwarted. One worldview casts setbacks as ultimately temporary and opponents as misguided; to the other, humanity is an ugly crowd that must be led, and saved by any means necessary from those who would repress it.

On a personal note, I can testify that I spent most of my adulthood thus far never long surpassing the positive threshold of any happiness index, and the idea that things beyond my personal control were precisely the things most in need of change has only recently receded. Now, I'd have to pause before telling a pollster whether I'm "very happy" or only "pretty happy." (I'd definitely be in the top group if I could manage to get my finances at least into break-even territory.) Oh, there are various forces that keep us all from achieving everything we desire, and sometimes they manifest in ugliness among our brethren, but our victory is not necessarily their defeat. Indeed, they cannot be defeated in a worldly sense, only ignored.

Not surprisingly, my improved mood in recent years has correlated most closely with my increasingly confident religiosity. My health has remained constant, and if anything, my sense of personal wealth has decreased. The foundation of true happiness may be a sense of progress and chance of success, and then contentment, but progress is never consistent, and success is never assured. What I find conservatism to provide is the promise that, when it comes to life's important answers, we are our ancestors' peers, not an improved iteration of them. What I find Christianity to provide is an understanding that progress needn't be toward worldly goals and a willingness to redefine the measurement of success.