Everything is vibes and nothing is real
The great theory of modern politics explained
‘I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.’ Maya Angelou’s famous quote is, in my opinion, one of the most obviously true statements when it comes to political beliefs.
Almost all politics is irrational, and education and intelligence make little difference; indeed, they just allow people to become better at articulating and so justifying their irrational beliefs. Anyone who claims that their politics aren’t tribal, or they follow some scientific or rational calculus, is lying to you or themselves. It’s all about how it makes them feel — and a lot of that is down to vibes.
The political theory of vibes has become more popular in the past few years and there is a growing acceptance that vibes overrule everything else. As Janan Ganesh recently wrote, the outcome of the Tory leadership race is going to be decided by vibes and the fact that Sunak has Remain vibes and Truss has Leave vibes, even if the opposite is true.
‘Sunak’s views are rightwing but what you might call his effect is liberal,’ he wrote: ‘Truss, an actual Liberal Democrat for a while, is the opposite. He presents as: know-it-all, at ease abroad, richer than God. She presents as no-nonsense and what the British call “regional”. So, on the basis of accent and a few biographic facts, one Oxonian of public-sector middle-class stock appeals to the metro-snobs and the other to the bumpkin-cranks: two tribes into which our unsubtle age triages so many of us. Policies matter, of course. But so do tribal signifiers. He has to try much harder to seem the same level of rightwing.
‘Twenty years in and around politics have left me sure of one thing. Most people’s ideological commitments are extraordinarily soft. What they think of as a belief is often a post-hoc rationalisation of a group loyalty. Crucially, this is more true, not less, of degree-holding, “high-information” voters. What education can do is estrange people from parents and home town. It leaves them casting around for an alternative identity. Political tribe is as good as any.
‘I am alive to this habit because I possess it. Why do I side with Sunak over Truss? Or with Emmanuel Macron, a protectionist with a weird thing for Russia going back several years? There are reasons of substance to cite. But in all candour, it is also a matter of vibes and tribes. At a base, atavistic level, these are my people. They dress and act like the average of my 10 best friends. If there are some awkward policies in the way, I will reinterpret them. I can hardly complain if Tories look at Sunak, run the same heuristic and vote Truss.’
Ganesh cites the history of Covid restrictions as an example of how that theatre of the culture war might have been completely different if partisan tribal leaders like Donald Trump and Angela Merkel had behaved differently, with conservative populists locking down and liberals and centrists keeping things open. Indeed, that is exactly how the pandemic began, with Matteo Salvini and Marine Le Pen calling for national shutdowns and liberal publications stating that flu is more dangerous.
Instead, taking their cues from ideological tribal leaders, most people followed the vibe; some completely changed sides, going from let-it-rip and ‘anti-Chinese racism is the more dangerous problem’ to militantly shaming anyone who didn’t wear a mask. Vaccine-scepticism, likewise, could easily have gone the other way, had Donald Trump won the election and become associated with the Pfizer and Moderna breakthroughs; before this, some Democrat politicians were expressing scepticism about the programme. But Trump lost the election, and since then a number of people have died because they refused the vaccine for partisan reasons; they literally died for vibes.
Vibes is the reason why highly-partisan people will justify the most ludicrous of causes. This week, for example, a number of academics were willing to defend a bizarre paper on masturbating to hand-drawn child porn, which is about as morally indefensible as things get. A Tory MP criticising an academic for doing something that outrages public morality? I don’t know what it’s about, I just know the vibes.