The new scolds: why liberalism stopped being cool

Tim Urban of the hugely popular site Wait But Why wrote a book, What’s Our Problem. The word “our” immediately suggests both sides share some blame. Even if the author’s positions on most, if not all, major social issues are left-wing, a major part of his brand is not decisively taking sides, but laying the blame on both tribes. But if your positions on issues generally leans more left than right, then it logically follows that even if both sides are wrong to some extent, that one side is still closer to being ‘correct’ than the other. Center-left is still left.

He knows, correctly, that the brand of liberalism is damaged. He would lose a good chunk of his followers, and his credibility would take a hit among anyone who is not already of the left. Or one has to include the disclaimer that they are of the classical or ‘old school’ variety of liberalism, not the modern ‘left’.

Even as recently as 2020 or so, openly being a liberal used to actually be cool and not something to hide or be ashamed of. Bill Clinton exuded coolness and hipness, famously playing “Heartbreak Hotel” on his saxophone on The Arsenio Hall Show in 1992. His scandals only seemed to reinforce this cool image against his un-hip detractors and opponents. Even during the Lewinsky scandal, Clinton polled well, leaving office with almost 60% approval ratings.

Liberalism signified openness and optimism to technology and fullest extent of human potential and ingenuity to make the world a better place, whether it was the world wide web, biotechnology, or sequencing the human genome. Bill Clinton and Al Gore were the duo to bring about this new, more interconnected, prosperous world.

The disgrace of George W. Bush, who left office with just a 28% approval rating, half of that of his predecessor on the back of the Iraq War quagmire, Katrina, and the financial crisis, among other blunders, only strengthened the the brand of liberalism. His successor, Obama, like Clinton, was also popular and signified hope and optimism; indeed, his campaign slogan was ‘hope and change.’ This continued in 2012, too.

The ‘occupy movement’, in 2011, marked a new sort of radicalism of the American left, which harkened back to the Seattle anti-WTO protests of 1999. OWS idealists, Ron Paul hopefuls, and Obama voters were all cut from the same sort of milieu of a youth that sought an alternative to the Bush-era of wars, crony capitalism, and the ‘surveillance state’.

But the silliness of the Ron Paul-era of internet libertarianism, circa 2005-2012, has given way to hyper-partisanship and polarization on either extreme. Cancel culture and wokeness changed everything, by forcing people to choose between one of two extremes, or some centrist middle ground. The stakes seem much higher now, and the disagreements much more personal and along identity, as opposed to something more generic or impersonal like ‘big government’, ‘big tobacco’, the ‘military industrial complex’, or ‘big business’.

Fast-forward to today and the boundless optimism of Clinton-era liberalism is all but dead. Rather than trying to bring new technologies and innovation to the fore, like stem cell research, the left seeks the cancellation or de-platforming of detractors, or looking for racism or oppression where none exists.

Rather than promoting individual freedom and free speech against the ‘moral majority’, like during the 90s, we have to ‘mask up’, ‘stay home’, and be mindfully vigilant to always use the correct pronouns or not assume binary gender identity. The left have become the new prudes and scolds, but under a banner of ‘social justice’ instead of ‘family values’.

Or the celebration and valorization of weakness and victimization, whether it’s trigger warnings, safe spaces, overuse of the word ‘problematic’, or teens and 20-somethings faking illnesses on social media for attention.

Thus, it’s not surprising that being a liberal has lost its coolness factor. Biden persistently polls at just 40%, well below Clinton or even Obama. Even against Trump, many liberals could scarcely muster the enthusiasm to support Hillary, who lost what should have been, or was promised, to be a landslide. It’s not so much that people were voting in support for Hillary or Biden, but against Trump.

Until YouTube in 2021 removed the visible downvotes, videos by BLM or promoting social justice causes tended to be heavily downvoted (or as some say ‘ratioed’). Who wants to be told how to behave, what to say or not to say, or have to walk on egg shells of being one misstep away from cancellation or suspension.