The GOP has long been at war with itself over the ideas of Ayn Rand and Pitirim Sorokin, Paul Ryan and Mike Pence: the tension between raw selfishness, on the one hand, and self-denial and adherence to a moral code, on the other. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Why Is the GOP Obsessed with Two 1950s Russian Expat Thinkers?

Mike Pence and Paul Ryan look to the past for inspiration.

BY Theo Anderson

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"It’s curious that two Russian-born thinkers, and two works published in the mid-1950s, are central to the theories of two key GOP leaders at this moment, when Russians are accused of hacking the recent presidential election. That’s just a coincidence, but the turmoil and dysfunction of American politics aren’t entirely disconnected from their influence."

There are good reasons to worry about social collapse. There’s climate change and the fact that we’re almost certain to blow past the tipping point before we take it seriously. There’s accelerating inequality. There’s Donald Trump.

But what keeps the GOP awake at night?

If you’re Vice President Mike Pence, it’s same-sex marriage. He once gave a speech against it and argued that “societal collapse was always brought about following an advent of the deterioration of marriage and family.” But his source for that claim wasn’t the one you might expect from a self-professed evangelical Christian. It was Harvard University sociologist Pitirim Sorokin.

Sorokin is a curious case. Born in Russia, he was a revolutionary in the early 1920s but fell out with Vladimir Lenin and moved to the United States, where he founded and became the first chair of Harvard’s sociology department in 1931. A decade later, he founded its Center for Research in Creative Altruism. He was apparently every bit as idiosyncratic as that name implies. The Harvard Crimson’s obituary in 1968 noted that Sorokin’s “research into the lives of 4,600 Christian saints, and 500 living American altruists, his descriptions of five-dimensional love, and his study of Raja-Yoga techniques led some to regard him mistakenly as a ludicrous eccentric.”

Conservatives are interested in Sorokin mainly because of his book The American Sex Revolution, a small book from 1956 in which he lamented the “growing sexualization of American culture, media, art, literature, music, and political life,” all of which undermined “the continued moral growth and vitality of American culture.” His evidence included the rising rates of “adultery and infidelity, increasing promiscuity and illegitimate births, exploding numbers of sex crimes, and a growing preoccupation with sex.”

Note that this was Sorokin’s critique of American debauchery in 1956. Five decades later, his work would be cited as an argument against same-sex marriage by Pence—who, on the campaign trail last year, repeatedly called Trump “a good man” and stood by him in the aftermath of the Access Hollywood video in which Donald Trump bragged about being a sexual predator.

To be fair, some right-wing evangelicals who cite Sorokin do have the courage of their convictions. Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, has written that Sorokin “traced the rise and fall of civilizations and concluded that the weakening of marriage was a first sign of civilizational collapse.” After the Trump video, he told CNN that “I’m afraid people are going to remember evangelicals in this election for supporting the unsupportable and defending the absolutely indefensible.”

Ryan’s nightmare

If you’re House Speaker Paul Ryan, what keeps you awake at night is the tyranny of the takers over the makers.

That’s the theme of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, which was published in 1957 and is one of three books that Ryan says he returns to regularly, along with the Bible and The Road to Serfdom. Like Sorokin, Rand was born in Russia and later moved to the United States. In her vision, social collapse is brought on by the masses strangling the golden goose by killing off or regulating the captains of industry. In Rand, there’s no such thing as the public good. The only good, and the only point of life, is profit. The path to it is unbridled selfishness.

Rand’s thesis is a little too unfiltered for some mainstream conservatives, and writers at the National Review regularly throw cold water on the idea that she’s really all that influential. “Some people think of her novels as a kind of guilty adolescent enthusiasm now grown out-of-date,” as Kevin Williamson wrote recently, claiming that “there isn’t anything particularly Randian” about Ryan’s politics.

But Ryan, for his part, has said that Rand is at the very core of his sense of identity and purpose. “I grew up reading Ayn Rand and it taught me quite a bit about who I am and what my value systems are, and what my beliefs are,” he told a group devoted to her work in 2012. “The reason I got involved in public service—by and large, if I had to credit one thinker, one person, it would be Ayn Rand.”

Divided minds

It’s curious that two Russian-born thinkers, and two works published in the mid-1950s, are central to the theories of two key GOP leaders at this moment, when Russians are accused of hacking the recent presidential election.

That’s just a coincidence, but the turmoil and dysfunction of American politics aren’t entirely disconnected from their influence. The GOP has long been at war with itself over the ideas of Rand and Sorokin, Ryan and Pence: the tension between raw selfishness, on the one hand, and self-denial and adherence to a moral code, on the other.

Most Republican politicians and conservative pundits at least pretend to honor a moral standard, while praising the virtues of capitalist self-interest within reasonable limits. Trump is a chaotic presence, and something of an embarrassment for conservatives, because he disdains that middle way, reveling in the hyper-aggressive pursuit of both profits and sexual prowess.

And, in doing so, he reveals the hollowness of the GOP’s divided soul. There’s nothing conservative about him in the sense of preserving what’s best in society, just as there’s nothing classically conservative about Rand, Ryan or the GOP. There’s only the naked pursuit of power in various expressions: politics, profits, sex. Sorokin’s plea for a moral standard is bulldozed in the mad rush, except when it can be revived to give anti-LGBT bigotry the gloss of a Harvard sociologist.

All the while, social collapse still approaches. But not in the ways that modern conservatives and the GOP, fixated on the 1950s and clueless as ever, are prepared to acknowledge, much less address. 

Theo Anderson, an In These Times writing fellow, has contributed to the magazine since 2010. He has a Ph.D. in modern U.S. history from Yale and writes on the intellectual and religious history of conservatism and progressivism in the United States. Follow him on Twitter @Theoanderson7 and contact him at [email protected]

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