perhaps it’s not that conservatives are happier but that people with depression cluster on the left

Musa al-Gharbi has written a review essay on “How to Understand the Well-Being Gap between Liberals and Conservatives.” He summarizes studies that show that conservatives are more likely than liberals/progressives to describe themselves as happy, and this relationship holds when one controls for demographics. In other words, conservatives do not report being happier because they are more advantaged; instead, a conservative who has the same social circumstances as a progressive is likelier to be happy. Al-Garbi says that this finding is consistent across countries and extends back in time.

1. Replicating the basic pattern: conservatism is associated with happiness.

I can’t independently vouch for his overview of the research, but I can confirm the main finding with data from Tufts’ 2022 Equity in America survey. We drew a representative sample of 1,831 Americans, with large subsamples of African Americans and Latinos to allow more precise estimates of racial/ethnic differences. We also collected an extraordinary number of measures about each respondent.

We asked, “Taken all together, how would you say things are these days? Would you say you are… Very happy, Pretty happy, or Not too happy.”

In a model with age, education, race and gender, more education and older age predict greater happiness. (We know from extensive research that the age curve is not linear; happiness dips in middle age. That pattern is invisible in a linear regression.) If I add marital status and a self-report of physical health, only those variables are significantly related to reported happiness. In other words, it looks as if older and better educated people are more likely to be married and in good health. Those factors then relate to happiness.

If I add ideology, it is also significant (p <.001), with more conservative people more likely to report being happy. If I also add religious attendance, it too is significant, and ideology stays signifiant. That implies that the ideology “effect” is not explained away by religiosity, but both matter. Here is that model. The last four variables are significant.

2. Could the explanation be progessives’ social awareness?

I think some progressives might say that they–and others on their side–are unhappy because they are rightly conscious of social injustices and dangers. Thus their unhappiness reflects social concern.

We can test this hypothesis to a limited extent with our survey. It includes a few relevant attitudinal questions along with many variables about life circumstances. I added the following four items to the above model:

  1. How bothered have you been witnessing someone in a public place being treated unfairly because of their race?
  2. How has the pandemic impacted your mental health?
  3. Thinking about climate change makes me feel anxious. [Agree/disagree]
  4. Someone [I] know has been unfairly stopped, searched, questioned, physically threatened or abused by the police. [Agree/disagree]

Except the climate question, each of these is related to unhappiness to a statistically significant degree. However, being liberal is still also related to being unhappy. That means that these specific concerns seem to accompany unhappiness but do not explain away the ideological “effect.” Or, to put it another way, someone who was not worried about these four specific things, but who identified as a liberal, would still be more likely than a conservative to be unhappy.

3. Could liberals display a negative bias?

A conservative might be inclined to see progressives as negatively biased rather than socially conscious. And there may be some evidence of that in our data. We also asked: “Imagine a ladder with 10 rungs (or steps). At the top of the ladder (rung #10) are the people who are the best off, those who have the most money, most education, and best jobs. At the bottom are the people who are the worst off, those who have the least money, least education, worst jobs, or no job (rung #1). What rung from 10 through 1 best represents where you think you stand on the ladder.”

I used that item as the dependent variable in place of self-reported happiness. Liberals/progressives rated themselves lower on the ladder compared to other people when I controlled for demographics. In other words, if a liberal and a conservative have the same education, race, gender, and age, the conservative will feel more fortunate. A critic might say that liberals are people who–regardless of their actual social positions–rate their own circumstances relatively poorly, and that attitude drives their ideology and makes them unhappy or else reflects their unhappiness.

4. People with depression cluster on the left.

However, there may be a different explanation. In our sample, 281 people say they have been diagnosed with depression. If I remove them from the sample and run the first of the two regressions shown above (the one with happiness as the dependent variable), ideology is no longer statistically significant. Now, only marriage, physical health, and race are related to happiness (with whites being more likely to report being happy).

We also asked how often in the past week people had felt depressed. I subtracted the 683 people who answered more than “rarely.” Running the model without those people generated a result in which only physical health was related to happiness. Ideology again ceased to be significant.

Finally, we asked people to rate their own mental health from poor to excellent. 272 said fair or poor. When I excluded that smallish group from the sample, ideology was still significant.

In a model based on the whole population, each of the mental health measures predicts unhappiness, and liberalism does as well. Those coefficients are compatible with two theories: either most conservatives are a bit happier than most liberals, regardless of depression, or else the average happiness of liberals is lower because they include some depressed people. By excluding those who report depression or a diagnosis of depression from the analysis, I find evidence that the latter is the case. In short: people with depression are reducing the mean happiness of liberals.

Indeed, people with depression cluster on the left. In the sample as a whole, 5% of respondents identify as extremely liberal, but 14% of the people who have been diagnosed with depression are extremely liberal. Conservatives represent 18.5% of the sample but just 11% of those with diagnosed depression. This pattern is consistent with previous studies.

Saying that you are depressed or reporting a diagnosis of depression depends on many factors–not only one’s mental health and access to medical care but also one’s beliefs and attitudes about psychology, which may relate to ideology. From our survey, it is not clear whether depressed people are concentrated on the left or whether people who employ the label of depression tilt that way.

However, my own informal observations and what I hear from others suggests that a substantial subset of people who gravitate to the left have significant mental health challenges, often related to trauma. I suspect that they explain most of the association between conservative ideology and happiness.

Everyone has a right to choose and express their political views. Progressives must welcome all kinds of people onto their side. However, I think that attracting people who (regardless of their social circumstances) experience depression poses a challenge for any movement.* Also, I sometimes wonder whether progressive messages fall flat because their authors are less happy than their target audiences.

*I wanted to know whether committed activists on the left were likely to be depressed, but we only have data from 31 left-oriented people who protested in the past year, which is too small a sample to tell. See also: how predictable is the rest of your life?; the aspiration curve from youth to old age; are Americans ‘innocent of ideology’?; party identification and ideology over time.

challenging the Reconquista

Two stories compete in the imagination of Spain and Portugal, affecting how history is portrayed in schools, on public monuments, and in policy debates about matters like immigration. The stakes are high because the former story played an important role in the invention of the concept of race and thus helped to enable imperialism and transatlantic slavery.

First story: The original Iberians were Europeans who became citizens of the Roman Empire, speaking dialects of Latin that evolved into today’s Spanish, Portuguese, and Catalan, and who converted early to Christianity. In and after 711, a foreign army conquered Spain. These invaders originated in Africa and the Middle East, their religion was Islam, and their language and culture were Arabic. Gradually, the Spanish and Portuguese drove these invaders out.

Saint James the Moor-slayer (Santiago Matamoros) by Alonso de Mena (1587-1646) from Granada’s Cathedral, which was built over the ruin of the city’s former mosque.

Second story: The inhabitants on both sides of the western Mediterranean were never sharply distinguished. Many on both sides became Romanized and Latin-speaking. Most converted to a religion of Middle Eastern origin, Christianity. Then, many converted to another religion from the same region, Islam. The leaders of the armies that traveled a short distance across the straits in 711 were Muslims, but their armies were of mixed faiths. A substantial proportion of people on either side of the straits assimilated to–and influenced–a broad cultural/linguistic group called the Arabs. Among those who contributed to Arab culture were Iberians of Christian or Jewish faith. Gradually, some dynasties that identified as Christian and spoke Spanish displaced those that identified as Muslim and Arab, and the former cultural influences predominated. Today’s Spaniards (as a group) have forebears who were Muslims and Arabs or Jews. Typically, people stay in place while cultures spread.

An 18th-century Carthusian monk took 30 years to make this door. It stands in an extravagantly decorated baroque chapel inside a gilt-draped Catholic monastery in Granada. The similarity to Mudejer art is unmistakable, and surely Brother Jose Manuel was practicing the art of his Arabized forebears.

Brother Jos? Manuel Vázquez (1697-1765), doors in the Carthusian Monastery of Granada

The two models are reconquista (reconquest) and conviviencia (coexistence). With these two models in mind, consider the following document. In 1038, Fernando I of Castille wrote to Isma’il ibn Dhi ‘l-Nun, the king of Toledo, who had sought his support in a war against Isma’il’s kinsman. Fernando wrote:

We… demand our land, which a long time ago you conquered and which you have inhabited for as long as had been ordained [by God]. Now He has given us victory over you on account of your wickedness. Depart to your own shores and give our land up to us. For there is no good in your living with us any longer, nor will we turn away from you until God has judged between you and us.

(translated by Catlos 2018, p. 211)

This letter looks like evidence of reconquista. A leader of Christian Spain is demanding that foreign invaders go back home. Indeed, Fernando was called (although not by himself), the Emperor of Spain. His opponent was the reigning head of the Dhulnunid or Dhunnunid dynasty, which traced its origins to members of the conquering army in 711.

But, to complicate matters … both of these men spent much of their lives at war against rivals who were a mix–in both cases–of Christians and Muslims. Fernando’s better-documented son, Alfonso VI (El Bravo) was raised and educated by his father’s allies, the Banu Gómez clan. This dynasty was Christian (at least at this time), but their name is Arabic. Later, Alfonso took refuge for a while at the court of al-Mamun of Toledo, a Muslim. One of Alfonso’s wives was Zaida of Seville, who was probably the daughter-in-law of the ruler Al-Mu’tamid Muhammad, who claimed patrilineal descent from an Egyptian clan. Zaida was the mother of Alfonso’s son and heir, Sancho Alfnónsez, who was thus the descendent of both Fernando and Al-Mu’tamid. Alfonso VI lived a long and bloody life, fighting his own brother and other Christian monarchs as well as Muslim ones in various mixed alliances. When he captured Toledo from al-Mamun’s heir, he took the title al-Imbratur dhi-l-Millatayn: “Emperor of the Two Religions” and promised to maintain the city’s mosque. This is evidence of conviviencia, not reconquista.

The Poetry Council at the court of Al-Hakam II, Caliph of Córdoba, via Wikipedia

I am not qualified to interpret Fernando’s 1038 letter, but I’d suggest reading it (and the whole history of its era) without such anachronistic ideas as racial differences or even “Europe.”

It’s at least possible that Fernando was not saying: “You and your people, go back to Africa.” Instead, he might have meant: “O leader of the Dhulnunid House, your proper feudal fiefdom is in Mauretania, where your first-known patrilineal ancestor once ruled. Go back to your own demesne, because Toledo belongs to my House, the Jimenez dynasty, also known as the Banu Sancho, and leave your vassals here for me to rule. You and I are peers and are probably kin. However, God recognizes my claim to this specific land, so be gone.”

To be sure, a Spanish identity developed that was religious, gradually racial, and defined as the opposite of an imposed “Moorish” identity. (See the first image, above.) But that happened over centuries–in part to serve political agendas–and we should be cautious about using it as an interpretive framework except when the evidence supports it.

Source: Brian A. Catlos, Kingdoms of Faith (Basic Books, 2018), but I collected the biographical details and art in the post. See also: Europa was an Asian woman, and other thoughts on the definition of Europe;  the history of the phrase “the West”don’t name things Western but call out imperialismto whom do the ancient Greeks belong?Jesus was a person of color; etc.

Lorca’s rivers

Translating (or even privately reading) modern free verse in a language that has many cognates and grammatical similarities to English is partly a matter of choosing an English match for each word in the original and stringing those words together. You must accept the inevitable distortions, because the sounds and senses of the two languages cannot match perfectly. The original may also present larger choices.

This is an early Lorca poem about the city where we’re living for three months. The Darro River is 800 meters from the house that we’ve rented and is about one meter wide.

“The Guadalquivir River”
A little ballad of three rivers for Salvator Quintero
By Federico Garcia Lorca
The Guadalquivir River
goes between oranges and olives.
The two rivers of Granada
Come down from snow to wheat. 
Ah, love,
gone and not come back!
The Guadalquivir River
Has garnet stubble.
The two rivers of Granada
one weeping and the other blood
Ah, love
off in the air! 
For sailing ships,
Seville has a road;
In the water of Granada
Sighs alone could paddle.
Ah, love,
Gone and not come back!
Guadalquivir, high tower
And wind in the orange groves. 
Dauro and Genil, little towers
dead over the ponds
Ah, love
Off in the air! 
Who will say that the water carries
A will-of-the wisp of cries!
Ah, love,
Gone and not come back!
Carry orange blossom, carry olives, 
Andalusia, to your seas.
Ah, love
Off in the air! 

The Spanish text is here. For the refrains, Lorca uses relative clauses that begin with “que,” starting with: “Ay, amor / que se fue y no vino …” That could mean a love who or a love that. Spanish permits this ambiguity, which might have been especially attractive for Lorca, for whom a “who” would have been a man. Like Rolfe Humphries, who translated this poem for Poetry, I opted for a past participle, to retain the ambiguity.

I chose “sighs alone could paddle” for “sólo reman los suspiros,” partly because I liked the echo of paddle and stubble, and partly because the English monosyllable “row” is too easily misread as a noun.

Humphries must have found the literal meaning of the following verse confusing or unconvincing:

Guadalquivir, alta torre
y viento en los naranjales.
Dauro y Genil, torrecillas
muertas sobre los estanques

How can small rivers be “little towers” or “turrets,” and what does it mean for turrets to be dead over ponds? Humphries loosely offers:

Guadalquivir, high tower,
Wind among orange blossoms,
Darro and Genil, lowly
And dead among the marshes.

I like Humphries’ verse better than my translation, but I am not sure his conveys Lorca.

By the way, I love that the Guadalquivir is just the Wadi al-Kabir, the Big River, transliterated into Spanish.

what if political parties structure our thinking for us?

Presumably, each person should hold a structured set of political opinions. For instance, if you want more government spending without any new taxes, you should be OK with deficits (unless you dispute that deficits will result). If you want a specific right for yourself, you should support the same right for other people, because fairness demands equal protection (unless another worthy principle overrides that conclusion). If you think individual liberty is a high priority, you should oppose censorship (unless you think restricting speech is necessary for a different reason). Each of your beliefs should predict several others, forming a tight network.

In the early 1960s, Philip Converse argued that most Americans’ beliefs were hardly structured at all (Converse 1964). Knowing what a person believed about x would not help you predict what that person believed about y.

Converse’s article has been cited more than 12,000 times and has generated a large literature. Some studies have confirmed his basic finding (e.g., Kinder & Kalmoe 2017). Some use different methods or datasets to challenge his conclusion by finding structure (e.g., Boutyline & Vaisey 2017 or Levine 2022). Some have contested Converse’s interpretation. For instance, maybe people are ambivalent about issues, holding views on both sides. A multiple-choice survey misses their ambivalence and gives a misleading impression that people are inconsistent when they really feel conflicted (Zaller & Feldman 1992).

There is also a line of research that finds that most Americans (Achen & Bartels 2016, p. 268; Sniderman 2017) and Europeans (Galina 2023) hold structured political beliefs, but their structures come from the leaders of their political parties.

It may not be self-evident what a conservative or a progressive party should think about each new topic, from COVID vaccination to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine to bailing out a bank in Silicon Valley. But parties do form views, and their voters generally follow suit. Most people’s lists of issue positions mirror those of their party’s leaders. A given person’s ideas may or may not cohere, but they probably correlate closely with the positions of that person’s party.

I do not think that this research settles the empirical issues. The reality is complicated, with many dynamics at work. There are methodological challenges, such as the limitations of surveys that I mentioned earlier. And it’s not completely clear what causes what. (Maybe party elites are affected by their grassroots members or by some third force, such as celebrities.) Nevertheless, I believe there is at least some important truth to the theory that parties organize people’s thinking for them–or, I should say, for us. As Paul Sniderman puts it, “parties organize the choice environment” for voters “and define what goes with what” (Sniderman 2017 p. 71).

How should we assess this situation? Is it good or bad, and does it require some kind of remedy?

One way to think about those questions is to choose a model for understanding political parties. Here are three, amongst others:

  1. Activists and leaders of political parties are highly interested in issues. Most people defer detailed consideration of issues to the leadership of their preferred party. That makes good sense, in the same way that it’s often wise to delegate a decision to a committee of passionate volunteers. Supporters of a party can assess its general direction and use “voice” (becoming involved in the party’s decisions) or “exit” (leaving the party or just voting for a different one), if they are dissatisfied (Hirshman 1970). Perhaps a given political system needs more voice–more participatory opportunities within each party–or more viable parties, so that voters can exit more easily. But we should not be worried by the general finding that people take their cues from party leaders. People are wisely delegating the nitty-gritty work of political analysis to those who enjoy it most. Voters are learning from the more extensive thinking of party leaders.
  2. Party leaders are politicians, defined as people who want and pursue political offices for themselves. They will choose positions on issues to improve their chances of winning. Their self-interest is not shared by ordinary people, who want good outcomes. Insofar as people take their cues from party leaders, they are being used as means to the politicians’ personal ends. In a better democracy, more of us would exhibit individual structures of ideas, and political leaders would have to cater to our views, not the reverse.
  3. Parties basically reflect social interests. In a given system, there may be a party for the farmers, for the urban middle classes, for the observant Catholics, and for a linguistic minority. In the USA, the electoral system forces the concatenation of interests into two umbrella parties, but they are basically coalitions of such interests. Therefore, voters will primarily seek a party that protects the interests that they consider most important (not necessarily material ones). However, a party must also take positions on many other issues. Leaders choose positions that maximize their party’s political appeal and leverage so that they can protect the voters’ core interests. Voters assess parties as tools for protecting their interests, and as long as they are basically satisfied with a given party, they will mimic its specific issue stances.

I think the truth is some mix of these ideas, depending on the political system. After all, countries differ in respect to how many parties they have, whether and to what degree their major parties are ideologically or demographically distinguished, whether coalitions are built inside parties or among them, whether parties exercise discipline over politicians, to what extent intellectual work is conducted inside the parties compared to other sectors of the society, and which kinds of people constitute the party “elites.” (In the USA, official members of the party committees are less influential than nominally nonpartisan pundits and celebrities.)

As usual, empirical evidence is relevant to our political judgments, but it is insufficient. What should we do if “parties organize the choice environment”? Sniderman clarifies the empirical literature and offers some important normative guidance. But his argument makes me want to think harder about how specific parties in specific political systems play their structuring roles and whether their approaches to choosing and combining positions are acceptable.

See also: Mapping Ideologies as Networks of Ideas; are Americans ‘innocent of ideology’?; what if people’s political opinions are very heterogeneous?; two theories of American political parties; social class inversion in the 2022 US elections, etc.

References: Achen, C. H., Bartels, L. M. (2016), Democracy for Realists: Why Elections Do Not Produce Responsive Government; Princeton University Press; Boutyline, A., & Vaisey, S. (2017), Belief network analysis: a relational approach to understanding the structure of attitudes, American journal of sociology, 122(5), 1371-1447; Converse, P.E. (2006) The nature of belief systems in mass publics, Critical review 18.1-3 (2006): 1-74; Kinder D.R. & Kalmoe, N.P. (2007), Neither liberal nor conservative: Ideological innocence in the American public, University of Chicago Press; Gallina, M (2023), Solving the (false) dilemma: an ecological approach to the study of opinion constraint,” Political studies; Hirschman, A. O. (1970), Exit, voice and loyalty: responses to decline in firms, organizations, and states (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press); Levine, P (2022), Mapping ideologies as networks of ideas, Journal of Political Ideologies: 1-28. Sniderman P.M. (2017), The Democratic Faith: Essays on Democratic Citizenship (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press), Zaller, J. & Feldman, S. (1992), A simple theory of the survey response: answering questions versus revealing preferences, American Journal of Political Science, 36:3: 579-616

the design choice to make ChatGPT sound like a human

Elizabeth Weil provides a valuable profile of the linguist Emily M. Bender, headlined, “You Are Not a Parrot, and a chatbot is not a human. And a linguist named … Bender is very worried what will happen when we forget this.”

This article alerted me (belatedly, I’m sure) to the choice involved in making artificial intelligence applications mimic human beings and speak to us in the first-person singular.

For instance, since I’m living temporarily in Andalusia, I asked ChatGPT whether I should visit Granada, Spain.

The first sentence of its reply (repeated verbatim when I tried again) was a disclaimer: “As an AI language model, I cannot make decisions for you, but I can provide you with information that may help you decide if Granada, Spain is a destination you would like to visit.”

On one hand, this sentence discloses that the bot isn’t a person. On the other hand, it says, “I can provide …” , which sure sounds like a person.

Then ChatGPT offers a few paragraphs that always seem to include the same main points, conveyed in evaluative sentences like these: “Granada is a beautiful city located in the southern region of Spain, known for its rich history, culture, and stunning architecture. It is home to the world-famous Alhambra Palace, a UNESCO World Heritage site and one of the most visited attractions in Spain. The city is also known for its vibrant nightlife, delicious cuisine, and friendly locals.”

My initial amazement at ChatGPT is wearing off, but the technology remains uncanny. And yet, would it look less impressive it gave more straightforward output? For instance, imagine if I asked whether I should visit Granada, and it replied:

The computer has statistically analyzed a vast body of text produced by human beings and has discerned several patterns. First, when human beings discuss whether to visit a location or recommend doing so, they frequently itemize activities that visitors do there, often under the categories of food, recreation, and sightseeing. Second, many texts that include the words “Grenada, Granada, Spain” also use positive adjectives in close proximity to words about food, sights, and outdoor activities. Specifically, many texts mention the word “Alhambra” in proximity to the phrases “UNESCO heritage site” and “world-famous,” paired with positive adjectives.

This would be an impressive achievement (and potentially useful), but it would not suggest that the computer likes Grenada, Granada wants to help me, or knows any friendly locals. It would be clear that people experience and judge, and ChatGPT statistically models texts.

We human beings also draw statistical inferences from what other people say, and perhaps we even enjoy the Alhambra because human beings have told us that we should. (See “the sublime and other people.”) But I really did see a peacock strutting past palms and reflecting pools in the Carmen de los Martires this morning, whereas ChatGPT will never see anything. Why try to confuse me about the difference?

See also: artificial intelligence and problems of collective action