The Democrats are about to kick-off their fashion show for picking their next presidential candidate, so the experts are trying to set the tone for the season. The fashion show is a good analogy at this stage. Designers don’t always come up with new styles that work with the public, so they try different things, hoping for one or two that work. They hope to come up with something that catches the attention of a taste-maker, like a Hollywood starlet, then all of a sudden they have a hit with the public.
Steve Jobs figured this out the second time around with Apple. It was not about cutting edge technology or making a better product. That was a field with too many big money smart players. His game was going to be as trend setter and taste-maker. He tailored the company to be the symbol of the smart set, the people who fashion themselves a cut above the masses. These are the people who determine the latest styles. The lowly music player soon became a fashion and cultural statement.
Politics often works the same way. In 1992, Bill Clinton won the presidency largely on the cool factor. He was young, as far as Baby Boomers were concerned. He was also hip and cool. He played the sax on TV wearing sunglasses! Voting for Clinton became a fashion statement for the Left. Tony Blair played the same game in Britain with the “Cool Britannica” stuff. He was young and new and the future of Britain, despite being the man, who would usher in the end of Britain as an English country.
Politics and aesthetics are tightly wound together in any form of democracy, as selecting people for elected office is a popularity contest. The winner of the beauty pageant is not objectively better in some way than the others. She just has some way of appealing to the voters in the moment. The iPod was not some great innovation or invention. It just looked cool to the right people at the right time and became the standard for music players. Barak Obama was not a great statesman. He was just the right style at the time.
It’s not just left-wing politics in America that relies on an aesthetic to carry it forward with its supporters. In 1976 Ronald Reagan lost to the dour Gerald Ford in the Republican primary. The same Reagan won in 1980 and ushered in a great cultural revival called the Reagan Revolution. In 1976 men had sideburns and wore garish leisure suits. In 1986, men wore traditional men’s suits, bathed every day and kept themselves properly groomed. The political revolution had an aesthetic.
This has always been true in the era of liberal democracy. The two great movements of the early 20th century, fascism and Bolshevism, had distinct aesthetics. The quintessential communist a century ago was a shabby looking cosmopolitan, with round spectacles and a few too many phobias. In contrast, the quintessential fascist was the beer drinking bourgeoisie hooligan, who disdained books in favor of the Faustian existence. Both sides were fighting over an aesthetic, as much as for power.
This is an important thing to understand about politics in any age, but especially in this highly democratic age. It’s about flattery, as much as anything. The people flocking to your banner do so because it validates an opinion of themselves. This piece in the Atlantic, celebrating Elizabeth Warren and Pete Buttigieg is a good example. The intended audience for that article are the sort of people, who want to belief their politics are controlled by facts and reason, rather than superstition and emotion.
The fact that both Warren and Buttigieg are pseudo-intellectual posers is not only not a liability, but it is an asset. The people they seek to attract are themselves supercilious dilettantes and poseurs. They get their opinions from the MSNBC and NPR, while claiming to be avid readers of the New York Times. These are the people who decorate their apartments with books they never read. Around a real intellectual, they are made to feel inferior, but around Warren or Buttigieg they are validated.
The argument that the democrats are heavily reliant on the super educated is what’s called flattering the reader. Democrats rely on blacks, foreigners and white people too dumb to realize they are being destroyed. That is the base of the party now. Warren and Buttigieg know they have no shot at those voters, so they hope to win the beautiful people in the party. They may not connect with the rank and file, but they can appeal to the trend setters, who have the tools to convert that into popular appeal.
Another way to see the entanglement of politics and aesthetics is look at the street battles between the alt-right and Antifa. One side kitted themselves out as preppy suburban fascists. The other side was a comical mélange of Italian Black Shirts and skateboard park anarchists. Neither side had a coherent, positive identity, so they cherry-picked styles and symbols from past movements. They could just as easily have faced off with one side in leisure suits and the other side wearing spats.
In fact, what characterizes this period is the lack of a political aesthetic that is authentic and original. This is an interregnum, where the old order is slowly giving way, but a new order has yet to form. More precisely, the battles lines between the contestants for a new order have yet to form. Instead, it is one side protecting the status quo and one side dissatisfied with it. The former has no reason to defend the old order, other than habit, while the latter has no conception of what should come next.
If there is to be a coherent political and social movement rise out of the dissident right, it will have to be more than narrow political arguments and meta-political commentary on social media. It will need a look that signals to the curious that it is a movement with a future for itself and its adherents. Just as men in traditional suits signaled a break from the 1970’s and the radical chic of the New Left, the new aesthetic will have to signal a break from the old political paradigm and the old Progressive morality.
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