Burke is the New Black

— Despite the arguments set forth by Holiday Dmitri on NRO, conservatism is not now, and never was, cool. Indeed, anyone disposed to utter “young hipublican” without scare-quotes is immediately disqualified from the cool sweeps (unless of course the lack of scare quotes is itself part of an undetectably ironic performance of earnestness, which is cool.) As scientists at many of America's most prestigious research institutions have long noted, cool is the most elusive and indefinable of properties. Nevertheless we do have some intuitive grasp of the logic of cool, which enables us to evaluate the arguments Dmitri adduces in support of her counter-intuitive claim.
Argument from the Existence of Cool Conservatives
(1) Gavin McGinnes is editor of Vice
(2) The editor of Vice is ipso facto cool.
(3) McGinnes describes himself as a conservative.
(4) The cool do not describe themselves as having uncool properties.
Thus, (5) Being a conservative is cool.
(2) is questionable (one might edit a magazine like Vice in order to create a perception of coolness in order to compensate for a deep lack), but let's grant it.
(3) Is a problem if we interpret it as implying that being a conservative is cool just in virtue of the nature of conservatism, instead in virtue of the relationship between conservatism and other attributes, such as having an obscure record collection, or looking effortlessly fly. All we're really getting here is that conservatism does not necessarily rule out being cool.
(3) has deeper problems still. It's false. There is nothing less cool than visibly trying to be cool. Ascribing to oneself manifestly uncool properties, like being conservative, mitigates the perception that one is trying to be cool, and therefore enhances one's coolness. So the cool are very likely to describe themselves as having uncool properties, such as being conservative. This fact leads to the necessity of distinguishing between those that say that they are conservative and those that are. To establish that it may be cool to say that one is conservative does not establish that it is cool to actually be conservative.
Now, I believe the author implies that she is cool, although she is cool enough not to explicitly admit to her self-estimate. And she appears earnest in her self-description as conservative. She has gone so far as to write an essay on how it is cool to be conservative in a widely-read publication, which is evidence of earnestness. So let's take for granted that Dmitri believes in good faith that she is conservative. There are several possibilities here.
(A) She is mistaken in her belief and is not conservative, but is in fact cool.
(B) She is mistaken, but is not cool.
(C) She is not mistaken, and is cool.
(D) She is not mistaken, and is not cool.
On the basis of my slim knowledge of Ms. Dmitri, I will assume that she is cool, limiting myself to options (A) and (C).
To establish (A) we'd need to know what it is to be conservative. I believe there is much confusion here, and that conservative is a two-place, not one-place, predicate. One is conservative about ______, where the blank is to be filled in by some domain of life such as marriage, drugs, dress, constitutional interpretation, architecture, etc. If one is conservative about almost every domain, it may make sense to say that one is conservative simpliciter. But someone who is conservative in this unrestricted sense is necessarily not cool. If Ms. Dmitri thinks she is conservative in the unrestricted sense, then she is mistaken. But probably she does not believe that she is John Derbyshire, give or take a few secondary sexual characteristics. So (C) is most likely correct, given the restricted interpretation.
It is possible for someone like McGinnes to be both cool and conservative only if we interpret conservative in the restricted, domain-relative sense. One may be conservative about, say, the interpretation of rights, free-markets, and affirmative action programs, but decidely not about porn, music, and gender role.
But then we might suspect that McGinnes, or Dmitri, is not cool in virtue of of being conservative, but cool in virtue of NOT being conservative about the domains most relevant to being cool. But look. Then it's possible that I am both cool (just imagine) and conservative on the restricted interpretation, despite the fact that I am pains to not describe myself as conservative.
The thesis that it is cool to be conservative is interesting only because it is counterintuitive given the unrestricted interpretation of conservative. But if the author of an article like Dmitri's then deploys the restricted interpretation in order to successful identify some self-avowed conservatives who actually are cool, then the thesis becomes fairly trivial.
To get a taste of the triviality, notice that on the restricted interpretation it's possible to have two people who are both conservative in this sense, but who agree about nothing whatsoever.
The Argument from college (little 'c') Republicans
(i) More college students identify themselves as Republicans than as Democrats
(ii) Large percentages of college students won't do something unless there is a common perception that it is cool.
So, (iii) If a large percentage of college students identify as Republican, then there is a common perception that it is cool to be Republican.
(iv) There would be no such common perception unless it was true.
(v) Republicans are ipso facto conservative.
Therefore, (vi) It is cool to be conservative.
I think (iv) is just obviously false. The vast majority of college students have no or almost no cooldar, which is why so many try to be cool, yet fail so miserably, usually simply in virtue of trying. Just as one may infer the awfulness of the Dave Matthews Band on the basis of their popularity with college audiences, a consensus among college students that conservatism was cool, would constitute almost overwhelming evidence that it is not. The fact that students have had it up to here with the moralizing liberal self-love of the professoriate, establishes nothing whatsoever about the coolness of reaction.
(v) is also clearly false. Being Republican and being conservative are independent properties. And this is exactly what makes it possible to jump around in the category of Republicans in the service of an argument to the coolness of conservatism. A Venn diagram will refute this argument:
(a) Most Republicans are conservatives.
(b) Some Republicans are cool.
Thus, (c) some conservatives are cool.
The cool Republicans may well be those who are not conservative.
The Argument from College (big 'c') Republicans
“Since 1999, the College Republican National Committee has tripled its membership and now holds claim to 1,150 chapters, with more than 1,000 student coordinators on campuses nationwide.”
Same analysis as above. What this has to do with coolness is anybody's guess. Julian suggests that Millenials are neo-fascist nationalists, which is not cool. Maybe that explains it.
The argument from the coolness of the The Criterion
(I)The editorial board of The Criterion are conservative.
(II) The board of The Criterion are “fashion-conscious provocateurs who inject dirty humor and an in-your-face attitude into the pages of their publication”
(III) It is cool to be a fashion-conscious provocateur, as is the expression of dirty humor and an in-your-face attitude.
So, (IV) The board of the Criterion is cool.
Thus, (V) There are cool conservatives.
This argument very clearly implies that dirty humor and an in-your-face attitude account for the cool of The Criterion. But these attributes are unconservative in their domains. As is being “fashion-conscious” for a man who is conservative about masculinity. The argument gets us no further than we were.
So, I think the best we can get out of Dmitri's analysis is that it is possible to be both cool and conservative, assuming that we interpret conservative in a limited, and domain-specific way. But this makes the argument trivial. Saying that you are conservative is clearly not inconsistent with being cool, because saying that you are conservative is an excellent way of pretending to not be cool, which is cool-conducive. Also, more college students are becoming Republicans, for some reason.
The rhetorical thrust of Dmitri's essay is that if you were worried about it, it's OK to identify yourself as Republican or conservative, because it's now cool. This idea (dare I say “meme”) seems to be getting around, and some people may even believe it. But it's probably self-defeating. The reason cool is elusive is that it flees as soon as too many people think they can see it and be it. The question is whether Dmitri cares more about cool or conservatism. If it's the latter, then she'll be happy to use the rhetoric of cool to nudge a few rubes into pulling the lever for conservatives, even if it ensures that conservatism will not in fact be cool.
Anyway, gotta go: Star Trek's on.

Author: Will Wilkinson

Vice President for Research at the Niskanen Center

40 thoughts

  1. Hmm. It’s not that Palin holds Republican views; it’s that McCain is trying to package her as this renegade reformer when she manifestly is not. (In the same way that Obama clearly is not, by the way.) He is trying to capitalize on her newness to de-Republicanize the ticket in a year when the brand is badly tarnished. That’s the rhetorical debate going on here, and why liberals are making so much noise on the point.
    Also, the “don’t know” factor you cite is a big one. It’s clear that McCain knows precious little more about Palin than you or I do. I agree with you on the “qualifications” point, but usually one element of being “qualified” is that folks have some sense of who you are, what you stand for, and what you believe. All of that is still essentially known about Palin at this point.

  2. One aspect of qualifications is knowledge and interest in the issues that are pertinent to your job. Palin hasn’t really show that. Although she has shown interest in getting up to speed on some issues, I don’t think the vice-presidency of the united states is a job you can cram for.

  3. First of all, Will should be on the talking head shows because he is honest and his comments actually add something to the debate, thus differentiating him from the other 99% of talking heads on TV.
    Second, this post is spot on. I have two quibbles, though. Re Palin – As someone who followed her career long before anyone knew who she was, I actually think she has a lot to recommend her as a real reformer. I am not claiming sainthood for her or anything like that, but Alaskans are appreciative of her results in the same way Virginians were of Mark Warner’s. They are both political oddities in that they actually got some things done. Besides, I’d take anybody over the current crop in Washington in either party. Re McCain – while I think you are correct in your assessment, I am voting for him anyway (albeit reluctantly).
    I was upset when Republicans won both the White House and Congress in 2000. I knew it would be a disaster and I said so at the time; I feel vindicated today. I vowed to always vote for the presidential candidate of the party least likely to control Congress.
    I am always surprised no one really talks about this.

  4. Well, if we didn’t know, what Kevin said. But we do know from (among other sources) her interview with Gibson that she doesn’t have the faintest clue about national politics or foreign policy; she was like a moderately bright high school freshman thrown into a college seminar on political science without having read any of the books. If that awesoming embarrassment doesn’t tell you what you need to know about her present qualifications for the gig, what on earth would?

  5. I read your blog, Will. I needn’t imbue you, therefore, with my ideological leanings. I live in LA. Everywhere I go, I see Obama bumper stickers, Obama lawn signs, Obama Soviet-style t-shirts and the words “Hope” and “Change” plastered up ubiquitously as stop signs. Needless to say at social events, any mention of capitalism or the market is accompanied by a sneer, or “Have you read The Shock Doctrine yet?”. I am definitely not voting for McCain. But voting for Obama would leave a most unpleasant taste in my mouth. California is definitely going to Barack. I agree with you that he is more competent than McCain, but surely competence as an executive is no virtue per se.

  6. Bill Gardner – Halifax, Nova Scotia – A health care researcher and a child and quantitative psychologist by training. I am an American living in Canada and am Professor of Paediatrics, Obstetrics & Gynaecology, and Community Health & Epidemiology at Dalhousie University; and Professor of Pediatrics, Psychology, and Psychiatry at The Ohio State University. I also blog at The Incidental Economist (theincidentaleconomist.com) and you can follow me @Bill_Gardner on Twitter.
    Bill Gardner says:

    “Joe Biden is qualified to be president in much the same way McCain is; he is a lifelong asshole and American senator.”
    My nomination for Tyler’s best sentence of the day.

  7. In terms of temper and personality Obama is a good choice, however doesn’t ones political ideology matter even more so?
    In that sense, Obama is very nearly an explicit socialist. Hardly comforting and yet shockingly not that far removed from the atrocious John McCain.
    Sarah Palin’s political ideology is unclear and that is what I find makes her unqualified to be a vice-president. That, to me, is the only purpose that governing experience actually has – it allows the voter to gain a sense as to the political goals and values of a politician. Isn’t that more relevant and consequential than temperament?

  8. Come on. Obama is not very nearly a socialist. He is a relatively liberal American Senator, which puts him to the economic right of pretty much the entire world. I would rather have McCain’s economic team, but Jason Furman does not terrify me.

    1. I would say that Obama’s health plan of massive government oversight, regulation and mandatory, subsidized health insurance very nearly nationalizes 15% of the entire U.S. economy.
      Not to mention his New Deal lust and more frighteningly, his “social justice” vision of government. Recall how closely he worked with ACORN and Clinton empowered CRA update.
      That might not quite be Marx’s vision but it is the product of Obama’s fundamental disregard for private property rights. Once those go, then socialism isn’t that far removed. So, while it may be a bit of hperbole to call him a socialist, it isn’t so far removed from the truth that it warrants a dismissive reply.
      That being said, for an empty shirt like GWB, the advisors are of huge concern but for a man like Sen. Obama, it matters little to me. He has a vision of the world and it’s that vision that troubles me…

  9. Nor, importantly, does Furman come chained to a guy who insists on starting a nuclear pissing contest with Russia.
    As for the socialism angle, I’m still waiting to hear Obama call for nationalizing GM. It’s not like they could get a whole lot worse, right?

  10. Mr. Wilkinson:
    I very much enjly your posts, but have to disagree with this one. What knowledge do you have about Obama not being on the far left? Has he ever championed anything in the Illinois Senate or US Senate that would shrink govt, that promoted capitalism? Am I just being overcome by soundbites or is he not one of the 2 or 3 most left-wing senators?
    You say he is a man of remarkable competence. But what has he actually achieved besides the next highest office? Can you please elaborate (if you have the time) on what information led you to these conclusions?

    1. WJ,
      Obama has managed a pretty effective presidential campaign, and that’s no small executive feat.
      But, the fact that he may be a competent executive and successful at achieving his goals seems to be a bad thing to those of us who disapprove of many of his goals.
      So, I agree with Mansterdad above and will be rooting for gridlock.
      I’d rather see McCain fail to achieve his goals than see Obama succeed with his.

      1. To GilM:
        Thank you for your comment. I certainly will not disagree with your opinion that Obama has run an effective presidential campaign. It just seems a little bit of circular reasoning to say running for president makes you capable of being president.
        I still wonder what Obama has actually accomplished that would make him be a man of remarkable competence. Making to a US Senator is no trivial matter obviously, but it just doesn’t seem as that is achieving something besides a promotion. I wonder what he has done to deserve promotion.
        Finally, am I wrong in my opinion that his previous positions and votes make him one of the 2 or 3 most liberal US Senators?

      2. What does anybody need to have done to deserve to be President?
        I think you need to be able to convince a plurality of people (given the electoral system, etc.) that they can be more comfortable (or less uncomfortable) with you as cheif executive. I don’t really think that there’s any list of qualifications that are necessary and sufficient to guarantee a qualified president.
        As for Obama’s liberalness…I think that there are various organizations that rank them differently, based on differently chosen key votes. I don’t think there’s a definitive ranking, but it’s probably fair to say that he’s among the most left-liberal in the Senate.
        But, as Will indicates, that doesn’t make him a socialist. Just an advocate of pretty bad policies.
        McCain is also an advocate of pretty bad policies, and whether he’s worse depends on how you rank the differences.

  11. When people say Palin is not qualified, I think there is some credentialist elitism going on in many cases. “She only has a B.A. from a non-prestigious school? How stupid must she be?”

    1. You won’t hear that from me… I think she’s unqualified simply because she hasn’t been in office long enough to determine her political ideology nor has she declared it explicitly. I don’t care if even has a degree if her ideas are sound… degrees themselves have no intrinsic worth.

  12. “But how would you know when everyone is falling over themselves to characterize her to their stupid team’s advantage? Politics makes people dull and dishonest. The politicians, too.”
    Well, exactly. And Sarah Palin is as much part of that equation as anyone else. Her speeches have been red meat for conservative audiences, but also deliberately tweaked liberals/dems to get under their skins. They, in turn, react by finding anything and everything to throw back at her. And yes, they play the same game. It’s a little disingenuous to pull one politician out of the mix and cry foul or sexism or whatever. They’re all part of the same vicious cycle. They know exactly what they’re doing. None of this is to excuse any of it, but what do you expect? I’d love to see a different game, say what Obama started out as, but I’m not holding my breath.

  13. How are gainfully employed being this obtuse?
    Seriously. If there’s a retard olympics, you come in last.
    I’m a libertarian who’ll vote for a socialist!
    Those degrees from TTT have served you well.

  14. Deon Ballard – I am a writer and editor for middleware and application development content for the marketing department at Red Hat. Previously, I was a technical writer and strategist for middleware, cloud, security, and management software.
    Ella says:

    Obama strikes you as central-casting picture of an executive? For serious? I don’t like him and I’m not voting for him (nor McCain, either), so take my opinion for what it’s worth, but Obama strikes me as the boss’s son with the easy promotion. Not really management material otherwise.

  15. Obama is not nearly a socialist? Okay, well, I agree, he’s not a socialist in the “purist” sense that he’s not advocating government seizure of industry or the abolition of private property (at least not outright). But you do know there’s a panoply of varieties of socialism (cf. Georg Lichtheim’s book, _Marxism: an Historical and Critical Study_, which gives a nice history and overview: http://tinyurl.com/4mkzsl , especially of European social democracy under Bernstein, the tradition to which Saul Alinsky — and thus Obama — is attached). Essentially government allowing us to keep whatever property we may currently have is the normative assumption/essence behind our death and income taxes. That is socialistic.
    See here as well for an excellent series of articles published at Investors Business Daily. High-toned Rawlsekian analysis it is not. Just dirty unvarnished facts, but valuable nonetheless: The Audacity of Socialism: a Series: http://www.ibdeditorials.com/series8.aspx

  16. Essentially government allowing us to keep whatever property we may currently have is the normative assumption/essence behind our death and income taxes. That is socialistic.

    But this makes Obama just as much of a socialist as McCain, in which case calling Obama a socialist as a reason to vote for McCain is simply absurd. I don’t have a problem with consistent libertarians who refuse to vote for either major party candidate calling Obama a socialist; I do have a problem with prospective Republican voters doing so.

  17. Micha- thanks for your reply. In the strict sense, yeah, you’re correct. Obama and McCain share a common starting point in that they are both progressives (John McCain’s hero after all is TR). Like all progressives, whether they’re actually aware of it consciously or not, they deny that human beings qua human beings actually own themselves and thus deny, in any real sense, any true ownership in property. The policy upshot is that whatever rights we have are not inalienable; whatever government gives, government can just as easily take away. (A subject I know is dear to Will’s heart, which he puts down as a curious chestnut of mine — my “plucking of the one-string” as I recall). This is another way of saying that rights cease to be natural and become socialized. This is how Leftists and not a few libertarians essentially view rights.
    Be that as it may, McCain’s “soul” and disposition is of a conservative sort — despite how “ungrounded” it may be in many respects — and so I’m quite confident he’d be far more chary than, say, Obama, in how far he’s willing to push that socialization of rights (confiscatory levels of taxation; appointing jurists who would further implement international law into the Constitution; the withering away of our national sovereignty, etc.). But, yes, I think you’re right in principle — there’s no formal reason why McCain can’t go whole-hog and be as much of a profligate, reckless jackass as Obama and his assorted pseudo-Marxist phucks.

  18. Some thoughts: Every contractarian I can think of (at this very minute) believes in some version of Locke’s “enough and as good” proviso, or believes that it’s irrelevant because, e.g., the ‘contractarian’ in question is also a Rousseauean. I think the intuition standing behind the Lockean proviso is that people are in some sense entitled to live self-directed lives. Perhaps it would be better to say that the proviso is one way in which liberalism’s attachment to autonomy reveals itself. I take it this is just another expression of the liberal requirement of a meaningful opportunity to exit, which liberalism requires because you have a right not to have your life chances determined, and compromised, by a state or a social hierarchy that you find fundamentally objectionable. I think that this attachment commits liberals to hold someone’s, or some organization’s, appropriating literally everything impermissible. To borrow a famous example, that’s why you can’t appropriate all of Mars just by going there and building a house — other people will probably want to move there, too. (But imagine that you knew for certain that you were the only person who wanted to move to Mars?)
    But why is appropriating the whole Earth impermissible? It’s not because it’s bad to own planets — nobody has ever said that the problem with global government, tyrannical or otherwise, would be that it’s a government with jurisdiction over an Earth-shaped object. It’s that there’s no possibility of exit; the life-chances of every man, woman, and child would be determined by a political order from which there is no escape. But a ban on total appropriation of that kind is only contingent — if people could get to Mars reasonably cheaply and, once there, have reasonable chances of living good lives, then the objection changes. (Bear in mind that “reasonably cheaply” and “reasonable chances” do a lot of work in that sentence.) You’d have to point out some other way in which the global appropriator, or global government, was illiberal. If it happened to be technologically impossible for large numbers to leave the Earth, then any global government would have to provide some substitute for the right of exist — e.g., by adopting an extraordinarily libertarian attitude towards regulation, or (and these are by no means exclusive) providing generous welfare benefits and a guaranteed minimum income to alleviate the burden of work and political or economic participation for objectors — or cede some territory to John Wayne types who want to make it on their own.
    Now let’s transition to the would that we have, and ask what other contingent facts can condition a state’s obligations toward recalcitrants? If the only three countries in the world are the United States, Nazi Germany, and the Soviet Union, the United States can’t justify deviations from the liberal model by pointing to the right of exit. Does the world we have differ from that world qualitatively or only quantitatively? Life in Western Europe is awfully good, but if the crucial value is autonomy as it’s expressed in the political order to which one subjects herself, that is an imperfect answer — and there are a lot of libertarians who would say it’s not an answer at all. To run right to the most extreme (but most fun!) examples, until we get seasteading or space colonies, or really radical political change, there’s just nowhere that crazy anarchocapitalists or Trotskyites can go where they won’t also object very strongly to the political system.
    The right of exit is more complicated than is commonly supposed, and our assessment of its justice is necessarily based a huge number of contingencies — in a way that, for example, is not true of the right of entry, which is much simpler.

  19. Spurious argument here, Will:
    “I’ve noticed that Arnold complains a lot about Montgomery Country, MD, but as far as I know hasn’t moved. What’s more, the U.S. won’t keep him from leaving, and there are many other political jurisdictions that would receive him.”
    There are other factors besides political preference that determine a person’s choice of where to live. I first encountered this argument by a guy who was criticizing David Friedman’s anarchist views because Friedman lives in California. The guy argued that this undermined Friedman’s positions. But Friedman lives there because he works at UCSD, not because he prefers Californian policy.
    My own simple analogy: you go out to a bar and the music is way too loud and the drinks are overpriced. You’re there because your romantic interest invited you there. Are you a hypocrite if you say how much better the bar would be if it played better music and charged reasonable prices?

    1. I do think it’s hypocritical for those who advocate socialist policies in the US to scoff at moving to another country that’s more in-line with their socialist wishes.
      Those in the US who want less socialism don’t have those same choices.

  20. Tim Worstall – Tim Worstall is a Senior Fellow at the Adam Smith Institute in London, a freelance writer whose work has appeared in the WSJ, The Times, Daily Telegraph, The Register, Forbes online and a number of other places. He is also in his day job an expert in the rare earth metal, scandium. A strange thing to be but someone has to be and in this flavour of our universe Worstall is it. He apologises in advance for his Englishness and the manner in which his spelling will waver from accepted American standards at times.
    timworstall says:

    “What’s more, the U.S. won’t keep him from leaving, and there are many other political jurisdictions that would receive him.”
    Worth noting how difficult it actually is to exit the US polity.
    For everyone else, simply leave the country. Tax, for example, is paid on your country of residence.
    Not for a US citizen. You pay Uncle Sam wherever your residence is in the world. If the local polity charges you less than U Sam you pony up the difference to Wash DC.
    Actualy getting rid of your citizenship is possible but not wasy. The IRS is likely to demand all the tax you would have paid in the next decade as the price of letting you go.
    McMegan did a good piece on all this some time ago. But getting out of the US polity is more difficult than getting out of just about any other.
    Even Cuba doesn’t try to tax you if you do make it to Miami Beach.

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