Crunchy Cons: The New Conservative Counterculture and its Return to Roots
by Rod Dreher
Three Rivers Press, 2006
You wouldn’t expect a cultural conservative to quote Henry Miller in referring to certain aspects of modern existence as “the air conditioned nightmare.” But then, challenging your expectations is one thing this book will likely do.As a sustainability activist there were many times when I turned the pages and nodded my head in strong agreement. In fact, there are many points of convergence between this newly identified brand of crunchy (slang for counter-cultural) conservative creature and the eco-hippie crunchy liberal and author Rod Dreher, former columnist for the National Review, readily acknowledges this. He discusses the social and environmental breakdown caused by a corporate consumerism run amok and the antidotes of simple, small, local, and organic that is in many ways indistinguishable from Greens. And he’s even peak oil aware, citing the inevitable decline of cheap and easily accessible crude as one of several events that will require an eventual reorientation of American society toward a more local and conservationist way of life.
But perhaps the biggest strength of Dreher’s book is that it characterizes the “crunchy con” phenomena as more of a sensibility than a set of doctrines to be followed to the letter. Using personal narratives as the primary means of conveying its basic essence, both his own and some of the hundreds of kindred spirits who responded to his initial essays identifying crunchy conservatism in the National Review Online, Dreher describes a rich and growing diversity among conservatives. In an interview with Godspy.com about the book, he explained:
We’ve gotten to a point in our politics today where the left and the right are too quick to slap a negative label on a challenging or unfamiliar idea, so they don’t have to deal with it. For too many of us on the right, calling something liberal and making fun of it is a way of avoiding having to question our own prejudices. It’s reactionary. Liberals are the same way — checking any new idea against their knee-jerk ideological sense, and rejecting it out of hand, often based on superficial reasons. There’s a lot of diversity that exists among conservatives that the media hasn’t reported on, in part because there’s an advantage to seeing us all as cartoons.
I could personally relate to this sentiment, having grown up in a family with class, social and political divisions where conventional doctrines and their resulting prejudices were constantly chewed up and spit out. My mother’s side of the family was upper middle-class, suburban, and conservative Republican while my father was descended from blue-collar country folks who were reliably Democratic. Consequently, independent inquiry and critical thinking were encouraged by parents who sought to escape the stale partisan limitations they grew up with. This probably explains why, even though I have developed sympathies for many left-leaning positions over the years, I have never felt completely comfortable with the more hardcore lefties I sometimes associate with. Self-righteousness, intellectual complacency and ideological rigidity lurk on both ends of the spectrum and this contributes little in the way of meaningful solutions to address the very real challenges we face as a society.
This appears to be understood intuitively by a significant segment of Americans who have become increasingly disenchanted with partisan and wing politics over the years. It is estimated that approximately half of eligible citizens simply don’t vote for the most part.Furthermore, a closer look at voting patterns combined with opinion surveys reveal that when partisan identity and rhetoric are peeled back there is actually wide agreement on values that, as David Korten notes in his Great Turning presentation, are not exclusively liberal or conservative values but universal human values: a desire for healthy families and communities, and a clean environment. Sociologist Paul Ray noted in his study, The New Political Compass, that from the mid-1990s and into the new millennium, more Americans were ceasing to fit into traditional right versus left categories. The issues they are most concerned about are the environment, globalization, health and education, violent conflict and corporations. Korten even references a poll where 90% of Americans agreed that big business has too much power.
The “crunchy con” ethos as outlined by those who share it is a reflection of this trend among those right of center, rooted in a conservatism that has largely been forgotten amidst the corporate apologist and neoconservative cacophony of the last several decades. Dreher spends a good portion of his book criticizing the holy reverence of the corporate-controlled “free market” that has hijacked modern conservatism, often at the expense of families, local communities, and the environment — three priorities conservatives like Russell Kirk, whom the author evokes as one of his biggest philosophical influences, used to place the foremost value on: “The fundamental difference between crunchy conservatives and mainstream conservatives has to do with the place of the free market in society. Crunchy cons believe in the free market as an imperfect but just and effective means to the good society. When the market harms the good society, it should be reined in.” (page 31).
In other words, an economic system is meant to be a means to a good society and not simply an end in itself. In one passage, Dreher tells of a meeting between the editorial board of the newspaper where he works in Dallas and US business leaders who were seeking support on a free trade agreement that was being negotiated. During the meeting he gave a critique of such agreements, detailing their negative effects on farmers and workers in both the US and other nations, but making the case from a conservative angle, including how these policies drive excessive immigration and social dislocation; but, of course, this didn’t prevent other pro-corporate conservatives from lambasting him. He goes on to provide numerous anecdotes of people who had their conservativeness called into question because they did not support big business over family or community. One man from Louisiana was sitting on the “smart growth” task force of his city when he realized that, as a conservative, he was expected to rubber stamp the big developers’ agenda. When he spoke out against a major corporation coming into town with deep pockets to crush local independent businesses with a stake in the community — activities he saw as antithetical to conservative values — he was denounced as a fraud by the developers’ attorney who was also a member of the task force.
Similarly, the experience of one hard-working conservative family whose fortunes were adversely affected by a recession a few years ago that left them no choice but to depend upon a state funded health insurance supplement for their children, a program GOP legislators later decided to cut funding for, illustrated the overriding priority among corporate Republicans for lower taxes, regardless of the human cost. This prompted Dreher to write a scathing column pointing out the GOP’s family values hypocrisy. The response from several fellow Republicans was to accuse Dreher of being a closet Socialist and the family in question — which they had never met — of being welfare leeches, even though they had been practically living their lives by the “family values” playbook with the father running a small business and the mother homeschooling the kids: “It was appalling to me, but quite instructive, to learn that for quite a few of my fellow Republicans, almost nothing matters more than keeping taxes low. If the economic structure we live under threatens the traditional family, well, too bad.” (page 47).
The economic structure that Dreher does champion includes elements of distributism and subsidiarity, is human scale and consists of independent local businesses and family farms. The chapter outlining the benefits of sustainable small farming is one of the most convincing and down-to-earth pieces I’ve read in support of the slow-local-organic food movement. Instead of just another wonky polemic pissing and moaning about all that’s wrong with our current industrialized system, he manages to capture the real benefits enjoyed by those living this alternative life such as the delightful bonds of community and the sensuousness of a connection to earth, its rhythms and its bounty:
Learning the names of the small farmers, and coming to appreciate what they do, is to reverse the sweeping process of alienation from the earth and from each other that the industrialized agriculture and mass production of foodstuff has wrought. To appreciate how your food got to your table, to know how much we depend on the labor of others for our sustenance, is to begin to reestablish community, and even a kind of humility in the face of our radical dependence on each other. (page 62).
Indeed a sense of the spiritual often underlies the crunchy con sensibility. As Dreher, a practicing orthodox Catholic, concedes, most crunchy cons’ philosophy of how to live is deeply rooted in religious conviction, a conviction that seeks to harmonize their practical lives with the spirit of their faith — what the author likes to refer to as sacramentalism. Some common elements of that faith, typically traditional Catholic or evangelical Christian, include exercising responsible stewardship over God’s creation and a reverence for something beyond the crass materialism that dominates modern culture.
It is the role of religion that is slippery here since the author admits it represents the main difference between crunchy cons and crunchy liberals as he asserts that crunchy liberals are usually secular in their worldview. While it may be true that many liberals are more skeptical of organized religion and are not as likely to observe religious doctrine, many liberals of the crunchy persuasion have a spiritual consciousness that guides their personal philosophy and politics, a holistic sense of the interconnectedness of the earth and the web of life it maintains. These constitute a big portion of what Dreher calls the “Permanent Things” that are worth preserving, although he often seems to mistakenly assume that only those who are strict observers of an organized religion can recognize and protect them.
Crunchy cons as described in the book value objective truth, or immutable and non-relative truths. They do not subscribe to what they perceive as the modern tendency of picking and choosing what truth is according to one’s personal whims — what Dreher likens to selecting from a menu at a cafeteria. It is this characteristic that they believe makes the over-consumptive and alienated culture possible because everything that matters can be on an individual’s own terms without requiring anything in return. There is some validity to this observation. Our culture is stuck in an immature phase of human development with its emphasis on acquisitiveness and immediate gratification — “it’s all about me” as the bumper sticker says. There are some objective truths in life that we have collectively ignored at our own peril such as living within our means and recognizing that we are interdependent on others and that many of our actions affect those others. These traditionalist conservatives are attracted to organized religion as a stable institution that can serve as a vehicle to impart the timeless wisdom necessary to preserve the “Permanent Things.”
A strong cultural vehicle is no doubt needed to pass on and reinforce these lessons but leaving no room for subjective truth can lead one to a dark place where dogma stultifies the spirit and the intellect. There are some areas of an individual’s life in which things are really subjective. I’m not sure, for instance, how Dreher thinks the art he appreciates would be possible without some freedom to pursue the subjective. The older tribal cultures of indigenous peoples, particularly in North America, enjoyed quite a bit of personal autonomy as some of our nation’s founders admiringly observed. But they also had a strong responsibility toward the community and the environment instilled in them, based on recognition of the objective truths mentioned above. So it is possible, as well as necessary, to have a balance between these two aspects of truth.
Interestingly enough, crunchy conservatives and crunchy liberals often rub elbows because they both tend to shun the industrialized and materialist excesses of modern culture in favor of a more slow and organic existence that is conducive to reflection and savoring the simple but beautiful pleasures of nature and relationships. Though they may have their cultural differences as outlined above they often manage to live in relatively peaceful co-existence. This is a far cry from the divide-and-conquer red-blue paradigm that has been foisted on us by elite pundits and the corporate media. Dreher’s book, to some degree, could be viewed as a lamentation of how conservatives have fallen into this trap.Unfortunately, lefties of various stripes have too often fallen into it as well.
Many left-wing peace and justice activists spend more time demonizing Christian evangelicals with whom they disagree on issues like gay marriage and unrestricted abortion to the point where they refuse to engage them on fundamental issues of common ground. In the process, lefties have alienated a segment of potential allies at a time when they can least afford to be doing so. Yes! Magazine reported that in 2005, a network of Christian evangelicals passed resolutions confirming environmental protection and economic justice as key values. Furthermore, Bill Moyers recently reported on evangelicals’ growing concern about global warming and other ecological problems from the standpoint of disrespecting God’s creation. The traditional left, however, has been slow to pick up on the opportunities presented here, especially considering the critical nature of the environmental problems we face and how sustainability is inexorably linked to economic justice.
How is it that in the early 20th century people as diverse as socialists (both secular and Christian) and religious fundamentalists like William Jennings Bryan could agree to disagree on some issues while working together on an anti-imperialist and anti-corporate agenda? I don’t pretend that there is a simple answer to this question, but I would suggest that part of the problem is that the left, or certainly some vocal segments of it, have their own prejudices and limitations that get in the way of reaching out to a larger cross-section of Americans. For example, many secularists can come across as condescending toward those who search for meaning outside of the immediate materialist world as though only those of inferior intellect would bother with such an undertaking. Minus the segment of bellicose extremists on the religious right, many evangelicals are not Neanderthals beyond the pale of reason but decent people who are searching for something missing in modern life. And although a lot of us may have legitimate reservations about where evangelicals are looking and some of the policy positions they advocate as a result, it is counterproductive for secularists to reflexively treat those of conservative faith as dumb rednecks who are not welcome in their more enlightened corner of the world.
There are also those lefty activists who, after spending most of their time in a small world populated by those who think like themselves, bemoan how they are not making bigger inroads in recruiting everyday people to the “cause.” This is because most leftists don’t know how to talk to the average American in terms they can relate to. Ray’s analysis provides interesting food for thought about the emerging Progressive mindset:
There is a big, untapped voter population out there that is not in the mushy middle, and it looks like a potential for a new kind of progressive. However, we need to acknowledge that even though this big population accepts basic progressive ideas, 83 percent of them reject any identification with the left, or its language, or its tight focus on programmatic ideas. Voters really do want politicians they can trust, and they really do want values more than policy-wonk stuff — just not the values of the far right, and certainly not the stripping away of the protections of middle class and working class Americans. (emphasis added)
Conservatives, crunchy or otherwise, are not afraid to appeal to a person’s faith or to speak openly about values. It isn’t so hard to figure out why this approach might work when one considers that less than a quarter of the American population has a college degree yet the majority have a religious or spiritual affiliation of some sort. If we are serious about building a broader movement to effect meaningful change, then it might do us some real good to recognize that not everyone’s frame of reference is going to be a Noam Chomsky tract or the latest IPS policy paper.
Another source of ideological baggage that limits the appeal of the left is sugar-daddy socialism which underlies the “tight focus on programmatic ideas.” Traditional conservatives have their finger on the pulse in the sense that most people don’t want to simply substitute the government behemoth for the corporate behemoth in American life. The principles of anarchism and sustainable community-based economics have become more intriguing to grassroots activists lately in the search to throw off both exploitation and dependence. And when the leader of a new brand of conservatism is singing the praises of private co-ops then you know some very interesting possibilities are afoot.
At the end of the day, building a movement to facilitate change means a willingness to talk to and work with people that you don’t agree with on everything. We need to start talking to people from an angle that will work and not the angle we wish were there. This will require both liberals and conservatives to get outside of their comfort zones. I have no doubt that once liberals and conservatives start to interact with and engage each other, everyone will benefit. The results of the exchange may challenge everyone’s expectations . . . and that’s a good thing.
Natylie Baldwin is a writer and activist living in the San Francisco Bay Area. She writes on issues relating to the Middle East, human rights, peak oil, and sustainability. She can be reached at: email@example.com.
Other Articles by Natylie Baldwin
* The New Frontier
* The Twilight of Capitalism
* Wrestling With the Grim Reaper: America and the Death Penalty