Cersonsky: The end of the end of ideology

Last year in The Wall Street Journal, Sen. Joe Lieberman ’64 LAW ’67 lamented the ideological fall of what was once an “unhesitatingly and proudly pro-American” Democratic Party (“Democrats and Our Enemies,” May 21). “This worldview began to come apart in the late 1960s, around the war in Vietnam. In its place… [Democrats] saw America as the aggressor — a morally bankrupt, imperialist power whose militarism and ‘inordinate fear of communism’ represented the real threat to world peace.”

Ever the patriot, Lieberman descends from a long line of Americans haunted — and often driven to conservatism — by countercultural phantasmagoria, from the grand old Nixonites to the Prop 8 propagandists to South Park’s Eric Cartman. The radicalism of the New Left was, and is, met with moral alarm by the old guard and its hidebound disciples.

Given their aversion to upheaval, it is shocking when these same conservatives, angry at what they see as a simultaneously fascist and communist Washington establishment, claim “counterculture” for the right today. Sure, America is, at least for the moment, a center-left nation led by Democrats, and the far right understandably feels like a minority voice. Still, there is something troublingly paradoxical about the idea of a conservative counterculture.

Conceptually, it’s possible. If critical theory is right to say that political ideologies are merely socialized sets of beliefs thrown together by power and circumstance, the tension between mainstream and alternative could be orthogonal to the left-right divide. Conservative counterculture would then be an artifact of historically contingent values coupled with opposition to whatever the prevailing cultural norms happen to be.

This idea is, on the surface, palatable. Far from reflecting eternal political value-sets, “liberal,” “conservative” and “countercultural” seem to be culturally relative terms. (Case in point: Small-government Republicans elevated by Adam Smith are often simultaneously labeled “neoliberal” and “conservative.”)

But this sentiment is taken too far. The abstract theorizing of postmodernists and political philosophers critically and mistakenly divorces political ideology from the concrete mental material onto which culture and politics are mapped. “Liberal” and “countercultural” converge on a common psychology — and are, therefore, stubbornly difficult to tease apart.

In recent years, John Jost has revived the study of the psychology of political ideology, pioneered by Theodor Adorno and fellow Berkeley psychoanalysts in search of the personality correlates of authoritarianism but lost mid-century as sociologists declared the end of ideology.

Jost invokes Max Weber’s “elective affinities” to describe the magnetic bond between certain psychological dispositions and certain political values. Jost and colleagues show significant correlations between conservative self-identification and high ratings of death anxiety, conscientiousness, intolerance of ambiguity and lack of openness to experience.

Cross-cultural data collected by the same research team suggests a slightly more complicated picture. While some motivations and behaviors, like traditionalism and rule-following, are associated with conservatism everywhere, others are not. For example, in post-communist Eastern European countries for whom centralized economic planning had carried a promise of stability, need for security is higher for leftists than for rightists.

Of course, all political matters will differ in meaning to some degree across cultures. But within any one mass public, psychology has some power to predict resonances between things like liberalism and counterculture and to expose conservative claims to the latter as either rhetorically misguided or operating under definitions — and mindsets — quite different from those normally employed.

Take Glenn Beck’s “Common Sense: The Case Against an Out-of-Control Government, Inspired by Thomas Paine.” In a recent Daily Beast column, historian Harvey Kaye argues that the affinity between Beck and Paine is a shallow one: Paine’s writings “clearly attest to his progressive commitments and aspirations. He would never have supported policies and programs that place corporations and the rich before working people and the public good … [or] seek to homogenize American and punish immigrants.”

Beck, then, is only related to his revolutionary forefather in name. Whereas Paine was actually looking to overthrow the established order, Beck, a psychological reactionary, adheres to independence merely to the extent that it is, for him, emblematic of the traditional American way. Paine’s “Common Sense” is not just a pamphlet but a style of thought, alien to today’s conservative counterculture and the establishment that it represents.

James Cersonsky is a junior in Timothy Dwight College.


  • this

    this is one of the stupidest columns i have ever read

  • i ha

    i love james cersonsky but i hate this piece

  • Madas

    Aww, the left’s love affair with Beck just keeps getting stronger. He’s really the guy you all just love to hate, isn’t he? Have you actually listened to him besides the soundbites MediaMatters posts to make him look foolish? He doesn’t support corporatism and is not out to “punish immigrants”.

    If you want to make an argument using Beck as an example, try actually learning a little bit about him. If I wanted to read the Huffington Post’s garbage, I could find that on their website. Try to use your own material next time.

  • A Constructive Critic

    This column met but did not exceed my expectations.

  • JCvP

    This is a fine essay, perceptive and clear. I find it exceedingly impressive for an undergraduate and promise of greater things in the decades to come.
    Two quick comments:
    I think it’s useful to distinguish liberals from progressives. Here’s my distinction: a liberal is concerned about maintaining the rules that generally turn out well, regardless of the actual outcome in specific cases; for example, to defend the right of American Nazis to march through a Jewish town. A progressive is more concerned with achieving the outcome that benefits those whose lives are most affected in each particular case, and willing to bend the rules to achieve it. A conservative is the same as a progressive, except with the opposite outcome in mind: benefit for the elite. (Even when a poor white Southerner votes Republican, there’s an illusion of standing with the elite vs. workers and the oppressed.) Anyone involved in the New Left recalls that the antipathy between liberals and progressives often exceeded that between them and the right, because the right is doing what is expected–always the wrong thing–whereas the progressives expect the liberals to see things their way, and vice-versa, and get mad when it doesn’t happen.
    Quick historical note: “common sense” in the 18th Century had two meanings: the one we’re familiar with, and the sensus communi, the sense that underlies all of the specific senses (vision, hearing, touch, taste, smell). (Kant, Herder, Proschka.) In that latter meaning Paine was indicating that liberty is the common sense that underlies all the activities of life both individually and collectively.

  • ’12

    Great article, keep ‘em coming.


    This is worse than Justin Kosslyn’s old stuff.

  • bad bad bad

    this is, simply put, a bad column.

  • @5

    If you think that conservatives work to preserve the elite, then you must have been, quite literally, living under a rock for the last couple of decades. If ONLY that were the case. Instead we have Sarah Palin and a bunch of rednecks running the GOP. Conservatives work to preserve a certain standard that is settled upon as worthy of preservation for a variety of reasons, some legitimate, others not… but that standard can be, and is more often than not, “Joe six-pack,” rather than something “elite.”

  • yale 11

    Soooo, you just posted your notes from Section?

    Your writing is tired and it hurts my eyes.

  • Anthony LeCounte

    First, you considerably straw-man conservatism–not that I have much sympathy for the GOP. Yes, there are a lot of crazies on the Right, but the facetious point about the crazies’ feckless conflation fascism and communism aside, there are substantive critiques from the Right on some issues that should not be so idly dismissed. Secondly, I take issue with your whole point on “security”–it seems liberals are no less (and possibly more) concerned with it than conservatives, hence the welfare state. Third, you never give even a working definition of “counterculture”, so it’s difficult to respond to your argument on its merits.

    Your point seems to be that liberal counterculturalists are pushing forward to something new and progressive while conservatives aspiring to such a label are actually being reactionary and/or elitist. I don’t think you’ve established how conservatism is inherently elitist, nor have you explained how a counterculture is or can be anything other than a salient minority clinging to values that are unpopular (or even hostile) to the mainstream.

    Also, I don’t see how Paine was meaningfully countercultural. Sure the British would say he was insurrectionary, but I doubt the Americans even then saw him as “countercultural”. There is even an argument that his whole reliance on “common sense” (in both senses of the word–see comment 5 above) is inherently conservative, but I won’t go there now.

    Still, I think there may be something to be said for the inherently radical (and thus liberal) nature of conscientiously operating contra the mainstream, but I don’t think you do enough to develop that point. What is the essence of counterculture and what is its telos, if there is one? Also, please stop bloviating so much. You meander excessively, making it difficult to discern the overall point you’re trying to make. This relates to another question I have: so what? Why should I give a damn about the point you’re making? I commend your blatantly considerable erudition, but I would suggest you go more for clarity and cogency than ostentatious psychologism. But before I wax didactic in some bitter diatribe against analytic philosophy, I’ll stop here.

  • Jo

    Do you forsee a violent Left vs Right struggle in the future ?

    What do you think about STORMFRONT.ORG and David Duke ?

    What is your take on the 20% + Americans who are interested in secession according to polls ?

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