We arrive at another Twitter-inspired blog post, tailored for one portion of the national population. Today, Dr. Melissa Clouthier, a conservative libertarian blogger, straightforwardly asked me: "Why aren't lefties happier?"
Indeed, why aren't we on the Left happier? I think Dr. Clouthier is right on a general level. Naturally, there are many happy liberals and some frustrated conservatives; moreover, our two-party system unavoidably masks the more complex politics of various individuals, making it hard to determine what kinds of liberals are especially grumpy (or, conversely, more cheerful). This question and the topic attached to it can easily devolve into broad stereotypes and bland generalizations. Neither items are helpful - the former fail to respect individuals, while the latter paper over differences and squelch the meaningfully revelatory dialogue we need in America. I know I won't speak for every single liberal or capture the entirety of what it's like to be a lefty, but I'll try to be as honest as possible. I want conservatives and right-libertarians to see lefties as we are, with our good motivations and reasoned thought processes but also with our manifold weaknesses, sins and failings.
So, on with the show, a brief essay that will only hit on some major points and not go too deep in any one direction (out of respect for everyone's time during the middle of the week). I do welcome comments, and would be perfectly happy to field a boatload of questions from members of the conservative blogosphere and conservative activists in general. If a follow-up essay is requested by any conservative readers, I'll write it and will sincerely try to address relevant questions/comments/tension points in a meaningful and transparent way.
Why are lefties not happier? As with almost all complicated realities in life, there's no one answer which will fully satisfy, but there are a few factors that emerge more strongly and broadly than most. One factor is religion. It's not so much whether religion is good or bad - that's the clash between the secular Left and the religious Right - but more simply, how religion is interpreted and emphasized.
I consider myself a progressive Catholic. I've been in the middle of multiple sociocultural crossfires. The secular Left thinks I'm too religious, while the Right thinks I'm not religious enough (generalizations to a point, but again true for the most part). Speaking from a place of progressive Catholicism, I'm aware of the difference between much of liberal and conservative forms of Christianity. The issue of Biblical inerrancy (whether the Bible is literally true or not) has, matter of factly, carried enormous implications for the ways in which one receives the Christian faith as a young person and then carries it as an adult. Leaving opinions aside, it is simply a reality in American life that the question of Biblical inerrancy strongly affects the rest of a person's religious mindset (if one remains religious to begin with). Liberals and conservatives both have sex and raise families and want their children to do well, but they acquire different points of emphasis that, over time, branch out into still more differentiations that create different kinds of people.
To directly address why lefties aren't happier, "we" (broadly defined, at least within our Christian adherents) think that human beings, while indeed flawed, are basically good. We acknowledge that human nature is frail in the face of temptation and vulnerable in the face of manipulation, but we lefties feel that if a person grows up in good circumstances, with a good upbringing and solid social supports, s/he will ripen into a contributing member of society and a fundamentally decent person. This is why we are: A) very sad when a person doesn't have strong social and familial support systems in childhood; and B) fervently desirous of changes to laws and policies that do not remedy the problems disadvantaged youth face. Our (theological) belief in the goodness of the human person clearly makes us lefties more wounded than, for instance, a Southern Baptist or non-denominational evangelical who believes in Biblical inerrancy and views human nature with a more sin-centric framework emphasizing the fallen nature of the human person. There are so many finer points that could be fleshed out here, but (for the sake of time/length) won't be. I do think the basic outlines of the matter do help to establish why lefty Christians (and certainly some lefty secularists) are less happy than righties.
Another core factor - which flows from everything just said - is that because conservatives cast a more skeptical eye toward human nature, they are much more willing (from the interactions I've had with conservatives on blogs since 2003) to simply say, "Life isn't fair - deal with it." Conservatives get frustrated just like anyone else, but it's been my experience that they are, on balance, better able to vent their anger, let it go, and move forward. Their skepticism of human nature allows them to possess and sustain a cultivated awareness of life's difficulties, which then enables them to develop a tougher and more resilient attitude to life. It's not cold - surely not to conservatives themselves - but merely a steely defense mechanism, a necessary survival tool that liberals would do well to cultivate on a more consistent basis. Lefties aren't as ready to admit that life isn't fair; we want to make life fairer! Again, I won't flesh out the policy merits (or demerits) which issue from such a dynamic; merely understand that this is how we generally think, and why we are less happy than righties generally are.
One other major determinant of conservative happiness and liberal misery is also connected to (broadly outlined) religious experiences. The specific factor in play here is the difference in interpretations of salvation. The liberal Christian experience generally holds that people are saved communally, and lefty Christians will often stress the need for works to accompany faith. The conservative Christian will place more emphasis on individual salvation, a personal decision of faith, and the need to believe in Jesus as Lord and Savior. Obviously, lefty Christians don't discount pure faith and interior belief, just as righty Christians don't dismiss the need to do good works. Nevertheless, there are differences in emphasis, and because your typical lefty Christian will see salvation through a more communitarian lens, s/he will weep more when s/he sees social dislocation, cultural drift, war, economic injustice, and other things that - in a lefty's mind - most centrally tear at the fabric of humanity. The conservative Christian - understandably upset at many of the injustices s/he sees in the world - does manage to walk with far greater internal confidence and assurance of personal salvation, bolstered and given ballast by a less-shaken belief in Jesus. Mel Gibson's The Passion certainly tapped into this vein of feeling and revealed the consuming confidence and happiness of many evangelical Christians who reside well to the right of the political center.
Well, I said I don't want to take up too much of your time. That's it for now. Again, follow-up questions or even requests for follow-up essays on uncovered terrain would be quite welcome, even encouraged. My e-mail address: email@example.com.
In a closing postscript that should not be diminished by its place at the very end of this post, I want to add: Just in case you have never heard this before, dear conservatives, I want to say it clearly and publicly: You are not the enemy. You are not evil. You've simply had collections of experiences and contours of existence which are very different from mine. If you and I swapped life stories (as is true for any two people who come from different backgrounds and face different points of poignancy along life's road), we'd probably be on the other side of the aisle. I'd be the conservative libertarian in Houston, and you'd be the progressive Catholic and former soup kitchen director/Dorothy Day admirer in Seattle. Peace be with you!