The Origin of Vibes

The same commentators who use vibes today might have reached for charisma. But while charisma was admiring and grand, vibes is noncommittal and irreverent.

Getty; The Atlantic

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.”

Here’s how Weber described the concept in his posthumous 1920 book, Sociology of Religion:

Not every person has the capacity to achieve the ecstatic states which are viewed, in accordance with rules of experience, as the pre-conditions for producing certain effects in meteorology, healing, divination, and telepathy. It is primarily, though not exclusively, these extraordinary powers that have been designated by such special terms as “Mana,” “Orenda,” and the Iranian “Maga” (the term from which our word “magic” is derived). We shall henceforth employ the term “charisma” for such extraordinary powers.

Weber, famous as a chief architect of modern social science, was not rejecting nonempirical, magical ideas such as telepathy, the Polynesian mana, or the Iroquois orenda, but repackaging them. Rather than economic forces or ideologies, it was the “ecstatic state” between rulers and their followers that explained politics.

This new usage remained obscure for almost half a century. Charisma owes its popularity to its journey across the Atlantic, where it was enthusiastically adopted first by postwar American intellectuals sympathetic to Weber, and then by a mass public eager to explain the new world of televisual political celebrity.

In 1949, the sociologist and journalist Daniel Bell tried to slip the word into a Fortune magazine piece only to have it rejected by the editors as elite jargon. But within two decades, the word was widespread enough for a 1969 piece in Time to call it “one of the dominant clichés of the 1960s.” Google Books data confirm this, showing charisma and charismatic leaping 1,700 percent from 1940 to 1970, and continuing the same exponential curve through to the 2000s, by which time it had grown 6,000 percent.

The 1960s articles that introduced the concept to the American public are eerily like today’s vibe think pieces: They acknowledge that the word mystifies rather than clarifies, yet embrace its value as an alternative to dry analysis. “The big thing in politics these days is charisma, pronounced karizma,” an April 1968 New York Times piece told a readership it clearly assumed to be new to the word. Noting how the idea was being used to describe the “mysterious powers” of political figures such as Stokely Carmichael and Bobby Kennedy to “enchant” audiences, the author concluded that charisma was “a symbol for telling a complex story in simple terms.”

Six months later in the same paper, a multipage splash by Richard Lingeman under the title “The Greeks Had a Word for It—But What Does It Mean?” championed charisma and suggested that “the word persists perhaps because it reflects some deep-rooted need we have to believe in the magic of personality.” A need, he added, that was quite separate from traditional demands of proof, evidence, or data.

When it was embraced in the 1960s, charisma offered a way of talking about the ever more entwined worlds of politics, celebrity, Hollywood, and television. It gave a secular label to a mood of spiritual resistance to existing institutions, and not coincidentally, gave its name to the charismatic movement in evangelical American Protestantism. Above all, charisma was useful as a way of avoiding reliance on statistics or technical analysis and a deft means of side-stepping ideological “sciences” of history such as Marxism or liberalism.

These anti-empirical qualities inspired many lines of attack. In 1968 the British sociologist Peter Worsley thought charisma a hopelessly “blunt instrument”; in the 1980s, the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu derided it as a “means of escape” from having to think about social relations; in 2009, the American political theorist Fredric Jameson dismissed it as “an utterly useless pseudo-concept” that led away from lived realities.

Yet, again, the take-up of charisma suggests that most people simply found the term useful.

Even those contemporary commentators, such as Matt Yglesias, who pour scorn on the imprecision of vibes today are content to use the equally anti-empirical charisma.

Is this shift from charisma to vibes merely history repeating itself, or is vibes doing something different from its illustrious predecessor? The answer is yes, and yes.

Like charisma, vibes can be seen as an artifact of the 1960s, specifically the “good vibrations” language of the counterculture borrowed from older esoteric traditions that described social relations as “vibratory.” As Google Books data testify, vibrations were a particularly important part of 19th-century language,  peaking in the 1880s at the height of the Spiritualist movement. Hippie revival of this language owed as much to Victorian séances as it did to California communes.

Both vibes and charisma make the case that politics is experiential. Where charisma appealed to a 20th-century discourse with its whiff of classical antiquity, however, vibes today instead meets the needs of a looser, self-consciously atomized algorithmic world. Where charisma was admiring and grand, vibes is noncommittal and irreverent. Charisma, like glamour, is about an exotic superiority: Someone with compelling vibes can be extremely ordinary, and in fact the very vibe they communicate can be that of ordinariness.

And where charisma describes an individual’s power, vibes focuses attention on collective emotion. Rather than describing gifted or extraordinary people, modern vibe-talk puts the significance back on the crowd. This emphasis was present in 19th-century Spiritualist uses of vibes. Some people had a stronger relationship to shared spiritual vibrations in “the ether” than others, and they could perceive and then channel an ambient mood. They might be unnaturally empathetic or open to the vibes. But they weren’t where the power truly lay.

In this way, vibe-talk reaches back beyond charisma to describe a fascination with people, like Fetterman, who seem to have a powerful receptivity to their immediate milieu. In place of hero worship and subordination, vibes is all about authenticity and what the philosopher Robin James calls sympathetic resonance.

The tools we use to describe political psychology matter. As linguistics and psychologists are eager to point out, metaphors and abstract nouns are not just linguistic conventions but real elements of thought that control how we think. Tracing their rise and fall offers a window into shifting values.

The vibe-shift away from data and dry analysis might simply be a fad. But it also allows us to measure the distance between the ideas that younger and older generations hold about the individual, about collective emotion, and about the politics of language itself.