Explaining the Complexities of the Great Vibe ShiftRoundup
tags: intellectual history, Political theory, mass psychology, social psychology, Max Weber
Tom F. Wright teaches rhetoric and the history of ideas at the University of Sussex and writes The Charismologist on Substack.
Vibes has become a ubiquitous word in the past half decade, one many people now reach for when describing the distinct emotion given off by a place, or a thing. It is the prevailing shorthand for a cultural atmosphere, mood, and zeitgeist.
Vibe talk has also entered politics. In this magazine in 2021, Derek Thompson invited readers to think of politics as a “vibes war.” This spring, again in these pages, David A. Graham argued that John Fetterman won the Democratic Senate primary for Pennsylvania less on policy than “on vibes.” And Rolling Stone pronounced that Fetterman was “neither centrist nor a progressive. He’s a vibe.”
To the political commentator Will Stancil, “‘vibes’ is the idea that politics is rooted in and governed by mass psychology, which makes political behavior intrinsically difficult (and sometimes impossible) to model as a series of quantifiable inputs and predictable outputs, the approach favored by econometrically-inclined disciplines.”
In place of data, vibe-talk promises instead to capture deeper emotional currents. What interests me about this form of analysis is that it is a rejection of analysis itself. It’s a way of saying: Numbers lie, and emotion always lurks beneath the surface, so let’s stop pretending. It expresses the suspicion that dry objectivity is never quite sufficient.
What also interests me is that, not too long ago, the commentators who reach for vibes now would have reached for charisma, and that latter word may help us understand what vibes conveys about emotional politics today.
The rejection of hard evidence in favor of emotional intuition is one of the oldest moves in modern political thought. At the end of the 18th century, Romanticism pushed back against empiricism, as symbolized in William Blake’s 1795 painting of Isaac Newton: The scientist’s obsession with measurement leads him to literally turn his back on the natural world. In the 19th century, positivists like Auguste Comte, who believed that society could be explained in coldly scientific ways, split with anti-positivists like Friedrich Nietzsche, who argued for more subjective, affective approaches. Perhaps the most influential of these anti-positivists was the German sociologist Max Weber, and among his more influential contributions was the word charisma.
Charisma comes from the ancient Greek for “gift for grace.” Its classical origins give it a timeless feel. Yet its modern usage is only a century old. In the 1910s, Weber dusted off this obscure theological term to describe forms of political authority based on the “extraordinary powers” of specific individuals. Charisma, he argued, is the “specifically creative revolutionary force in human history.”