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Published: Saturday, 4/19/2008

Bitter liberals

IF BARACK Obama read Karl Marx less, and Arthur Brooks more, he might not be in such hot water.

"You go into these small towns in Pennsylvania and, like a lot of small towns in the Midwest, the jobs have been gone now for 25 years and nothing's replaced them - it's not surprising then they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who are not like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations," Senator Obama famously told fat cats at a fund-raiser in San Francisco.

Many commentators have waxed eloquent about the condescension of those remarks. "Obama comes across less like a candidate in Pennsylvania than an anthropologist in Borneo, " said New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd.

I'd like to focus on their cluelessness. Mr. Obama's comments reek of the watered down Marxism that passes for thought on college campuses these days. "Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the sentiment of a heartless world, and the soul of a soulless condition. It is the opium of the people," Marx wrote.

Mr. Obama and his apologists in the news media focused on his description of rural Pennsylvanians as "bitter" because that was the least offensive element of what he had said. Most of those who were upset by his remarks were upset by his notion they "cling to" religion out of economic frustration. Arthur Brooks could have told Mr. Obama that the people he described as "bitter" likely are a good deal happier than most of his supporters are, or his wife seems to be.

Mr. Brooks, a professor at Syracuse University, demonstrates, through the wealth of statistics in his new book, Gross National Happiness, that conservatives are much happier than liberals. In 2004, 44 percent of those who described themselves as "conservative" or "very conservative" told pollsters they were "very happy," compared to just 25 percent of those who described themselves as "liberal" or "very liberal."

It's been easier for conservatives to be happy these past eight years, because there's a Republican in the White House. But, Mr. Brooks says, "the happiness gap between conservatives and liberals is, in fact, astonishingly large and enduring, and it doesn't have anything to do with who is winning elections." The pattern he reports has persisted over 35 years of polling.

Nor does it have much to do with income, because conservatives are happier than liberals at all income levels. The happiness gap is due less to ideology than to two habits in which conservatives and liberals differ markedly.

Conservatives are more likely to go to church or synagogue regularly (46 percent to 16 percent in 2004). Forty three percent of those who attended church regularly said they were "very happy" with their lives, compared to just 23 percent of those whose faith in God was weak or nonexistent.

Two thirds of conservatives are married, but only a third of liberals are. Married people are twice as likely as singles to say they're happy, Mr. Brooks said.

Religious people are happier than secular people in part because we think we're going to go to a nice place when we die. But religious people are also more likely to believe our lives here have a purpose, and to shift our focus from ourselves to others.

Married people know there's nothing better than a good marriage, and nothing much worse than a bad one. Mr. Brooks' data indicates that married couples without children are happier than married parents, and that unhappiness tends to increase with the number of children. (But married people with children still are measurably happier than unmarried people.)

Children are punishment from God for what we did to our parents when we were kids. But my wife, Pam, and I have learned nothing in this world is sweeter than a loving relationship with kids who have turned into fine young men and women.

"People find meaning in providing unconditional love for children," Mr. Brooks said. "But this unconditional love itself is a source of happiness. Most parents would prefer to suffer rather than allowing their children to suffer, and people who feel this way are more than a quarter more likely to say they are very happy people than those who do not feel this way."

Conservatives also give about 30 percent more to charity than liberals do, Mr. Brooks said. The difference between a philanthropist and a liberal is that a philanthropist is generous with his own money.

Jack Kelly is a columnist for The Blade and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Contact him at: jkelly@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1476.



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