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.

Conor P. Williams writes and teaches in Washington, D.C. Find more on FacebookTwitter, and at His email address is 

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10 thoughts on “Coolness Isn’t Everything

  1. Conservatives ought not to try for cool. Sharp and dangerous — better adjectives for someone who’s old. Whether or not they’re cool is immaterial.
    I think of Zbigniev, I think of Albright — Biden too, though his affability conceals his wit.

    All I want is SOMEONE behind the curtain. Is that too much to ask? [no, McCain did not have someone behind the curtain. if the words water war don’t mean anything to you, google it.]

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    • I think you have a point here.

      I never really watched Firing Line until it was already off the air. Wow, though, that was some television. No fancy stuff, just William F. Buckley and whoever dared to talk to him. He didn’t like to interrupt. He’d just wait politely until they were done, then hang them with their own rope.

      Not cool at all — but riveting.

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      • Very cool, I thought. My flirtation with conservatism was entirely about how cool and sophisticated and intelligent they seemed to be. Couldn’t possibly happen today, when their most visible spokesmen are bullies and idiots.

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  2. The Modern Conservative simply lacks the spinal calcium to achieve truly aristocratic coolness, the sprezzatura of Castiglione’s Ideal Courtier:

    I have found quite a universal rule which in this matter seems to me valid above all other, and in all human affairs whether in word or deed: and that is to avoid affectation in every way possible as though it were some rough and dangerous reef; and (to pronounce a new word perhaps) to practice in all things a certain sprezzatura, so as to conceal all art and make whatever is done or said appear to be without effort and almost without any thought about it

    Today’s Conservatives are hip deep in the mud, Trying. You can’t be cool by trying. Anyone knows this. Should have learned it when we were around 19 or 20 or so, that you can only be cool when you’re comfortable in your own skin. It isn’t what you wear or what group you hang with or what music you like or your politics. It’s rather like the Taoists tell us about wu-wei.

    Oakeshott’s wrong about the young. The young are all-too-disposed to make concessions to the world. They are exquisitely aware of the tremors in the balances of life: if their life experiences are limited they are acutely aware of how little power they yet have in the world. This they have known since they first began to talk. They make concessions because they must and it is only when we are old enough to know better and have enough power to resist that any rational conservative instincts can develop. “This I will never do. I have seen others do it and nothing can persuade me otherwise.”

    Actual Conservatism does embrace change. It looks at the long legacy of stupidity and short-sighted decisions of the past, sifts through the possible options and acts with the long-term view in focus. A Conservative is not a Fundamentalist and he is certainly not a Radical. That’s the problem with today’s soi-disant Conservatives: a bit of Steely Dan might serve at this point.

    Teddy’s rolling now most every night
    Skatin’ backwards at the speed of light
    He’s changed – in a thousand little ways
    He’s changed – yes indeed
    You know he’s movin’ on metal, yes he’s
    Hanging tight with the jack of speed

    Sheena’s party – there’s a case in point
    That right-wing hooey sure stunk up the joint
    He’s gone – he walks through the old routines
    But he’s gone – guaranteed
    He may be sittin’ in the kitchen, but he’s
    Steppin’ out with the jack of speed

    You maybe got lucky for a few good years
    But there’s no way back from there to here
    He’s a one way rider
    On the shriek express
    And his new best friend is at the throttle more or less
    He can’t hear you honey – that’s alright
    Pack some things and head up into the light
    Don’t stop – he’ll be callin’ out your name
    But don’t stop when you hear him plead
    You better move now little darlin’ or you’ll be
    Trading fours with the jack of speed

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  3. 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.

    This was cool until this part. Ed Schultzing is not cool.

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    • Where are these modest Conservatives, these prudential, careful and cool cats, so open and natural and unaffected and … uh… nice?

      Tell you about Ed Schultz. As you know, he used to be a big ol’ Right Winger. Then he got to know some homeless veterans. It changed him, made him into what he is today.

      See, Tom, there’s no zealot quite so firm in his convictions as the converted. Perhaps the reason you find Ed Schultz so offensive is because he used to be a Conservative. The real world has a liberal bias. Made a Liberal out of me.

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        • I mean, really, where are the Conservative Cool Cats? The Romneybot has a car elevator. That has to be cool. See, if the Romneybot wanted to be cool, he’d wear black jeans, not blue jeans that go up to his ribcage.

          And what’s with that hair? Jeebus. Someone with a clue should pin him down like he did to that poor kid back at Cranbrook and cut his hair, for his own good. And shampoo out all that hairspray. A few frank and humbling go-rounds with the Queer Eye tag team would do him a world of good, he looks like some Scottsdale duffer out on the links. That pancake make-up has to go, he looks like Data from Star Trek.

          My irony meter is wired up on a log scale. Keeps it from pegging.

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