Bitter Tea?

July 10, 2012
Posted by Jay Livingston
A less snarky version of this post is at Sociological Images.

In Sunday’s New York Times (here), Arthur Brooks explained  “Why Conservatives Are Happier Than Liberals.”

Brooks pretends to be surprised at the happiness of conservatives.  In the first paragraph, he artfully constructs his straw man:
Barack Obama in 2008 . . . infamously labeled blue-collar voters “bitter,” as they “cling to guns or religion.”
Besides Obama’s perception (or as Brooks sees it, misperception)
there is an entire academic literature in the social sciences dedicated to showing conservatives as naturally authoritarian, dogmatic, intolerant of ambiguity, fearful of threat and loss, low in self-esteem and uncomfortable with complex modes of thinking.
(Note that Brooks is careful not to say that the research actually shows this, though it does.  Instead, the research – most of it by those unhappy liberals – is “dedicated to showing” conservatives in a bad light. Sort of like the research “dedicated to showing” that planet Earth is getting warmer – another liberal conspiracy.*)
Obviously, liberals must be happier, right?
Wrong, says Brooks. 

I’m not sure why he assumes that those characteristics of conservatives found in the scientific literature should make them less happy than liberals. But Brooks is not really interested in conservative traits that are uncorrelated to happiness.  He wants to explain what makes conservatives happy, and he finds two important factors: marriage (with children) and religion.
Religious participants are nearly twice as likely to say they are very happy about their lives as are secularists (43 percent to 23 percent). The differences don’t depend on education, race, sex or age; the happiness difference exists even when you account for income.
That’s a bit misleading. Happiness is in fact related to income, race, and education in exactly the ways you would expect, though for some reason Brooks does not include those variables in his analysis. What Brooks means is that the religion effect holds even when you control for those variables. 

What about the image of the “bitter” conservative?  Nonsense, says Brooks.  Obama, couldn’t have been more wrong. When you look across the political spectrum,
none, it seems, are happier than the Tea Partiers, many of whom cling to guns and faith with great tenacity.
This does not square with the image of Tea Partiers as bitter and angry.  But maybe that’s because until recently, they didn’t have much to be bitter about.  The US was their country, and they knew it.   That’s why ever since November 2008 they have kept talking about “taking back our country.” (See my “Repo Men” post  from two years ago.)

Still, Brooks insists that the extreme right are the happiest kids on the block.  The trouble is that Brooks is looking at pre-Obama data on happiness.  The most recent survey he cites is from 2006.  So Brooks is correct when he says, “This pattern has persisted for decades.”  Here for example is the GSS cumulative data since 1972. 

By about 10 percentage points, more conservatives identify themselves as “very happy” than do liberals.  The difference is even higher among the extreme conservatives. 

But what if we look at the data from the Obama years?

The GSS does not offer “bitter” as a choice on its Happiness measure or “Tea Party” as a political preference, but extreme conservatives are nearly three times as likely as others to be “not too happy.”**  And overall, the happiness gap between conservatives and liberals is hard to find.


* The radio announcer for Celtics games when I was in Boston was Johnny Most, a considerable homer.  On radio, the Celtics never actually committed a foul.  Instead, Most would say, after some bit of shoving on the floor that ended with a 76er crashing into the seats, “and they call a foul on Havlicek.”  Or as Brooks would have it, the refs were “dedicated to showing” that the Celtics committed a foul.

 ** I suppose some caution is in order.  The GSS sample for the table is about 2000, but only 80 of those were Extreme Conservative.  Still, any other 2-year period with similar sample size would show Brooks’s happy-conservative tilt.  Only in the Obama years does the graph look like this.

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