Opening night of the Democratic National Convention ended with a performance of Buffalo Springfield’s “For What it’s Worth” by Billy Porter, accompanied on guitar by Stephen Stills. The intention was clear: to invoke the rebellious spirit of the 1960’s and package it as a multigenerational call to action from both the old white man who wrote the song and the openly gay African American superstar singing lead vocals. The performance earned rave reviews from the liberal Twitterverse and various mainstream publications, but was greeted less warmly by the accounts I tend to follow. Call me a curmudgeonly disgruntled commie if you must - you certainly wouldn’t be the first to do so. But this performance crystallized for me a realization that I had actually come to four years ago during the 2016 campaign, but couldn’t quite articulate at the time: liberals just aren’t cool anymore.
When Barack Obama introduced himself to the country at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, he was cool. When he decided to run for president in 2008, that was really cool. What was it that made Barack Obama so cool? Well, the same thing that makes anything cool - he was new, he was fresh, and he was against the status quo. He was running to be the first Black president, he was running against the Bush-era wars, and he was running against the Clintonian establishment within his own party. His campaign was The Beatles on Ed Sullivan; Dylan at Newport; Hendrix at Woodstock. Obama not only commanded our attention, he sparked our curiosity. He filled us with an excitement that we were heading into uncharted waters. Inspired by this cool new thing, the American people rallied around his campaign and elected him President by a landslide margin.
So what was it in 2016 that was so “uncool” about the Hillary campaign? She had all the celebrity endorsements Obama had. She, like Obama, had the trailblazer factor going for her (I’d argue with the giant asterisk that her husband was the President first and that she rose to prominence by covering up his various alleged sex crimes, but okay). She had Jay-Z, Beyonce, Lin Manuel Miranda, and Bruce Springsteen stumping for her on the campaign trail. What she lacked, however, was the novelty and authenticity to successfully pull off a “cool” campaign. Despite the theatricality of her convention, her Sara Bareilles theme songs, and her star-studded fundraisers, we knew that underneath it all was the same old, stale, Democratic Party establishment. We knew this both because Obama himself turned out to be nothing more than that after all was said and done, and that Hillary was the exact establishment machine politics avatar who we rallied against eight years prior on Obama’s behalf.
You see, to be cool, you have to be new, fresh, and exciting, and people have to believe that you’re for real. And of course, there’s nothing less cool than trying to be cool when you’re not. If you’re uncool, own it, and you’ll still be cooler than the uncool who try to act cool. Remember when Tom Steyer danced onstage with Juvenile at one of his last campaign events? That actually came off kind of cool, because he had the self awareness to know how uncool he looked, and he embraced it. It was fun. It was endearing. It worked. The Hillary Clinton 2016 campaign was like if Steyer had gone up there unironically, actually believing he could dance, and not expecting to be laughed at.
And now, in 2020, the Democrats are still suffering from delusions of coolness. They’re the kid who kept bringing his Pokemon cards to school long after the fad had passed. The party, along with their liberal base, doesn’t understand that the public sees through their cheap façade of coolness. So when Billy Porter sings a contemporary rendition of a classic ‘60’s anti-war, anti-police protest song about young people rebelling against the establishment, Blue MAGA eats it up. How cool, they think. What?! You didn’t think that was cool?! OMG, that was AMAZING!!!
It is apparently of no import whatsoever to these airheads that their party is not anti-war, not anti-cop, not down with young people, and they are the establishment. In fact, the lyric “Young people speaking their minds, getting so much resistance from behind” is a perfect summation of the 2020 Democratic primary, where the young people’s candidate of choice was systematically conspired against by a retrograde political and pundit class, and choked out of the race by the older generations who voted overwhelmingly in alignment with the establishment’s preference. This context, it seems, is completely irrelevant to the vapid, superficial rank and file liberal who’s been gushing over this music video since it aired.
The irony, however, that such a performance would be so widely praised by a political party with no credibility on any of the issues that songs like “For What It’s Worth” actually represent, is not lost on anyone who isn’t already in the tank for Joe Biden and the Democrats. To the rest of us, it just plays awkward. Uncomfortable. Unseemly. And definitely uncool. Americans en masse, I promise, would much rather watch Tom Steyer intentionally make an ass of himself than stomach more of this hollow, virtue signaling, pseudo-serious propaganda.
So how do Democrats get their mojo back? How to they become cool again? I’m not sure they can. In 2016, Bernie was cool. He was authentic, and he was new. In 2020, he was a little less cool; just as authentic, sure, but not as new. Who on the Democratic bench represents something different and real? No one who the party leadership will allow to be their nominee, that’s for sure.
Thankfully for them, Trump has a similar problem this cycle. In 2016, his was the punk rock campaign. He was a rebel within his own party. He had Wikileaks dropping juicy oppo-research bombshells on his opponent. He had a motley crew of eccentric evil geniuses like Alex Jones, Roger Stone, and Steve Bannon in his corner. This time, he’s the party darling, Julian Assange has been neutralized, InfoWars has been censored, Roger Stone got pinched, and he’s got a nameless, faceless campaign staff of run of-the-mill Republican operatives - all very uncool by comparison.
So yes, Democrats have a shot to win this thing, but as a general rule of thumb, the least cool candidate in the race usually loses. And so, if they want to close strong at their convention, perhaps the best thing they can do at this point is to book a DJ, and call Tom Steyer.