Prelude: I’ve been mulling over something like this post for years, mostly because of arguments with the original Post-Modern Conservative himself, James Poulos. I wrestled some of it into place a few months back, and finally decided to put it up after reading the Acculturated Symposium on conservatism and pop culture.
Let’s get one thing out of the way: I am under no illusions about my coolness. None. I got married in my 20s. I have a child. I’m one dissertation chapter away from completing a PhD in political philosophy. I listen to (more or less) the same music I listened to five years ago (unironically). Most of the books I read come from the Western philosophical and literary canons. I think it’s the height of wit to repeatedly quote overused lines from The Big Lebowski. I am a better-than-average oboist. I own several pairs of pleated pants, and one pair of pleated shorts.
It would, in sum, take much more than a whetstone to get me anywhere near cutting edge. Clear? Great.
BUT, despite my own hopeless unhipness, I still know this: by almost any standard measure, I am considerably cooler than most American conservatives. By far. Their most culturally exciting major figure is Ron Paul—a 77 year-old grandfather with shaky right-wing credentials.
See, when I’m at a party—stroller parked in the corner, diaper bag on my shoulder—and someone mentions their same-sex partner, I don’t bat an eye. I’m totally untroubled. When a couple walks up and, casual-like, makes it clear that they’re living together out of wedlock, I’m more likely to go for high-fives than scoldings. I’m not the coolest, but I’m hip enough that their lives don’t faze me. If I’m not cool, at least my cultural convictions don’t completely rule out the possibility of occasionally stumbling into it. Call it “the effortless coolness of a progressive dork.”
The American Right, meanwhile, is still working out whether bigotry is cool or not. They’re undecided, in general, about whether sex is shameful. Same goes for ethnic and cultural diversity. Etc.[i]
This is basic stuff. Conservatism has long been uneasy about Hollywood, New York City (its residents, if not its kitsch), trendy music from Buddy Holly to Lady Gaga, culinary cosmopolitanism, artistic radicalism, and so on and so forth. You can organize a hyper-popular concert (or two, or three, or a dozen) to support foreign aid expenditures, public spending on disease prevention, marriage equality, more vigorous responses to climate change, and plenty of other left-wing causes. Very few unequivocally conservative goals can serve that purpose.
Very few conservatives really understand this, but almost all implicitly acknowledge it. Their options, unfortunately, are pretty limited. I can discern at least three groupings amongst the Right’s responses: 1) The Cognitive Dissonants, 2) Stodgy-Cons, and 3) Post-Modern Conservatives.
1) The Cognitive Dissonants are defined by their hypocrisy. They dismiss serious concerns about racial marginalization and urban poverty while bumping the rawest hip-hop anthems born of that very exclusion. When I was young, these conservatives spent their nights with Tupac’s “I Wonder if Heaven Got a Ghetto”—only to spend their days in class attributing African-American poverty to laziness. Today, they’re often monogamy’s staunchest defenders all week long—and enthusiastically promiscuous all weekend.
These conservatives are terribly frustrating. They enjoy living the cool, uninhibited life, but their public convictions threaten to vilify others for doing the same—or to exclude others altogether. They are privilege and entitlement and personal incoherence incarnate. Hence slut shaming. In the club, promiscuity is as good for the goose as it is for the gander, but we can’t let women feel that way the next morning. Hence illicit, elite drug use. When rich white college kids buy weed, it’s cool and hip and proof of their connection to cultural touchstones from Bob Marley to The Chronic. When poor Latinos bringing that weed into the country are arrested for various crimes, that’s proof that Latin America has serious problems that should be walled off from the United States via immigration policy.
2) Other conservatives miss the point entirely. They argue something along the lines of “cool is in the eyes of the beholder—so long as the beholder is a nostalgic middle-aged guy.” Call them the Stodgy-Cons.
“Get your Dubstep and your ‘the Twitter’ off my lawn!” they yell. “You think that’s cool? Hell no! Cool is doo-wop sock hops and the traditional liturgy! Cool is going steady with your best girl for two years before moving in for that first kiss—and engagement ring—at the prom! Cool is running freaks and weirdos out of town!”[ii]
And sure, you can almost make anything cool simply by willing it to be so,[iii] but no one’s about to mistake Andrew Lloyd Webber for André 3000. There’s a certain evanescence about coolness. Almost every high schooler knows that you can’t get it simply by wanting really badly to be it.
Thing is, Stodgy-Cons (at least those who bother to fight) are fighting for the wrong adjective. Coolness, whatever else it is, usually leans into transgressiveness. It pushes the envelope. Stodgy-Cons confuse cool with “good” or “right” or “responsible.” It might indeed be better for your health to abstain from alcohol during college—but that doesn’t make it cool. It might be more responsible to abstain from sex until marriage—but cool? Really? Abstinent living doesn’t scream out “I am awesome’s pinnacle!”
For an example of Stodgy-Conservatism at its worst, check out this article from Rep. Thad McCotter. Here’s a sampling:
Yes, it seems that in these abysmal days of a culturally triumphant Left, the idea that conservatism was once hip is as hard to imagine as 4% unemployment rates and the Flock of Seagulls selling records. But, alas, ’tis true…In the 1980’s, the Left viewed the septuagenarian Ronald Wilson Reagan (aka, “The Amiable Dunce”) as a former B-movie actor/Governor, unlicensed chimp handler, corporate shill and political reactionary, who conspired to foist his right-wing animadversions upon an unsuspecting America. In this vile undertaking, he was abetted by a horde of pinstriped, Rock-n-Roll Reaganites (aka, “Yuppies”), who knew that the Ramones weren’t an Italian splinter-party; that this Blondie wasn’t Dagwood’s wife; that Some Girls wasn’t written by Jane Austen; and that America was kick ass.
McCotter’s thesis, in sum: today’s GOP isn’t cool, but the “Rock-n-Roll Reaganites” were. If you lived through the 1980s, you know that Reagan’s blue blazer brigade was hardly competing with Madonna, MTV, and miniskirts. Reagan was a successful politician, sure, but it’s ludicrous to confuse him with cool—remember his fundamental misunderstanding of Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA?[iv]
3) Finally, we come to Poulos and the Post-Modern Conservatives. They’re the savviest of the bunch. This crowd can’t stand being culturally marginalized. Many live in plural liberal enclaves—places where the official conservative lines on homosexuality, urban poverty, public transit contraception use, gender roles, etc are as socially marginalizing as they are empirically dubious.
Want to bring a conversation to a screeching halt at a party in San Francisco (or Brooklyn, or Austin, or Chicago, etc)? Tell your gay host that you wish his partner serving in Kabul would just pipe down about “his husband back in the States.” Or, alternatively, use the hummus as an opportunity to warn your tablemates about the incessant creeping of Sharia law. Switch the set from “National Pravda Radio” to Rush when no one’s looking. Joke about “the language of the ghetto.” Try that sort of stuff and you’ll soon be living a conservative “dream”: you’ll be completely left alone.
As a result, the Post-Modern Conservative badly wants to be out front with the cultural vanguardists. They’re often libertarians, since that helps them escape stodgy cultural hang-ups. Honest libertarians don’t want government proscribing or prescribing their drugs, sex, or rock-n-roll. Libertarians are conservative on questions of economic policy, the scope of government, and much more. They’re usually uninterested in the sort of deeply uncool bigotry that marginalizes most conservatives.
They’re onto something. They realized that a conservatism shackled to Santorum-style cultural nostalgia or (even worse) Lost Cause Confederate racism is politically doomed. Whatever is wrong with the progressive view of history, the broad American trendlines all generally lean towards greater cultural tolerance. We start with a political community of rich, white, (mostly) Christian men—and slowly lower class, racial, and sexual barriers to political participation. Same thing goes for culture: Americans start with a community that institutionalizes various Puritan mores (in theory if not in practice)—and slowly relaxes. Have there been delays and retrenchments and countermoves? Of course. The bigger point stands, though: conservatives are newly wary about bashing same-sex marriages because they know that public opinion’s leaving them in the dust.
The problem for the Po-Mo-Cons is that they can’t abandon Santorum’s Wheelhouse (which would be a great name for a conservative indie band) without going Wile E. Coyote. One minute, they’re humming along, deconstructing Coolidge speeches and appropriating Hunter S. Thompson to show how conservatism has always been about cool, hip libertinism, and BOOM, all of a sudden Culture 11 is offline and penniless. All of a sudden they’ve run all the way off the cliff into the libertarian or liberaltarian or liberal or (gasp?) leftist air—never to return. Run far enough from conservatism’s core, and there’s no institutional there there. The Republican Party has done its damnedest to sustain brand purity—which is both a rhetorical strength and an intellectual anchor. Ideological discipline comes with costs and benefits, and it turns out that a coolness deficit is among the former.
Here’s a theory for dissection in the comments, then: the benefits of ideological discipline are political, whereas its costs are cultural. Whereas it behooves rhetoricians to build snappy, compelling rhetorical arguments for their platforms, such rigidity is kryptonite for the cultural cutting edge. Perhaps (and only perhaps) that’s because coolness relies heavily upon emotions—especially inchoate, unspecific ones. And hey, no one does amorphous and emotional platforms like the Left.
Update: Here, by the way, is another piece I wrote about this problem—more philosophy, fewer jokes, and (maybe?) better for you.
[i] I’m painting with a broad brush here, I know. It should go without saying that the various exceptions to the variously uncool conservative positions usually prove the rule. Show me a right-wing figure who’s escaped some of his or her team’s most heinously stodgy positions, and I’ll show you a dozen Santorum acolytes.
[ii] “Cool is Bob Dylan—his evangelical stuff! Cool is feeling guilty about sex! Cool is football before the forward pass—and the forward ‘pansies’ who rely on it! Cool is saving for your retirement! Cool is xenophobia!”
[iii] Insert Billy Madison pants-peeing joke of your choice.