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.