Politics & Policy

Crunchy Cons, Defended

A response to Jonah Goldberg.

 Let me see if I can answer Jonah’s chief objections to the idea of crunchy conservatism.

Jonah claims:

1. It’s not news to Right wingers that conservatism is diverse, only to many on the left and in the media.

I think Jonah doesn’t get outside the Beltway enough. To someone like him, who knows more than most folks about the breadth of conservative history and philosophy (a description that would fit most NRO-niks, I’d wager), my pointing to this subset of conservatives within the broader Right is simply stating the obvious. I suggest that it isn’t at all so obvious to many who claim the name “conservative” — and the astonishing number of e-mails I’ve gotten from crunchy cons around the country bears me out.

I haven’t discovered anything new, simply drawn attention to something that was already there, and which I have a hunch will be more visible in the years to come. For a variety of reasons, this strain of conservatism has long been eclipsed in the conservative mainstream by a free-market libertarianism more suited to the individualist consumerism that is America’s regnant bipartisan ideology.

(N.B., I don’t mean to run free marketeers and libertarians out of the crunchy-con camp. Crunchy con is a sensibility, not an ideology, and I’ve heard from many libertarians who identify with it for their own reasons. Besides, most conservatives are to some extent free-marketeers. The crunchy cons, though, tend to be a lot more skeptical of market capitalism than most conservatives.)

Jonah might be surprised to discover how difficult it can be for conservatives whose Right-wing beliefs lead them to conclusions that run counter to the mainstream to articulate those conclusions among people who should be their ideological allies. Here’s an example sent to me by a conservative friend who works for one of the most conservative U.S. congressmen. My friend, D., was put on his city’s “Task Force for Smart Growth.” At a meeting to come up with a definition of “smart growth” — a meeting that was swarming with land developers — D. brought up that nowhere on the draft document was there a mention of any restrictions ever being placed upon development.

Now, this would lead anyone to suspect that this task force was set up as a cover for developers to get what they want while seeming to care about the community. For his trouble, my friend was mocked by a member of the committee, who said aloud, “This is a free-market conservative?” That is like defining as “true Catholicism” whatever the bishops decide is in their interests.

I could give you lots of examples like that from my own experience, and those of people I hear from. The point is that too many conservatives, consciously or not, behave as if conservatism were synonymous with unrestricted capitalism. Of course, free-market capitalism is the most dynamic and revolutionary force in the world, which can be both a good and a bad thing. As Jonah points out, it’s not exactly news that there are and have always been conservatives critical of the destruction capitalism wreaks on institutions. But that is not the impression you would get from the media (for obvious reasons), and that is certainly not the impression I think many rank-and-file conservatives have about the movement. Conservatives can be quite politically correct within their own circles.

My intent with the crunchy-con article was not to restrict the definition of conservative, but to expand the popular understanding of it by highlighting a subset of conservatives who perceive themselves as different from the conservative mainstream, but still well within the same philosophical tradition. Why is it a bad thing to draw attention to the diversity in our ranks, and to open up the possibility that conservatism can and should care about certain things that don’t often register as concerns with the armies of the Right?

2. In Jonah’s view, it was a mistake for NR to give Lefties an excuse to caricature the Right as “really just a bunch of slogans and lock-step tastes.”

Trying to stifle discussion on the Right by claiming that to talk about these real differences of opinion is giving aid and comfort to the enemy — that’s hardly the way to battle the media stereotype that conservatism is “really just a bunch of slogans and lock-step tastes.”

Look, if I’m not on to something, why do so many people from all over the country write in with long, enthusiastic letters talking about their experiences, and how alienated they feel from mainstream conservatism because of their conservatism? It seems to me the thing to do is to find out why modern mainstream conservatism doesn’t speak for them as conservatives. What you’ll discover is that they think the conservative mainstream — I’m talking about conservatism outside the world of think tanks and academic theorists — is preoccupied with a Right-wing variation of consumerism, and presents that as the last word in what it means to be a conservative.

You can talk about Kirk and Chesterton and like-minded luminaries of the conservative canon, but what does that mean to a Right-winger who doesn’t like what business interests are planning to do to his town, and who gets called a liberal for saying so? What does it mean when that label means something in that town — and is used as a way of discrediting the speaker who holds it? I know the town my friend lives in, and I’m telling you, the surest way to turn voters against something is to label it “liberal” (the reverse of what we have in New York). Is that good for the conservative movement? Is that good for society?

3. Who cares if some crunchy cons like organic food, and other conservatives don’t? What does food and clothing have to do with conservatism?

Not much, except that conservatives who think it important to preserve small farms and alternative agricultural traditions over factory farming and mass production will be inclined to favor legislation protecting them. My broader point in bringing that up was to point to how quick conservatives (like all people) can be to dismiss a thing or an idea because it doesn’t fit their preconceived notions. You’ll recall my first crunchy-con piece was sparked when a fellow conservative teased me about going to pick up organic vegetables (“Ewgh, that’s so lefty.”). I understood the sentiment, because I’d poked fun at that sort of thing before too, without knowing what I was talking about. It’s silly, but conservatives do it as much as liberals.

I mentioned crunchy-con tastes for ethnic food, etc., because they’re often cultural markers, though that’s probably not so obvious to someone who grew up amid the madhouse diversity of New York City. Where I’m from, you have to be a rebel and a loner to eat or dress in ways that would seem completely normal to someone living in NYC or Washington. The presence of certain unusual tastes among conservatives sometimes can point to a nonconformist stance on more substantive issues. I would agree that anyone who finds “authenticity” based on their consumer choices alone is a twit, and indeed fits the working definition of Bobo.

4. “There are very few indications that ‘crunchy conservatives’ are intellectually distinguishable from any other kind of conservative, broadly speaking, except perhaps for the fact that crunchy cons take environmentalism more seriously, and that they home school.”

Key words: “broadly speaking.” If one says that crunchy conservatives are unique in conservatism because (for example) they love their families and God, that’s too broad to mean anything. What sets crunchies apart is the emphasis and spin they put on these things — and how this is expressed culturally and politically.

For instance, the family I wrote about in Midland, Texas, professes political conservatism, Christianity, and “family values,” like all their neighbors. They, however, decided that being true to their political and religious ideals meant having a large family, home schooling them, and having mom stay home from office work to raise kids and tend house. They also followed their religious consciences into a more rigorously traditional form of Protestantism, and teach their children to eschew the kind of functionally materialist values they see Christian Republican families around them absorb uncritically.

The Texas family was so afraid of sitting in judgment of their neighbors they wouldn’t let me use their name. Nevertheless, they’re lifestyle choices, which come directly from their conservative convictions, say in effect to the others: “You call yourselves conservatives, but what does that really mean? How far are you willing to go to live by what you say you believe as conservatives?” This Texas family of self-identified crunchy cons has a specific and highly countercultural idea of what it meant when Kirk said the most important thing for conservatives to do is to conserve the family — and it’s in these kinds of distinctions, across a broad range of issues, that you’ll find the differences between crunchy cons and more conventional conservatives.

Jonah writes: “Indeed Russell Kirk … lamented in The Conservative Mind, ‘a world smudged by industrialism, standardized by the masses, consolidated by government.’ In other words, crunchy cons aren’t worried about such things because they are crunchy, they’re worried about such things because they’re conservatives.”

Again, I think Jonah doesn’t appreciate the gap between theory and the way conservatism is actually lived in this country. Tell me, where can we find the conservatives who rail against the “world smudged by industrialism,” and who resist mass standardization when that mass standardization saves them some money at Wal-Mart? You will find them in the camp that calls itself “crunchy;” you will not find them among the broader channel of contemporary conservatism, many of whose members will cheer the construction of a polluting factory down the street, so they can get jobs there and make big money so that they can rush down to the mall to buy a big-screen TV and a satellite dish.


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