For those of us who grew up in the Ozzie and Harriet fifties and came of age in the long-hair stop-the-war counterculture late sixties, there was always the matter of cool. James Dean was cool, and then Peter Gunn was cool, and then Steve McQueen was major-cool, and then James Bond was cool, depending on who was playing him at the time. Or maybe James Bond was a dork – opinions vary. But that’s all commercial stuff. There was real cool – Jack Kerouac and the Beats, and Miles Davis. After all, Davis’ rare early recordings were collected in that 1957 album Birth of the Cool – “hot” jazz had disappeared in the late forties and Miles Davis had changed things. He was certainly not hot. He was distant and mysterious and slightly dangerous, like his music, and he didn’t really give a shit about what you thought about his enigmatic modal improvisations, or what you thought about anything else either. He was who he was. Deal with it.
And maybe that’s the essence of cool. You are who you are and nothing gets to you. No one can rattle you and you go your own way. You have no use for convention, or the conventional. Of course that can border on parody, and Andy Warhol comes to mind. He was always on the edge of becoming his own sly joke about how cool he was, perhaps intentionally, just to keep all the hopelessly straight-and-narrow people, like art critics, off balance. Of course they decided to keep up with him, praising his paintings of soup cans and the like – just to prove they were cool too, because being cool was… well, cool. It’s important to be cool.
But sometimes the culture, which depends on shared conventions to maintain itself, fights back. In the seventies there was that television show, Happy Days, with Henry Winkler as the Fonz. The Fonz thought he was devastatingly cool, and convinced everyone else he was amazingly cool, but each week he turned out to be a good guy, in the usual surprise ending. We always discovered that the Fonz was warm and decent and thus much like everyone else, underneath it all. Cultural equilibrium was maintained. Hollywood did its job. The cool was neutered. And Hollywood continues to do that job. The cool and mysterious hero, far outside the mainstream of convention, is always conflicted, as he should be. The current Batman really hates his save-the-world job. The price of cool is too high. You lose yourself. Cool is dangerous.
And cool is for the young. No old folks are cool, except Ron Paul for some mysterious reason, and Clint Eastwood. It’s just that the young don’t care what anyone thinks, save their peers. Hell, they don’t floss, and try to tell them not to text while driving. They’ll give you a Miles Davis shrug. And it has always been so. See Bye-Bye Birdie – What’s the Matter with Kids Today? And that was from the 1963 film of the 1960 Broadway musical. Heck, even Hamlet, all dark and conflicted and way cool, had a problem with the adults around him – he didn’t give a damn what Polonius thought, and he had real problems with his mother. They certainly didn’t get his exemplary intelligent world-weary coolness at all. None of the adults did. But it’s always been so. Hamlet morphs into James Dean, and Paul Lynde sings the part of Polonius. Cool is for the young.
And now Republicans aren’t cool. In the last election we had the white-hot John McCain, outraged at our failure to go to war with Russia over Georgia, if you recall, and outraged about the lack of respect for America in the world these days, suggesting we flex our muscles a bit more over all sorts of things, and outraged about Obama’s notions of economic fairness, which he characterized as unfair income distribution from the good guys to the losers or whatever, and outraged at a few other things. It’s hard to remember them all. But you were supposed to be outraged too. As for Sarah Palin, she was all amazed outrage. Obama palled around with terrorists and so forth. In contrast, Obama was cool and measured, and always reasonable and thoughtful. He was always saying that he’d rather work with folks, even the Republicans, and just fix things. He was implying that being perpetually hot and bothered was a dead end. Be cool. Fix what’s broken.
It’s no wonder he won the youth vote, and the election. Americans like cool, although his base often was in agony off and on, screaming that he had to get hot and outraged and tell it like it is, slapping the other side around, righteously. But it seems Obama knew better. Keith Olbermann took care of the righteous outrage on the left, and look what happened to him. He’s now forgotten. Now the only place to go for a daily dose of righteous outrage is talk radio, for Rush Limbaugh, or Fox News with Hannity and O’Reilly and those folks – you know – that stuff for angry old folks. That’s their demographic.
And the divide only grows. David Leonhardt, the Washington bureau chief of The New York Times, covers the situation in the upcoming Sunday magazine section (June 24):
The generation gap may not be a pop culture staple, as it was in the 1960s, but it is probably wider than it has been at any time since then.
Throughout the 1980s and ’90s, younger and older adults voted in largely similar ways, with a majority of each supporting the winner in every presidential election. Sometime around 2004, though, older voters began moving right, while younger voters shifted left. This year, polls suggest that Mitt Romney will win a landslide among the over-65 crowd and that President Obama will do likewise among those under 40.
Leonhardt links to all the polling, but the generation gap is pretty obvious:
The young not only favor gay marriage and school funding more strongly; they are also notably less religious, more positive toward immigrants, less hostile to Social Security cuts and military cuts and more optimistic about the country’s future. They are both more open to change and more confident that life in the United States will remain good.
Their optimism is especially striking in the context of their economic troubles. Older Americans have obviously suffered in recent years, with many now fearing a significantly diminished retirement. But the economic slump of the last decade – a mediocre expansion, followed by a terrible downturn – has still taken a much higher toll on the young. Less established in their working lives, they have struggled to get hired and to hold on to jobs.
Cue Paul Lynde. What’s the matter with kids today?
But there is a real gap:
The wealth gap between households headed by someone over 65 and those headed by someone under 35 is wider than at any point since the Federal Reserve Board began keeping consistent data in 1989. The gap in homeownership is the largest since Census Bureau data began in 1982. The income gap is also at a recorded high; median inflation-adjusted income for households headed by people between 25 and 34 has dropped 11 percent in the last decade while remaining essentially unchanged for the 55-to-64 age group.
If there is a theme unifying these economic and political trends, in fact, it is that the young are generally losing out to the old…
Younger adults are faring worse in the private sector and, in large part because they have less political power, have a less generous safety net beneath them. Older Americans vote at higher rates and are better organized.
And the young are getting hammered in other ways:
Education spending – the area that the young say should be cut the least, polls show – is taking deep cuts. The young also want the government to take action to slow global warming; Congress shows no signs of doing so. Even on same-sex marriage, where public opinion is moving toward youthful opinion, all 31 states that have held referendums on the matter have voted against same-sex marriage.
So these young folks lean left, and somehow they didn’t get more conservative as they aged a bit, like they were supposed to:
No one knows exactly why, but there are some suspects. Having grown up surrounded by diversity, they are socially liberal, almost unconsciously so. Many of them also came of age in the (ultimately unpopular) George W. Bush presidency, or the (ultimately popular) Bill Clinton presidency, and pollsters at the Pew Research Center argue that the president during a generation’s formative years casts a long shadow, for better or worse. Hammered by the economic downturn, young voters say they want government to play a significant role in the economy.
Damn, the young folks don’t think government is the problem:
These attitudes create a challenge for the Republican Party that is arguably as big as its better known struggles for the votes of Latinos. “We’ve got a generation of young people who are more socially liberal and more open to activist government,” says Andrew Kohut, president of the Pew center, which has done some of the most extensive generational polling. “They are quite distinct.”
That’s bad news, but not new news:
Shortly after Mr. Bush won re-election in 2004, just when the age gap was emerging, his chief campaign strategist, Matthew Dowd, wrote a memo to other top Bush aides urging them not to assume that a new Republican majority was emerging. The exit polls, he wrote to Karl Rove and others, showed that younger voters had voted strongly Democratic, and those voters would be in the electorate for a long time to come.
“They don’t think the Republican Party thinks like them,” much as older voters feel alienated by what they see as today’s immigrant-embracing, gay-friendly, activist-government Democratic Party, Mr. Dowd said last week. “I don’t expect these younger voters to wake up all of a sudden when they’re 38 years old and say, ‘I was for gay marriage before, but now I’m against it.’”
So deal with it:
What seems clear is that the marketing gurus are finally right: today’s young really are different. They view a boisterously diverse United States as a fact of life, and they view life as clearly better than it used to be. But they are also products of the longest economic slump in 70 years, and they would like a little help. They wish the country would devote more attention to its future, especially on education and the climate. They, of course, will have to live with that future.
And everyone thought the Republicans only had a problem with pushy Hispanics and wrong-headed hysterical women. Now they have a fully-developed problem with anyone under sixty perhaps, although it’s hard to pin down precisely when one becomes an angry old fart, enamored by the wisdom of Ted Nugent and Glenn Beck, and fond of Dennis Miller’s version of humor. Many young conservatives become old farts by the start of their third year of college. So maybe the issue isn’t age, per se, but coolness, or hipness, or whatever. That may be the real gap.
That’s the gap Conor P. Williams explores in this piece on Hipster Conservatism:
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.
And he gets specific:
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, and 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.
And then there’s the matter of ethnic and cultural diversity:
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.
And he sees these three options, starting with those he calls Cognitive Dissonants:
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.
Williams offers various examples, but this will do as representative:
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.
But 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.
So they like to yell about the new stuff that bothers them:
“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 weirdoes out of town!”
And sure, you can almost make anything cool simply by willing it to be so, 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!”
And then there are what Williams calls 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)? 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.
But Williams grants that 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 trend lines 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.
But this leads to some odd behaviors:
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.
And all that lead to this:
Here’s a theory… 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.
That is possible. But it all comes down to cool. Cool wins, because it’s somewhat distant and mysterious and slightly dangerous. Deal with it.
And let people be what and who they will be. Asking more of them than that is just not cool, and chasing them down and pinning them to the floor while you cut off their long hair, while they sob and scream for help, is definitely not cool, even if you grin and chuckle about it on Fox News. Heck, that’s not even American, because America is cool, not hot.
Maybe the next election will show that, again. Was it ever about anything else?