Of all the ways people can brag about the superiority of their political beliefs, “I’m happier” is a curious choice. But a new study from the University of Virginia professor Brad Wilcox and the University of Utah professor Nicholas Wolfinger gives Republicans the chance to do just that: In conservative counties in the United States, the researchers argue, people are more likely to get married and stay married, and less likely to have kids out of wedlock. And, if you ask them, they’re more likely to say they’re very happy with their marriages.
Within the academic world, this is a volley lobbed against conventional wisdom. A 2010 book by researchers Naomi Cahn and June Carbone, Red Families v. Blue Families, argued exactly the opposite: The family values often held by Democrats, including gender egalitarianism, delayed parenthood, and educational attainment, make for stronger marriages. They support this with evidence about divorce rates, for example: In Southern states, which tend to tilt red, divorce rates are higher. But “there is only one problem with the conventional wisdom about family life in red and blue America,” Wilcox wrote in a recent blog post, with all the glee of an academic poised to whip out countervailing GSS data. “It’s mostly wrong.”
A few important factors support his theory of stable, happy Republican homes, Wilcox argues. First, he and Wolfinger looked at sociological data on the county level and individual household level, rather than just the state level.* Data from the U.S. Census Bureau suggests that the bluest and reddest states have the highest percentages of residents with stable family lives, meaning the relationship between voting tendencies and family stability isn’t conclusive, Wilcox says. While it may be true that the Republican South tends to be home to a lot of divorcées, Wilcox said in an interview, “There are conservatives in the North. If you look at a state like Pennsylvania, you have two blue islands. Conservative families in the North have more stability than Southern conservative counties.”
This kind of local analysis matters, because it reveals one of the underlying causes that might be at work here: People’s lives are affected a lot by the communities they live in. Kids who are raised in two-parent households, for example, and whose friends are mostly raised in two-parent households, tend to fare better. Plus, the civic life and institutions of a place really matter; this is the Robert Putnam theory of stability and happiness. It’s possible that the happily married couples Wilcox and Wolfinger have identified are just living in places that are more conducive to happiness.
Second, the researchers recognize that Republicans might have statistically happier marriages because of who Republicans tend to be: white folks. “One reason Republicans have happier marriages is that, as a party with a larger share of white couples, they are less likely to face the discrimination, segregation, and poverty that minority couples often experience in America, all of which can compromise the quality of married life,” they write. While it’s useful to organize this kind research using one variable, like party affiliation, perhaps another way of writing this analysis might carry a different headline: White, Privileged People More Likely to Be Happy in Marriage.
A possible alternate headline: In Polling About Marital Happiness, Nearly All Americans Are Liars.
Republicans also tend to be more religious, which matters. In their analysis, Wilcox and Wolfinger found that religious practice is almost certainly part of the so-called “Republican advantage” in marital bliss. Past research has shown that regular worship attendance is correlated with higher levels of happiness and life satisfaction.
There are a few major caveats to all of this, though. Wilcox and Wolfinger point out that, in their sample of roughly 2000 Americans, Republicans were six percentage points more likely than Democrats to say they are “very happy” in marriage. But if you add in a second category—people who say they’re “pretty happy”—that difference nearly disappears: 95.7 percent of Democrats are “very” or “pretty” happy, while 97.5 percent of Republicans say the same. (Yet another possible headline: In Polling About Marital Happiness, Nearly All Americans Are Liars.)
They also put a big emphasis on marriage as the central tenet of family stability. Wilcox argues that out-of-wedlock births are “the biggest engine of family instability in the United States.” As American families change, this idea may change, too: that traditional families are the only kind of healthy families.
Most of all, pay attention to the warning labels slapped all over Wilcox and Wolfinger’s research: “More research is needed to investigate the effect of ideology and region on family stability over the life course.” Social science is effective for breaking down broad demographic trends and formulating good guesses about why certain people get married and others don’t; why certain folks seem to love wedded bliss and others would compare their home life to an episode of Jerry Springer. But social science struggles to account for people who lie to pollsters, or often even people who change their views over the course of a lifetime. It may not account for the looming social pressure in Southern states to be happily married by 22. It’s okay for understanding the effects of things like race and systematic discrimination, as Wilcox and Wolfinger alluded to, but statistically averaged results from a broad sample can never show us the tiny, everyday interactions that bound the overall happiness of people’s lives.
Figuring out what actually makes people happy is a difficult proposition. And although some Republicans may be inclined to gloat over this one study's findings, there's no evidence that having life choices validated by social-scientific studies actually increases happiness, either.
* This article originally stated only that Wilcox and Wolfinger’s analysis focused on the county level. We regret the error.