How the Right Turned Radical and the Left Became Depressed

One of the notable dynamics of American life today is that conservatives report being personally happier than liberals but also seem more politically discontented. The political left has become more institutionalist, more invested in experts and establishments, even as progressive culture seems more shadowed by unhappiness and even mental illness. Meanwhile conservatives claim greater contentment in their private lives — and then go out and vote for paranoid outsiders and burn-it-down populists.

These dynamics aren’t entirely new: As Musa al-Gharbi writes in an essay for American Affairs, the happiness gap between liberals and conservatives is a persistent social-science finding, visible across several eras and many countries. Meanwhile, the view that “my life is pretty good, but the country is going to hell,” which seems to motivate a certain kind of middle-class Donald Trump supporter, would have been unsurprising to hear in a bar or at a barbecue in 1975 or 1990, no less than today.

But something clearly has shifted lately. In Gallup polling from 2019, just before the pandemic, the happiness gap between Republicans and Democrats was larger than in any previous survey. And the trend of worsening mental health among young people, the subject of much discussion lately, is especially striking among younger liberals. (For instance: Among 18- to 29-year-olds, more than half of liberal women and roughly a third of liberal men reported that a health care provider had told them they had a mental health condition, compared with about a fifth of conservative women and around a seventh of conservative men, according to an analysis of 2020 Pew Research Center data by the social psychologist Jonathan Haidt.)

There’s also clearly a stronger left-wing identification with big institutions and official expertise than in the past, and an increasing eagerness of conservative voters to cast protest votes against the system compared with the old days of “Republicans fall in line, Democrats fall apart” cliché. Witness not only the rise and resilience of Trump but also the populist takeovers of state and local Republican Parties, the valorization of Jan. 6 and other middle fingers to normal democratic proceduralism. Witness, too, the intellectual correlative of this populism, the sense of despair over America among certain right-wing thinkers, the impulse toward desperate measures to change the national trajectory.

You can see the outline of a unifying theory of these trends — both right-wing recklessness and liberal anomie — in new polling commissioned by The Wall Street Journal that traces the decline of what used to be consensus values in American society. According to the survey, the share of Americans saying that patriotism is very important to them fell from 70 percent in 1998 to 38 percent today. The percentage calling religion very important fell from 62 percent to 39 percent over the same period. The percentage saying that having kids was very important dropped from 59 percent to 30 percent. Only money saw its professed importance rise.

Since these numbers circulated on Twitter as a kind of “black pill” of cultural despair, I should stress that the real decline probably isn’t quite so steep. As the polling expert Patrick Ruffini noted, the survey changed its methodology between 2018 and 2023, moving from phone to online polls. This may have tilted the most recent responses in more of a harsh-realism direction — the idea being that people are less influenced by what’s called “social desirability” bias on online polls, and so in the older, phone-based polling patriotic feeling was probably a little overstated.

But even if the extremity of the change should be doubted, the direction still matches other trends and surveys. Whether or not the pandemic hit the accelerator, even before Covid it was clear that values that conservatives consider fundamental to society — and in the Journal polling, it is Republicans who continue to value religion, patriotism and having kids the most — were experiencing a generational retreat.

In a way, just this trend alone suffices to explain how personal stability can coexist with intensified political alienation on the right. If you yourself feel secure in your own values, confident that yours is a life well lived, but the society around seems to swinging rapidly away from those values, it’s natural to be baffled by the shift, to feel that something is badly out of joint, to decide that the entire system needs some sort of hard reboot. And it’s easy even to fall into paranoia and conspiracy theory, because it seems so unfathomable that so many of your fellow Americans would be abandoning the tried-and-true; there must be more to it than just a national change of mind.

Then consider, too, that the entire organizing premise of post-1960s American conservatism was that the country as whole shared its values — hence the rhetoric of the “silent majority” and the “moral majority” — and that the problem was just an elite class of liberals, irreligious and unpatriotic but also out of touch with the breadth and depth of American society. Remove the weight of ineffective bureaucracy, end the rule of liberal judges, and watch the country flourish: That was the effective message of Republican politicians and quite a few conservative intellectuals for a very long time.

Fewer and fewer conservatives seriously believe that it’s this simple anymore. But where does conservative politics go without a traditional cultural foundation to conserve? To subcultural retreat, maybe — but if you don’t think the walls will hold, if you want a politics of restoration, it will be inescapably radical in a way that the conservatism of thirty years ago was not. And since nobody — not the policy wonks trying to grope their way to some new form of right-wing political economy, not the online influencers selling traditionalism as a lifestyle brand — really knows how to do a restoration, how to roll back alienation and disaffiliation and atomization, it isn’t surprising that conservative politics would often be a car-wreck, a flinging of ripe fruit against a wall, no matter how happy individual conservatives claim to be.

For liberals the problem is somewhat different. An organizing premise of progressivism for generations has been that the toxic side of conservative values is responsible for much of what ails American society — a cruel nationalism throttling a healthy patriotism, a fundamentalist bigotry overshadowing the enlightened forms of religion, patriarchy and misogyny poisoning the nuclear family. Thus in many ways the transformations of the last few decades are ones that liberals sought: The America of today is more socially-liberal on almost every issue than the America of George W. Bush, more secular, less heteronormative, more diverse in terms of both race and personal identity, more influenced by radical ideas that once belonged to the fringe of academia.

Unfortunately in finding its heart’s desire the left also seems to have found a certain kind of despair. It turns out that there isn’t some obvious ground for purpose and solidarity and ultimate meaning once you’ve deconstructed all the sources you consider tainted. And it’s at the vanguard of that deconstruction, among the very-liberal young, that you find the greatest unhappiness — the very success of the progressive project devouring contentment.

But that project is now entrenched in so many American institutions that there’s no natural anti-institutional form for these discontents to take. Instead you get the progressive two-step we observed during the pandemic: A doubling down on faith in official expertise and the expansion of existing bureaucratic forms of power, joined to a push for further ideological purification inside those institutions, a quest for a psychological revolution that will finally uproot the white-male-patriarchal forces that must still be responsible for any persistent discontents.

And then there’s a third step, which is to deny that the obvious discontents are actually problems at all. This is the phenomenon that Dustin Guastella, writing in Damage magazine, calls “antisocial socialism” — a left-wing politics that ends up “excusing or ignoring the steady rise of collective antisocial behavior,” out of a defensiveness about the isolated modes of urban life that experts and bureaucrats helped impose during the pandemic, plus a fear of seeming to justify bourgeois norms and notions.

Thus everything from the decline of marriage and romance and sex to issues like crime, drug addiction and mental illness gets repackaged as something that progressives are expected to live with, even valorize, lest they give an inch to the reactionaries.

The reality is that there is a coherent (if insufficient) left-wing account of the decline of family, patriotism, religion — one that emphasizes the corrosive role of consumer capitalism, its dissolving effect on all loyalties higher than the self, its interest in creating addictions for every age and walk of life. Sometimes the 2016-vintage Bernie Sanders movement gestured in this direction, which was part of its appeal: socialism as a defense of normal things, ordinary working people, traditional loyalties.

But the contemporary left is fundamentally too invested in liberating the individual from oppressive normativity to sustain any defense of the older faiths and folkways — which is why it has often ended up as consumerism’s cultural ally despite its notional “late capitalism, man” critique.

Thus our peculiar situation: a once-radical left presiding somewhat miserably over the new order that it long desired to usher in, while a once-conservative right, convinced that it still has the secret of happiness, looks to disruption and chaos as its only ladder back from exile.

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