America’s Happiness Deficit

Ever since the Declaration of Independence was written in 1776, the promise of the United States has been that its citizens are endowed by God with the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. America has not always lived up to this ideal, especially for its marginalized populations, but over time the creed espoused by Thomas Jefferson has inspired countless movements to correct those injustices and allow the country to better live up to its core values. 

The modern debates around the rights Jefferson believed were given to humans by God and protected by a representative government have become soured by tribal politics and bitter culture wars. There are even groups on the American left that have shown contempt for America’s founding and tried to rewrite its history with no regard for historical fact. When part of a country feels disdain towards its founding, it becomes nearly impossible to have constructive debates about how to best live up to America’s founding principles. On the right, however, the founders are rightfully revered as the revolutionary trailblazers who created American democracy. This basic tenet has lead to a conservative consensus on the right to life, in that abortion must be opposed in all forms. To ensure liberty, conservatives believe in limited government, free markets, and a culture of tolerance. When there is conservative disagreement about liberty, it tends to consist of disagreements about how much the government should be limited and how much markets should be free. On the subject of happiness and how to best enable people to pursue it, the debates on the political right have been much less nuanced. 

The American happiness deficit has been much discussed since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic accelerated the atomization and digitization of our society. Lock-downs have prevented many people from seeing loved ones, enjoying fun activities, going to school, attending religious services, and working everyday at their workplace. Zoom calls have become the replacement for real human interaction, but the loss of human touch cannot be replaced by faces on screens. Mass death, economic ruin, and a starkly divided country have also contributed to the lack of happiness in America today. Among white males in the United States, life expectancy is down thanks in large part to the surge in “deaths of despair” in middle America. The drug addiction, depression, suicide, unstable households, and declining life prospects that led to these deaths of despair have become an even bigger problem due to the pandemic. A similar development has occurred with young Americans whose mental health struggles have been well documented. Living with the pandemic has created a crisis with young Americans, as approximately one quarter of our youth have thought about suicide. Even in children, mental health has declined considerably due to being unable to socialize with friends in school. Gallup data shows that the decline in mental health has been a trend across every American demographic except for one: frequent church goers. 

Those who attend church on a weekly basis saw the percentage of people who rate their mental health as “excellent” increase from 42% in 2019 to 46% in 2020 as the pandemic prevented people from worshiping in person and left wing rioters desecrated religious institutions throughout the summer. Polling data indicates that devout churchgoers are more likely to be conservative, which makes sense given the GOP’s emphasis on religious issues in their party platform. There is also a lesson to be learned, which is that conservatism is the ideology of happiness, and the GOP should embrace being the party of happiness. 

This is not a call to return to the “compassionate conservatism” of the Bush years that ended up leading to unnecessary wars, curtailing of civil liberties, and economic ruin. It is a belief that the GOP needs a rhetorical shift from the anger and resentment that dominated the Trump years to a happiness and optimism that believes in the promise of America. Conservatives must distance themselves from the violent rage and fury that characterized the storming of the Capitol instigated by the President. To do so, the GOP must build a new platform and rhetorical approach that focuses on the good of America and addresses the happiness deficit. 

Fixing the problem of happiness in America will not be easy given the dangerously low levels of mental health in our country across the board. A change in rhetoric alone by the GOP will not be sufficient. Conservatives must be willing to address the opioid crisis head on, which means punishing pharmaceutical companies for deceptive practices. Access to affordable mental healthcare should be expanded to cover even the rural parts of the country. Unapologetic patriotism and love of country has to be reflected in how veterans are treated when they return home from military service. The relentless defense of religious liberty through the legal system has to continue, even as coronavirus lock-downs extend indefinitely. School choice for all children needs to become available through the expansion of vouchers and other programs for low income students. Re-shoring American supply chains and bringing back the manufacturing jobs that were shipped overseas to reverse the decline in middle America would be another sensible policy goal. Most of all, prioritizing the nuclear family arrangement that makes up the foundational unit of society must be at the heart of a GOP platform built around happiness. 

The Democratic Party in the Trump years has mirrored their enemy by deploying increasingly angry rhetoric towards their political adversaries and the ordinary Americans who elected them. Over the summer, Democrats enabled the Black Lives Matter rioters who terrorized cities, attacked police officers, censored those who disagreed with them, and questioned the historical foundation of the United States based on falsehoods spread by The New York Times. Happiness does not appear to be a major part of the Democrats strategy for the future, meaning that the opportunity for Republicans to become the party of happiness is there for the taking. Conservatives have always revered the God given rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. In order to move on from the scourge of Trumpism, the right should once again become the side that chooses happiness over anger in its attempt to further the Jeffersonian ideals America was built on.