Which of these is the odd one out?
(a) Cargo pants
(c) John Howard
If you believe the conservative columnists it’s ‘c’. Only John Howard is still cool in 2005. Cargo pants and grunge bands like Mudhoney are hopelessly ’90s. Only decrepit Gen-Xers think it’s hip to shamble around looking like something off the set of Reality Bites and grumbling about how boomers have ruined the environment and taken all the best jobs.
In the Australian last October, Janet Albrechtsen announced that "Conservatism is cool." Radio National’s Michael Duffy used the line as a theme for one of his weekly radio programs (but bizarrely invited Christopher Pearson). And a few months later the Sydney Morning Herald‘s Miranda Devine was explaining that conservatism had become the new counter-culture. Even lifestyle journos think they’ve detected a trend. In a recent issue of the Sydney Morning Herald‘s Spectrum lift-out Samantha Selinger-Morris announced that "conservatism has taken its place as the new rebellion" (translation: hipster jeans are out and babies are in).
I suppose I’m supposed to deflate this story with a snarky remark about Alex Keaton or maybe a two line history of the Young Americans for Freedom and their enthusiasm for Barry Goldwater. But maybe there’s something to this – I’m just not sure what.
What is Cool?
Despite what lifestyle writers might say, cool is not just whatever young people happen to be into. If all the kids are into something then it’s almost certainly not cool. According to Dick Pountain and David Robins:
Cool is a rebellious attitude, an expression of a belief that the mainstream mores of your society have no legitimacy and do not apply to you. It’s a self-contained and individualistic attitude, although it places high value on friendship within a tightly defined peer group – indeed it strives to displace traditional family ties, which are too intimate and intrusive to allow sufficient space for self-invention.
Pountain and Robins say that "Each succeeding generation feels that ‘real’ Cool is something pure and existential known only to them – it was founded in their time." I guess this is what makes it so hard for yesterday’s hipsters to accept that what once provocative and liberating is now boring and oppressive. Cool is always relative, never absolute.
When cool is combined with progressive politics the lesson for old hipsters will be particularly hard. The great progressive myth is that every struggle moves history forward – never backwards. The truths revealed today do not become the falsehoods of tomorrow. Once a generation has seen the world in bright sunlight it will never want to go back to the cave of half-truth and shadow. Seen in this way, a youthful counter-revolution looks like the collapse of civilization – not cool at all. Devine is probably right when she says many once-radical boomers are stunned by young people’s attitudes to issues like feminism.
South Park Republicans – cool but not conservative
In the US there’s been a lot of talk about ‘South Park Republicans ‘ -a vanguard of young people rebelling against left wing political correctness. Commentators like City Journal’s Brian C Anderson see the popularity of comedy programs like South Park as an encouraging sign: "Lots of cable comedy, while not traditionally conservative, is fiercely anti-liberal, which as a practical matter often amounts nearly to the same thing."
For the 60s generation the American south and mid-west symbolized everything that was repressive and uncool. Student activists abandoned conservative blue collar politics and proclaimed themselves the vanguard of social change. It shouldn’t be a surprise that educated upper class South Park Republicans rebel against their parents and teachers by wearing trucker hats and eating corn dogs.
In 2003 blogger Andrew Sullivan was writing about young hipsters going to parties dressed up like white trash: "part of the refreshing nature of these trends is exactly their unconcern with whether they’re forms of condescension or not, or even whether they’re ironic or not. They’re just cool and insensitive. It took only one generation of political correctness to fuse the two." The student left of the 60s associated working class mid western manners with racism and support for the Vietnam War. That made them perfect for provocation.
Sullivan also argued that these young people had become enthusiastic supporters of Bush’s war in Iraq:
My theory is that we’re witnessing the emergence of the 9/11 generation – a demographic cohort bigger than the boomers whose defining experience was the terrorist attack of two years ago. They are also immune to the Vietnam fixation of the boomer editors and reporters of the mainstream media. South Park Republicans? We may have a genuine phenomenon here.
In an article appearing on the Wall Street Journal’s online opinion site, Brian Anderson agreed:
Talk to right-leaning college students, and it’s clear that Sullivan is onto something. Arizona State undergrad Eric Spratling says the definition fits him and his Republican pals perfectly. "The label is really about rejecting the image of conservatives as uptight squares—crusty old men or nerdy kids in blue blazers. We might have long hair, smoke cigarettes, get drunk on weekends, have sex before marriage, watch R-rated movies, cuss like sailors—and also happen to be conservative, or at least libertarian."
South Park Republicans may well be anti-liberal but Anderson’s Arizona undergrad is also onto something – they’re not so much conservative as libertarian. There were two strands to the rebellion of the 60s. The first was the militant leftism of groups like Students for Democratic Society while the second was the libertarianism of the counter culture. Sitting around arguing with Shachtmanites about whether communists should be allowed seating rights at meetings was never going to be cool. Nor was the squalid back-to-nature lifestyle of hardcore hippies. But a band like the Velvet Underground was another thing altogether. (One Reason contributor comes close to crediting Lou Reed with the overthrow of communism in
In 2003 the New York Times Magazine discovered the ‘Young Hipublicans.’ John Colapinto took a trip to Bucknell University to meet a new generation of young conservatives. He reported that the founder of the Bucknell University Conservative Club looked to Hunter S Thompson for inspiration, while other members dressed like goths or punks. And while the Young Hipublicans respected ’80 conservative campus activists like Dinesh D’Souza, their views were different. The conservative club’s magazine Counterweight was running articles supporting gay marriage [pdf] A strong streak of libertarianism ran though the club, "a conviction that the government should stay out of any and all aspects of life, including the bedroom."
While South Park Republicans love to outrage their elders with symbols of red state culture and attacks on political correctness, this doesn’t mean that they want a return to segregation, family values, and respect for authority. In many ways they’ve become the heirs of the 60s anti-establishment. It’s the establishment that’s changed, not the rebelliousness of college students.
Boy Scouts and Pentecostals – conservative but not cool
Commentators like Samantha Selinger-Morris focus on a different kind of young conservative – the kind who are desperate for the adult responsibilities of management, mortgages, motherhood. Journalists have noticed that it’s the ‘God wants you to be rich‘ churches who are having the most success recruiting young people. But this doesn’t mean that speaking in tongues and praying for positively geared real estate investments has suddenly become cool. Guy Sebastian may have won Australian Idol but this doesn’t make his music or his lifestyle cutting-edge. There were nice young boys making records in the 60s too.
Selinger-Morris’s Spectrum piece carries a picture of a Young Liberal who looks like he’s been dressed by his grandmother and photographed in her sitting room. Her teenage rebel has memorized "the precise interest rates of the Labor governments from Whitlam to Keating" and wants to buy a house before he turns 23. But nobody with that level of ambition can afford to be too cool. The establishment will be marking their assignments, writing their job references, and checking their credit ratings.
The ideological fallacy
Anderson thinks that being "fiercely anti-liberal" is as good as being conservative. But if that were true then the Ku Klux Klan would be welcomed into the conservative movement along with Murray Rothbard‘s crazy paleolibertarians. Obviously, there’s more to conservatism than hating liberals. And not all the young conservatives Anderson thinks are cool are happy to be labeled ‘South Park Conservatives.’ For example, Michelle Malkin writes:
Well, I’m 34 and no fan of "South Park." I have many good friends who are indeed huge boosters of the show, but I find that the characters’ foul language overwhelms any entertainment I might otherwise derive from the show’s occasional, right-leaning iconoclastic themes.
"South Park" may be "politically incorrect." But "politically incorrect" is not always a synonym for "conservative."
Malkin is right, rebelling against the man is not conservative just because the man is a liberal. Malkin is a real conservative – she doesn’t even like MTV. She’s far more interested in keeping dangerous foreigners under control. And just as youngish conservatives like Malkin don’t find South Park amusing, many young South Park watchers find conservatism hilarious.
Miranda Devine argues that ideological shifts are like a pendulum swinging from right to left and back again. So when young people attack the left leaning elites of the media and culture industries it’s a sign that the 1950s are about to return. But if ideology really worked like that then political philosophy really would be just footnotes to Plato. When did this pendulum start swinging?
For elites, there are conventional ways of packaging political attitudes. Opposition to asylum seekers tends to be packaged along with support for the war in Iraq and enthusiasm about free markets. People like Pauline Hanson who mix attitudes from different packages get attacked as ignorant and confused. It’s as if they’d made char kway teow with fettuccine or served red wine in a champagne flute. The trouble is, many of the conventional attitude combinations are arbitrary. They are byproducts of past coalition building and log rolling. There is no logical reason why, for example, a politician shouldn’t combine support for free trade with high taxes and a large welfare state.
Most ordinary people don’t know and don’t care about the right way to combine political attitudes. They are happy to choose their attitudes issue by issue. In the mid 1960s American political scientist Philip Converse argued that most people just don’t bother having a comprehensive and consistent set of political attitudes. In ‘The Nature of Belief Systems in Mass Publics’ he wrote that "large portions of an electorate do not have meaningful beliefs, even on issues that have formed the basis for intense political controversy among elites for substantial periods of time." When pollsters ask voters about their opinion on an issue the voter often has no opinion to give. To answer the question they have to make one up.
While ordinary people break with convention out of ignorance, political innovators do so deliberately. Just as ‘east meets west’ cuisine deliberately flaunted traditional food combinations, the political avant garde deliberately mis-combine their political attitudes. There is no ideological pendulum swinging between two eternally fixed positions. Rejecting the status quo does not mean retuning to the past.
When politically sophisticated young people reject political correctness it’s not necessarily a sign that they are about to embrace conservatism. And when politically unsophisticated young people laugh at South Park it probably just means that they think it’s funny.