CULTURE & ARTS

Why Do American Voters Need Their Candidates To Seem ‘Cool’?

Hillary actually does her homework. What a nerd!

I have been thinking a lot about our aversion to tact in politics, and the irritating idea that tact and candor can’t coexist.

“Tact” implies effort and deliberation ― the antithesis of the quintessentially American value of being “cool.” “Cool” is offhanded, “cool” is devil-may-care. Cool is Han Solo. Cool is Don Draper. These figures don’t seem to care about much, but, their authors implore, they really, really do. It’s just that their caring isn’t effortful; it comes from some pure, inner source. Their tough exteriors were built up to guard rich inner lives, full of raw feelings not yet calloused and hardened by exposure to the cold, cold world.

“Cool” began as a counter-culture protest to keeping up with the Joneses. But, as with many counter-culture movements, it was quickly co-opted, and so we had cigarette ads and Coca-Cola billboards. Once anti-capitalist, “cool” ― insofar as it represented a foolhardy persona ― is now inextricably conflated with figures like Leonardo DiCaprio in “The Wolf of Wall Street,” figures like Donald J. Trump before his campaign revealed the dangerous extent of his heedlessness.

Our collective fiction that “cool” is necessarily a cloak (or biker jacket, or tailored suit) that’s worn to cover something more human is a tricky one, and Trump’s campaign reveals that.

Our collective fiction that “cool” is necessarily a cloak (or biker jacket, or tailored suit) that’s worn to cover something more human is a tricky one, and Trump’s campaign reveals that. It’s arguably why the revelation of his behind-closed-doors conversation with Billy Bush was a tipping point for some Republicans. A performance of recklessness might be OK; it could be taken to represent a protest of the old guard, which so many Americans feel slighted by. But actual recklessness? This isn’t the gleaming representation of “cool” pop culture sold us. This is something else.

When we say that Hillary Clinton lacks “charisma” ― ignoring the sexism embedded in this label, the expectation that she should be bubblier than her male counterparts ― what do we mean? “A Challenge For Obama’s Successor: Being a Casual, Cool President,” a Politico headline reads, suggesting that the challenge is a worthy one. Indeed, Obama is cool ― a search for “Obama cool” yields pictures of the president wearing sunglasses, playing basketball, smoking a cigarette. But why should that matter to us?

Clinton’s actions seem calculated, her speech affected. And this bothers her decriers, including those who would’ve preferred to see Bernie Sanders on the Democratic ticket. She’s rarely overtaken by emotion when she speaks, because most things she says have been considered carefully. She’s drawn comparisons to the fictional character Tracy Flick, a high school try-hard whose “flaw” is her preparedness. 

This, for voters who feel betrayed by the political system, indicates that her presidency would continue to fail them. Any representation of change or disruption, no matter how vague, appeals. A veneer of subversiveness ― of offhandedness, of “cool” ― would help her image, because it would indicate not that she’s more relatable but that she’s open to change.

But Clinton isn’t interested in projecting an interest in abstract change, which, frankly, is an adolescent battle cry, something that could be reduced to a chant or a poster. She’s interested in implementing the policies created with 30 years’ experience, and to implement them, she’s implied, she’ll need to employ not coolness, but tact.

‘Tactical’ and ‘tactful’ share a root for a reason: to be diplomatic, considerate, and sensitive, you must sometimes also be strategic.

”Tact” is of course the root of “tactical,” which implies strategy, but also manipulation. It’s also the root of “tactful,” which is synonymous with “diplomatic,” “considerate” and “sensitive.” “Tactical” and “tactful” share a root for a reason: To be diplomatic, considerate and sensitive, you must sometimes also be strategic.

This is what Clinton was getting at during the debate on Sunday, when she responded to a question about whether she harbored both public and private political beliefs. In her response, she alluded to Abraham Lincoln, who she said used different tactics depending on whom he was speaking with in order to help pass the 13th Amendment. Trump supporters bristled. What did this have to do with “Crooked Hillary,” whose work as an attorney once involved negotiating a plea bargain for a man accused of rape?

“I don’t like attorneys,” my mom told me offhandedly in a Facebook message, after I questioned her about disliking Clinton. It’s such a blanket dismissal that I have to believe it’s rooted in ideals, not actual relationships she’s had with attorneys (my childhood best friend and father-in-law are both lawyers, and my mom gets along well with both of them). What she meant by it, I think, is that lawyers’ work doesn’t always align with their personal morals.

My childhood best friend must prosecute people for marijuana possession, even though she’s personally fine with the use of the drug. She does this because she values the benefits provided by our legal system, even if she hopes some of its restrictions can change in the future. As a Catholic, she believes she wouldn’t get an abortion herself, but she doesn’t conflate that with her political belief in the separation of church and state. She contains multitudes: moral beliefs, political beliefs, personal beliefs. She does her best to reconcile them with one another, and when she can’t, she compartmentalizes. I respect this about her.

It’s an uncomfortable truth that a display of private beliefs doesn’t always result in progress. By calling on a past president who’s successfully contributed to progress this way, Hillary makes a compelling argument in her own favor. She may not seem “cool,” but her experience has granted her exposure to the art of “tact,” a skill we should learn to value in our politicians.

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