February 26, 2006


By: Michael Brendan Dougherty

After the human waste and material destruction of WWII, Russell Kirk and Richard Weaver sallied forth with a political and moral traditionalism (an “anti-ideology”, in Kirk’s phrase) grounded in literary and philosophical reflection. They are credited with having co-founded the modern conservative movement with classical liberals. Their books are on the shelves of nearly everyone who edits conservative publications today. If you suggest that the publications seem to not be influenced at all by the ideas of these men–you can get into trouble with those editors. Rod Dreher is getting himself in trouble.

Sixty years after Kirk and Weaver started publishing; Dreher observes a world of moral and spiritual waste, social anomie and deracination caused by the creative destruction of capitalism, helped along by the sexual revolution. His answer is to revive the themes of Kirk and Weaver for a popular audience in Crunchy Cons: How Birkenstocked Burkeans, gun-loving organic gardeners, evangelical free-range farmers, hip homeschooling mamas, right-wing nature lovers, and their diverse tribe of countercultural conservatives plan to save America (or at least the Republican Party).

Already critics have jumped out of their Manhattan apartments to accuse Rod Dreher of selling a kind of lifestyle conservatism; that crunchy conservatism is another “choice” in the panoply of lifestyles that are afforded to us by the free market. Dreher’s book, often at great pains, tries to demonstrate that the sensibility that informs crunchy conservatism is a natural expression of the traditional values that political conservatives claim to honor. Buying organic food at a farmer’s market connects a person to the farmer who produced it, who is connected to the land, which is a patrimony to his children. The character that this “lifestyle” produces both in the individuals and communities is suffused with piety, grace and gratitude. Only an eccentric (or a certain libertarian-type) looks at a grocery store’s balance sheet–contrasting the costs of an agri-conglomerate’s product with Super-Grocer’s markup–and thinks of God’s providence over America’s fruited plains. Rootedness, piety and the authenticity of a community do not have easily discernible economic metrics.

Dreher’s beef with the free market is not easy to pin down. He constantly reminds readers that he is not a socialist, that he believes capitalism is the most sensible economic arrangement but he argues that the free market is made for man and not the other way around. The themes of his criticism have been appearing in conservative political literature for well over two centuries. Justus Möser in the 18th century denounced the multiplication of “needs” on which capitalism depends. Möser witnessed imported tea going from a luxury to a “basic need” among peasants. In Dreher’s lifetime, cable television has gone from being a luxury in the home to a near necessity for each bedroom in the home. In the early 20th century Chesterton and Belloc promoted distributism–an economy of private property decentralization combined with a romantic aesthetic–over capitalism, which tended towards centralization and banality. Distributism is given short, but loving mention in Crunchy Cons. And although the “Fugitive” agrarian writers are not mentioned by name, their spirit lingers over several chapters of the book–and in the person of Wendell Berry.

There remains a tension in Dreher’s writing about his personal story that some critics may point to as hypocrisy. Occasionally after making pointed criticisms of a culture that makes a fetish of choice, Dreher will say something like:

“I was once. . .listening to a wise teacher from Oklahoma talk about the philosophy of the late John Senior, a scholar who believed that Catholics should return to the land, and live agrarian lives more in tune with the natural rhythms of the ear. That’s great if you feel called to it, but I grew up in the country and, unlike my sister (who remains there), the rural ideal hold no appeal for me.” (Emphasis mine.)

Although Dreher invokes the language of vocation in this phrase, the expression “if you feel” undermines the traditionalist arguments he has made and invites skeptical conservatives to say “well, crunchy conservatism is great, if you feel like it,” when the whole sweep of the book argues not only for the revival of long ignored conservative ideas, but their rightness and even necessity for a morally sane society.

The book is intended for a popular audience as primer which points to the signposts potential crunchy-cons can follow to discover new-old ways to enrich their homes and communities. But this sympathetic reviewer couldn’t help but want more in the way of demonstration to convince skeptics. (Forgive the following dissent into pre-fix mania.) Crunchy conservatism feels a lot like a slightly hipper paleo-conservatism shorn of the populism the latter acquired in the 1990’s. (And Dreher’s questioning of support for the Iraq War is bound to get him into even more trouble). But to convince libertarians and more mainstream conservatives of the value of crunchiness, crunchy-cons might consider adopting the methods of neo-conservatism (think Commentary Magazine in the 1970s) and focusing a lot of energy into discovering, through social science, the benefits of traditionalism for the family and society.

Alternatively, crunchy cons would have to make a case that virtue, good order, rootedness and tradition are worthy pursuits in themselves regardless of their effect on Wall Street. Dreher notes that crunchy conservatism is often the result of a sacramental view of life–a view that echoes the final chapter of Chesterton’s distributist manifesto The Outline of Sanity. If no statistics pour in to support these ideals, if no energy crisis forces them to be adopted for survival, will crunchies take the more radical road and make a frontal assault not only on “consumerism” but on the ingrained myths of individual autonomy and choice that are so much a part of modern American culture and politics? Will they argue that not only a sacramental view of life is (in this way or that) “better,” but absolutely necessary? As the dominant culture, the market and the state take more swings at the things crunchy-cons hold dear–will they be ready to hit back? And just as pressing for Dreher, when his indictment of the conservative movement that nurtured his career is heard, is that movement going to listen to him?

There’s a road that’s been walked before by the Randians, the John Birchers and the paleo-conservatives. At least Birkenstocks are comfortable walking shoes.

Michael Brendan Dougherty is Books Editor for the New Pantagrual (which is mentioned in Crunchy Cons) and blogs at Surfeited with Dainties. With titles like that you can guess where he stands on this “crunchy” business.