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

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

Theo Anderson January 26, 2017

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)

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.

"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."

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 Crim­sons 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 is an In These Times con­tribut­ing writer. 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.
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