Coolness Isn’t Everything
Upon further reflection, I’d like to emphasize one more thing about conservatism’s uncoolness. Here goes:
It should go without saying that “cool” politics and “desirable” politics don’t always overlap. Indeed, any overlap may be purely incidental. In other words: even if conservatism is persistently lame, that isn’t especially relevant to whether or not conservatives have valuable policy solutions on offer. For all existing x, such that x is cool, it is not necessarily the case that x is also a good idea—political or otherwise.
Indeed, one of the conservative themes in this election cycle is that Obama’s coolness (read: likability gap over Romney) isn’t enough to solve today’s Very Serious Problems” (courtesy of American Crossroads):
Get it? Obama is Cool…but we need someone with gravitas.
Or, if you prefer thinking about this through a lens other than Karl Rove’s…British conservative Michael Oakeshott thought that conservatism’s appreciation of the old and familiar (what I was puerilely calling “stodgy”) is what makes it uniquely helpful for politics [emphasis added]:
Everybody’s young days are a dream, a delightful insanity, a sweet solipsism. Nothing in them has a fixed shape, nothing a fixed price; everything is a possibility, and we live happily on credit. There are no obligations to be observed; there are no accounts to be kept. Nothing is specified in advance; everything is what can be made of it. The world is a mirror in which we seek the reflection of our own desires. The allure of violent emotions is irresistible. When we are young we are not disposed to make concessions to the world; we never feel the balance of a thing in our hands—unless it be a cricket bat. We are not apt to distinguish between our liking and our esteem; urgency is our criterion of importance; and we do not easily understand that what is humdrum need not be despicable. We are impatient of restraint; and we readily believe, like Shelley, that to have contracted a habit is to have failed. These, in my opinion, are among our virtues when we are young; but how remote they are from the disposition appropriate for participating in the style of government I have been describing. Since life is a dream, we argue (with plausible but erroneous logic) that politics must be an encounter of dreams, in which we hope to impose our own. Some unfortunate people, like Pitt (laughably called ‘the Younger’), are born old, and are eligible to engage in politics almost in their cradles; others, perhaps more fortunate, belie the saying that one is young only once, they never grow up. But these are exceptions. For most there is what Conrad called the ‘shadow line’ which, when we pass it, discloses a solid world of things, each with its fixed shape, each with its own point of balance, each with its price; a world of fact, not poetic image, in which what we have spent on one thing we cannot spend on another; a world inhabited by others besides ourselves who cannot be reduced to mere reflections of our own emotions. And coming to be at home in this commonplace world qualifies us (as no knowledge of ‘political science’ can ever qualify us), if we are so inclined and have nothing better to think about, to engage in what the conservative disposition understands to be political activity.
Conservatism may not be cool, but at its best it cautions modernity’s overweening enthusiasm for change for its own sake.
Unfortunately for the United States, today’s American Right has none of this modesty. We do not have a prudential, careful, and uncool conservatism. Ours is narrow, modular, and—yes—deeply uncool.