From cool to cringe: What's happened to American culture?

The climax of American Cool arrived with Barack Obama. Seemingly with-it, above the fray but in control, self-aware and talented, more or less black, Obama manifested every classical attribute of Cool. After his first win, the New York Times called him ‘the pop cultural colossus’. A mania for Obama swept the country, then the world. Shepard Fairey’s ‘Hope’ poster transformed him into a Warholesque pop-art icon. The only hold-outs from this faddish exuberance were original Sixties Cool kids with sleepless bullshit detectors. The late Christopher Hitchens noted that everyone thought Obama was an excellent speaker, while pointing out that nobody could remember anything the guy said. Joan Didion said that the solar myth of Obama was powered by ‘the spirit of a cargo cult’. She warned that ignorance was about to triumph over ironic detachment. Mostly the boomers, like everyone else, lapped it up. Rolling Stone, that generation’s crusty in-house mag, endorsed Obama twice in 2008.

The new president promised, nebulously, to transform America. Well, the wars continued and the economy stagnated. The cost of education and housing continued to sky-rocket. Rates of suicide, depression and loneliness ballooned. China lumbered into view as a competitor for world power, but we were told to look at Russia. With so much at stake, and so much going wrong, the official culture settled into cringing, risk-averse self-preservation, as in the last days of the Soviet Union. There was a marked increase in the number of public intellectuals who were in fact truncated specialists: economists and social scientists. Elites confirmed their biases through Davos-view authors like Steven Pinker and Malcolm Gladwell, or websites like Vox.

The unlucky millennials who came of age during the Great Recession desired security rather than glory. They were neurotic, indigent and as downwardly mobile as a meteorite.