Politics & Policy

Crunchy Cons

Picking up organic vegetables in your National Review tote bag.

EDITOR’S NOTE:This appeared in the September 30, 2002, issue of National Review.

One day this summer, I told a colleague I had to leave early to pick up my weekly fresh vegetables from the organic food co-op to which my wife and I belong. “Ewgh, that’s so lefty,” she said. And she was right: Organic vegetables are a left-wing cliche. Early last summer I had made fun of neighbors who subscribed to the service, which delivers fresh fruits and vegetables from area 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. But you can’t get produce that delicious in grocery stores here, so when this summer rolled around, we signed up enthusiastically. Now, Julie 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 wewe’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 the 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 point of life. We agree with 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 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, and so 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.’”

Clearly, there are a number of thoughtful, imaginative, eclectic conservatives who fly below the radar of the media and Republican politicos. Who are these people? What do they stand for? And do you have to tune in to NPR as well as to Rush, turn on to whole grains, and drop out of mainstream society to join them?

The crunchy-con bookshelf–and because they eschew television, they have lots of bookshelves–sags with works by conservatives like G. K. Chesterton, Richard Weaver, T. S. Eliot, C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, the Southern Agrarians, and Michael Oakeshott. They also read books by more contemporary thinkers like the agrarian essayist Wendell Berry; Jane Jacobs, who championed particularity and diversity in urban planning over the dominant trend toward mass abstraction; media critic Neil Postman; and James Howard Kunstler, whose choleric jeremiads against America’s strip-mall Babylon have made him a left-leaning 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, Kirk may be the most reliable guide to their sensibility. He grasped the essential truth that conservatism was not primarily about a political agenda, but instead “a complex of thought and sentiment, and a deep attachment to permanent things.” It was a fundamental stance toward reality. 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. As Carson Gross, a 25-year-old San Franciscan, says, “I’m always explicit with people that I’m a conservative, not a Republican.”

There are four basic areas that 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. “Judging by what I find on the road around the U.S., my ideas appeal to a particular kind of conservative: religious intellectuals,” says Kunstler. Kim Anderson (not her real name) lives with her petroleum-engineer husband and their eight homeschooled children in Midland, Tex., the hometown of President Bush. They are serious Calvinists who get their crunchy-con marching orders from the first principle of the Westminster Catechism: The purpose of a man’s life is “to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.” Says Anderson, “That enjoyment of God is not just for when we get to heaven. What are we to do with ourselves while we’re here? We don’t have a longing to return to the Fifties, or some past era. We just long for God and His ways, and are trying to figure out how to live our lives to go along with that.”

For the Andersons, taking faith seriously means living and raising children in a more radical way than most churchgoers. It is no accident that they are converts to a more rigorous form of Presbyterianism. 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. What they have in common is a craving for an older, more demanding kind of religion, a faith with backbone that stands against the softness of bourgeois Christianity. “I’m a convert. Tradition isn’t something we cling to, it’s something we consciously seek,” says Jim Christiansen, 47, a Washington lawyer and traditionalist Catholic. “That whiff of the past is precious these days, when even the traditionalists are deracinated.”

The 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. “Apparently believing that all of nature, including humankind, is inherently and purely good, they reach all sorts of absurd and unworkable conclusions,” says Bryan Greer, 29, a Baptist father of five living in Northfield, Minn. “These people simply have no room for the concept of evil, rendering their worldview completely incapable of comprehending the world as it is.”

A view of the material world as fundamentally flawed but fundamentally good, and therefore to be revered, embraced, and celebrated within limits, is a key crunchy-right concept. Crunchy cons, even the non- religious ones, take this sacramental idea seriously, which leads them to beliefs and attitudes (stereo)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.”

“Of course conservatives and Republicans ‘lost’ California years ago, because they did not try to understand it,” says Carl Weidner of San Diego. “Some Republicans have this adolescent-boy sense of humor that must make fun of everything.”

These irate crunchy cons are on to something. American Enterprise Institute 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. “It’s the flip side of what defense policy is for the Democrats. Republicans don’t like it, they don’t study it very hard, and they tend to do a lousy job with it,” he says. “Conservatives tend to belittle environmental concerns, or issue blanket condemnations of all environmentalists.”

A closely related flashpoint is suburban sprawl, which is more of an aesthetic issue. Greer, a lifelong small-town Republican, says he would worry about conservatives’ running his town’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 think 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. Ugly suburban architecture, lousy food, chain restaurants, 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?” 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.”

Though they share with many liberals a critical interest in aesthetics and the environment, a key difference between crunchy cons and the Left is the emphasis placed on these issues. Leftists tend to absolutize their tastes and convictions, look upon people who don’t share them as morally deficient, and seek to impose them on an unwilling community. Crunchy cons, on the other hand, are more inclined to think simply that they’ve found a neat way to live, and want only to propose it to others.

Judy Warner, a rural Marylander who works in conservative fundraising, nicely captures the distinction in talking about the organic-farming, home-canning, composting, dulcimer-playing lifestyle she shares with her ex-Marine husband. “I’m a red-diaper baby and the conservative black sheep in my unreformed family. Here’s the difference between my siblings and me: I do this as part of my life, a part I think is important and pleasurable, but not the most important. For them, it is the meaning of their life. It is their religion.”

While crunchy cons 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, not cars, may think of man’s relation to his world differently from 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, “sweetness and light,” has consequences for the character of individuals and ultimately for civilization. It’s perilous to forget that.

You may be saying, “God save us from these Brie-eating bobos, who have the money to indulge their snobbish tastes and want to inflict them on the rest of us.” But most crunchy cons are different from bobos–David Brooks’s bourgeois bohemians–in part because they tend not to have a lot of money. Which brings us to the fourth big area that sets crunchy cons apart: 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 of Midland has a graduate 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–which she and her husband sacrifice on conservative principle. “I feel like we’re giving our kids a real childhood,” she says. “You can see the difference in the way kids think and behave. 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.”

One does find that most crunchy cons are at least 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?” On the other hand, 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 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 many GOPers view anything not embraced by the GOP mainstream as suspect,” says Kerry Hardy, 33, a D.C. libertarian. “Western civilization is not threatened by people eating tofu or wearing tie-dye, and if the GOP mouthpieces stopped acting as if it were and stopped a priori judging those who do to be liberals, they might find that many of them are on their side.”

And not only on their side, but ready with something to teach them about ways to live more fully within the conservative tradition. The good news is that this is becoming easier to do. Homeschooling is an increasingly viable alternative. Fresh produce and hormone-free meat are more widely available. While suburban sprawl is a permanent fixture of life–it has become the only economically rational way for most of us to live–many of those new ‘burbs have, thanks to the free market, good chain bookstores, whole-food co-ops, and specialty shops that cater to eclectic tastes. 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 one another.

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. “Most people never stop and think about their lifestyle,” says 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?


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