Meet the Crunchy Conservatives
Conservatives who make their own granola? Republicans who oppose sprawl and consumerism? Hard-core right-winger Pat Buchanan condemning corporate greed and the Iraq war? Welcome to America’s changing political landscape, where progressives might find some unlikely allies on a number of important issues. –The Editors
One day last summer, I told a colleague I had to leave early to pick up my weekly batch of fresh vegetables from the organic food co-op to which my wife, Julie, and I belong. “Ewgh, that’s so lefty,” she said. And she was right: Organic vegetables are a left-wing cliché. Indeed, I once made fun of neighbors who belong to a co-op that delivers fresh fruits and vegetables from local organic farms to our Brooklyn streets. But then the neighbors gave us one week’s vegetable shipment, and we were knocked flat by the intense flavors. Who knew cauliflower had so much taste? It was the freshness of the produce, not its organic status (of dubious nutritional advantage), that we were responding to. Now, Julie usually picks up our weekly delivery in her National Review tote bag.
It never occurred to me that eating organic vegetables was a political act, but my colleague’s comment got me to thinking about other ways my family’s lifestyle is countercultural. Julie is a stay-at-home mom who is beginning to homeschool our young son. We worship at an “ethnic” Catholic church because we can’t take the Wonder Bread liturgy at the Roman parish down the street. We are as suspicious of big business as we are of big government. We rarely watch TV, disdain modern architecture and suburban sprawl, avoid shopping malls, and spend our money on good food we prepare at home. My wife even makes her own granola. And yet we are almost always the most conservative people in the room–granted, not much of a trick if you live in New York City, but we’re still pretty far out there.
So how did we get to be so “crunchy”–as in “crunchy-granola,” a slang term for earthy types–without realizing what was happening? Much of our crunchy conservatism comes from simply being carried along by the tide of our lives, and discovering by trial and error things that work well. But it’s also grounded in basic attitudes we’ve long held. That, generally speaking, Small and Local and Particular and Old are better. That beauty in all its forms is important to the good life. That the bright glare of television and the cacophony of media culture make it too hard to discern the call of truth and wisdom. That we are citizens before we are consumers. And most important of all, that faith and family are the true point of life.
We agree with the conservative philosopher Russell Kirk, who observed, “The best way to rear up a new generation of friends of the Permanent Things is to beget children, and read to them o’ evenings, and teach them what is worthy of praise: The wise parent is the conservator of ancient truths. As Edmund Burke put it, ‘We learn to love the little platoon we belong to in society.’ The institution most essential to conserve is the family.”
I first confessed that I was a Birkenstock’d Burkean in a National Review Online essay and talked about how displaced I felt as a conservative who liked both Rush Limbaugh and Garrison Keillor. My in-box quickly filled up with literally hundreds of replies from across the country, nearly all of them saying, “Me too!”
There was the pro-life vegetarian Buddhist Republican who wanted to find somebody to discuss the virtues of George W. Bush with over a bowl of dal. An interracial couple, political conservatives and converts to Eastern Orthodoxy, wrote to say they loved shaking up the prejudices of liberal friends at their organic co-op. Small-town and rural crunchy cons checked in, as did their urban counterparts from Berkeley to New York to London. “I used to listen to Rush while driving around following the Grateful Dead!” someone wrote. Wrote another, “We thought we were the only Evangelical Christians in the world with a copy of the Moosewood Cookbook.”
The crunchy-con bookshelf–and because they eschew television, they have lots of bookshelves–sags with works by conservatives like T.S. Eliot, C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, G.K. Chesterton, the Southern Agrarians, Richard Weaver, and Michael Oakeshott. They also read books by contemporary and more left-identified thinkers like Wendell Berry, the Kentucky farmer and agrarian essayist; Jane Jacobs, who championed small-scale design and diversity in urban planning; Neil Postman, a critic of the media and technology; and James Howard Kunstler, whose jeremiads against America’s strip-mall Babylon have made him a prophet with honor among crunchy cons. They favor books on the environment that reflect a manlier, Rooseveltian (Teddy, the good one) stance toward the natural world, which respects nature without worshiping it.
Of all the thinkers and writers favored by crunchy cons, though, it is conservative intellectual Russell Kirk, who may be the most reliable guide to their sensibility. He grasped the essential truth that conservatism is not primarily about a political agenda, but instead “a complex of thought and sentiment, and a deep attachment to permanent things.” For crunchy cons, the quest to live “the Good, the True, and the Beautiful” is not just a nice idea–and because of this, they don’t always line up with Republican orthodoxy.
Four basic areas are touchstones for crunchy conservatives: religion, the natural world, beauty, and family.
For many crunchy cons, religion is the starting point from which beliefs about everything else follow. They crave an older, more demanding kind of religion, a faith with backbone that stands against the softness of bourgeois Christianity. As you talk to religious crunchy cons, you find a surprising number who are religious converts of one sort or another, many of them to traditional Roman Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy.
“Tradition isn’t something we cling to, it’s something we consciously seek,” says Jim Christiansen, 47, a Washington lawyer and converted traditionalist Catholic. “That whiff of the past is precious these days.”
Crunchy cons, religious or not, share a belief that something has gone seriously wrong in contemporary mass society, and are grasping for “authenticity” (a word you hear often from this group) amid a raging flood of media-driven consumer culture. This is not new, of course; the 1960s counterculture got there first. Crunchy cons credit the hippies and their successors with understanding the radical nature of the problem, but strongly disagree with their solutions.
Crunchy cons take the sacramental idea of the material world as fundamentally flawed but fundamentally good seriously, which leads them to beliefs and attitudes typically associated with liberals. Take the environment. Crunchy cons tend to look at the world through the eyes of Tolkien’s Sam Gamgee, returned from the war to his beloved shire, only to find the land despoiled by industrial “progress.” While they reject the anti-scientific utopianism of hysterical mainstream environmentalism, crunchy cons are skeptical that the Republican Party can be trusted as stewards of the natural world.
“I have no love for the environmental movement as it stands today,” says Alabama Republican Paula Graves, 39. “But I think that the average conservative response to environmental concerns is a total condemnation of all things ‘green,’ whether it be personal recycling, organic food, or energy conservation, and that’s an equally illogical response. We’ve ceded the issue to the Greens and let them set the definitions, and therefore the agenda.”
These irate crunchy cons are on to something. American Enterprise Institute (AEI) pollster Karlyn Bowman says that while the environment isn’t a big political issue nationally, it is “very important at the state and local levels,” particularly in populous, environmentally conscious swing states like California and Florida. AEI’s Steven Hayward has studied these issues and says that the GOP’s bad rap on the environment is somewhat deserved.
A closely related flashpoint is suburban sprawl, which is more of an aesthetic issue. Bryan Greer, 29, a Baptist, lifelong Republican, and father of five, says he would worry about conservatives running his small Minnesota city’s government out of fear they would let developers gut the historic town center and call it another triumph of the free market: “I don’t feel most conservatives have much of an answer for people who feel a sense of loss when ‘progress’ destroys beauty and authenticity. To all this, conservatives can only mumble about the necessity of economic progress. They don’t seem to care that something of real value has been lost.” In the crunchy-con view, right-wing indifference to natural beauty extends to the man-made world. Today’s conservatives don’t say enough about the importance of aesthetic standards. Suburban sprawl and ugly architecture, lousy chain restaurant food, bad beer, and scorn for the arts are defended by many rank-and-file Republicans as signs of populist authenticity, as opposed to the “elitist” notion that aesthetics matter. In previous generations, it was taken for granted among conservatives that cultivating taste was a worthwhile, even necessary pursuit in building civilization. Nowadays, talking like that in front of a number of right-wingers will get you denounced as a snob.
“It’s a PR disaster for the right to allow discussions of fun and beauty and poetry and nature to be owned by the left,” says a New York publishing executive and closet conservative. “The right wing just looks unappealing. Do they not understand this?”
Jim Christiansen, the Washington lawyer, concurs: “I think a large number of people embrace leftist politics exactly because they associate them with the more attractive positions on quality-of-life issues–or, more succinctly, people vote Democratic not because the Democratic agenda makes any sense but because they want to eat fresh vegetables.”
While crunchy cons (unlike leftists) would stop well short of imputing moral inferiority to those who don’t share their own tastes in architecture, trees, or foodstuff, they would also say that it’s a serious mistake to think of these issues as mere matters of taste. A child who grows up in a neighborhood built for human beings instead of cars may think of man’s relation to his world differently than one raised amid the throwaway utilitarianism of strip-mall architecture. One’s sensitivity to and desire for beauty, and its edifying qualities of order, harmony, and “sweetness and light,” has consequences for the character of individuals and ultimately for civilization. It’s perilous to forget that.
But most crunchy cons are different from bobos (David Brooks term for culturally elite “bourgeois bohemians”), in part because of their ideas about family.
Many religious crunchy cons have large families because they believe large families are a positive good. This usually means the mother, who is often highly educated, forgoes a career to stay home with the children–and possibly even homeschools them. Kim Anderson (not her real name) lives with her petroleum-engineer husband and their eight homeschooled children in Midland, Texas, President Bush’s hometown. Although she has a degree in engineering and knows that if she had had fewer children and had gone to work, her family could enjoy a much higher material standard of living, she says she feels like her kids are getting a real childhood.
Anderson says, “It’s amazing to me to see parents who have money and who think they’re conservative abandon their children to the culture and then turn around and express shock at what the culture does to their children.” Anderson asked that her real name not be used in this article because she’s afraid of antagonizing her neighbors. “We’re not trying to show anybody that we’re better than them. We’re just doing what we feel like we have to do for our family.”
Most crunchy cons are somewhat uneasy being fully open with both right-wing and left-wing friends. Some say they avoid talking about politics with liberal friends because sooner or later someone will say, “How could a nice fellow like you be such a fascist?” Similarly, to discuss the case for regulating sprawl or the deep pleasures of Humboldt Fog cheese around many conservatives is to set yourself up for knee-jerk mockery. Crunchy cons simply wish their fellow Republicans would show tolerance for diversity within their own ranks.
“I don’t want a McExistence bought in a strip mall and a mega-mart, but that doesn’t mean I disparage those who like the comfort and regularity of suburbia. The problem is that many GOPers view anything not embraced by the GOP mainstream as suspect,” says Kerry Hardy, 33, a D.C. libertarian.
And maybe, just maybe, seeing the difference crunchy conservatism makes in the quality of family life will make mainstream conservatives wonder what they’re missing. One hears more and more of families, even those in which both parents work, who have turned off the television and rediscovered the pleasures of reading–and of one another. “Most people never stop and think about their lifestyle,” says Kim Anderson. “I don’t know that some of the choices we’ve made are the only way people should live. But have they ever considered them? Look, we’re not carrying signs for our cause; we’re too busy living our lives. People can see the results and judge for themselves. They can do like we did: read books, talk to people who have gone before who have good kids and who have kept the faith, and say, ‘Hey, we want to be like that. How’d you do it?’ “
Learning from wisdom and lived experience and preserving the humanity and life of one’s “little platoon” by living accordingly: What could be more conservative than that?
Rod Dreher, 35, lives with his wife, Julie, and son, Matthew, in Brooklyn, but regularly haunts the farmer’s market in Manhattan’s Union Square. He has written for many publications, including The Wall Street Journal, the Weekly Standard, and Touchstone magazine, and appears occasionally as a commentator on CNN, Fox News, and other programs. He has a forthcoming book, co-written with five New York City police detectives, about manhood and virtue, and is currently working on a book about crunchy conservatism for Random House, which plans to publish it in time for the 2004 presidential campaign. Reprinted from National Review (Sept. 30, 2002). Subscriptions: $19.95/yr. (12 issues) from Box 667, Mt. Morris, IL 61054.
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