Here are a few loose thoughts that have been bouncing around in my enormous head over the last couple of weeks.
Most everyone seems to believe that this election represents some sort of seismic shift . . . the end of one era and the beginning of a new, and very different one. But what, precisely, have we shifted to? What just happened?
You’ll be relieved to learn, I’ve got it all figured out.
Thread 1:Â Many of the publications I read have been talking for a couple of years now about how we have entered an age in which “design” is supreme. Consumers have begune to demand that everything they own andÂ use not only be functional but also beautiful, or even better, “cool.”
In fact, if forced to choose, most people will pick cool design over plain but superior functionality. Why? Because . . .
Thread 2:Â Today it’s all about image.
Sure, human beings have always been image conscious. But today image is cultivated and preserved the way previous generations obsessed over their reputations. In fact, image has replaced reputation as the single most treasured aspect of identity.
This is the rocket fuel feeding the countless hours spent on Facebook and its business-suit wearing cousin, LinkedIn, each day. It’s why I want an iPhone, and why my kids want me to have one, too. It will make me a cooler dad and having a cooler dad has positive spill-over effects on their images.
Thread 3:Â The hatred for George Bush by the movers and groovers of the popular culture over the last eight years defies logic or reason. The only way to understand Bush Derangement Syndrome is to recognize that President Bush was very uncool and made image-obsessed cool-kids in New York and L.A. feel a lot like my teenage daughters would feel if I showed up at their school wearing short-shorts, black knee-high dress socks with sandals, and one of those gigantic Nerf foam cowboy hats.
This is why Mr. Bush has been particularly loathsome to the Hollywood crowd. To a group of people who view the world entirely through the lens of popularity, a President who makes America unpopular in places like Cannes, London, and Barcelona has committed the unpardonable sin.
Thread Synthesis: In a era in which design and image are prized above all other qualities or virtues, the Democrats fielded the coolest candidate ever. Yes, Senator Obama won because he was cool, and because he was black, and because it’s cool to be black.
Google the terms “Obama” and “cool” and you’ll get more than 55 million hits. Near the top is this article in the serious and respected publication, The New Republic: “Cool We Can Believe In.” An excerpt:
His political narrative is not the fictional happenstance that placed Douglass Dilman into the Oval Office in Irving Wallace’s The Man and cast Chris Rock into the Blockbuster bargain bin in Head of State. Barack has more going for him than good timing, the proper complexion, and the appearance of marital fidelity. He’s got cool, and cool is the ultimate transcendent.
Meanwhile, John McCain was to cool whatever anti-matter is to matter. To make matters worse, McCain was trapped in a no-win situation. To counter the meme that he was too old, cranky and frail to be president, he was always trying to look all energetic and excited. But the hyper version of McCain was just creepy and weird.
The Mr. Positive-Energy version of McCain could suck all the cool out of a room in less than seven seconds.
It’s sad, but true. Coolness quotient may indeed have been the determining factor in the last four or five presidential elections. You have to go all the way back to Nixon’s landslide defeat of McGovern to find an election in which the argurably less-cool candidate won. Of course, in some elections, it’s not a matter of who has more cool but rather who is less of a dork.Â (In 2004, John Kerry’s over-the-top attempts at looking cool–being photographed windsurfing, snowboarding, saluting at the convention, etc–turned him into the biggest dork ever.)
At this moment, conservatives and Republicans (not always the same thing) are having weighty, cerebral debates about how win back the hearts and minds of the electorate. But I don’t think I’ve heard any discussion of how to get cooler. Not “hipper.” Cooler.
This is essentially what has brought the Tories in Great Britain back from the edge of extinction. Though both far from pristine in their conservatism, Tory leader David Cameron and London’s new mayor, Boris Johnson, both give off a fairly cool vibe.
It would be great if American elections were won or lost solely on the soundness of each party’s ideas. But, clearly, they’re not. And our entry into the age of design and image is complete.
The question is not “Who is right?” It is “Who enhances my image?”
I forgot the mention the news item that sparked this whole train-wreck of thought . . .
In the New York Times magazine today, an article gives us a glimpse of the moment back in December of 2006 in which Barack Obama decided he wanted to be President of the United States. He was in an intense discussion about his prospects when his wife, Michelle asked a pointed question:
Why do you want to do this?â€ she said directly. â€œWhat are hoping to uniquely accomplish, Barack?â€
Obama sat quietly for a moment, and everyone waited. â€œThis I know: When I raise my hand and take that oath of office, I think the world will look at us differently,â€ he said. â€œAnd millions of kids across this country will look at themselves differently.â€
There it is. Do you see it?Â . . . Image.
The founding rationale for this presidency was improving America’s image in the world, and the self-images of “millions of kids.”
I can certainly think of less noble rationales for seeking power.Â Financial gain, ego gratification, and whatever it was animating Bill Clinton’s ambition, to name a few.
But in these volatile and fierce times, I would find it more comforting if my new president had a stronger mission than to simply make us look good.