'Crunchy cons' unite: Moving right by going green

Rod Dreher distrusts big corporations. He swears by organic produce and free-range poultry. He spouts off about conservation, aesthetics and old houses. He has minimal regard for the Republican Party.

And he’s as conservative as they come.

Dreher, an editor at The Dallas Morning News, has laid out an admittedly “countercultural” path for American conservatism in Crunchy Cons.

Dreher’s book grew out of a controversial article he penned for National Review a few years ago, in which he attempted to reconcile his right-wing ideas with his left-wing sensibilities. He soon found like-minded brethren throughout the country, and set about writing their manifesto.


“It is impossible to be truly conservative today without being consciously countercultural,” he writes. By “truly conservative” he means not the parroting of modern Republican ideology but rather “conservative by conviction and temperament.” Though most do vote with the GOP as the lesser of two evils, most can be seen standing athwart modern Republicanism yelling, “Stop!”

They reject consumerism, argue that going green can help lead the GOP out of the wilderness and even agree with Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) that it “really does take a village to raise a child.”

As we meet some of Dreher’s fellow crunchy cons, we realize that this generally means avoiding all things suburban; a lot of home-schooling; a unique concern with food, animal husbandry and the land; a greater attention to environmentalism than most GOPers (Dreher even calls out House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Joe Barton (R-Texas) for special scorn) and an abiding adherence to older religious faiths.

The strain of conservatism to which Dreher adheres is peculiar today, basically a pre-Reagan, even pre-Goldwater outlook.

His views date back to the communitarian school, a midcentury group that includes such thinkers as Russell Kirk, Robert Nisbet and Richard Weaver, who concerned themselves with the “little platoons” of society — civic organizations, churches and informal associations of neighbors that provide the glue for order and continuity in society.

“The liberty we enjoy in America today is certainly worth prizing and defending, but it is insufficient to produce virtue, stability or happiness,” Dreher writes.

Dreher’s critics on the right have of late called him a Christian Marxist. That’s unfair.

Rather, it’s a case of Dreher’s devout Catholicism informing his conservatism. Call it traditional Catholic social justice, viewed through the prism of the Laffer Curve and small government.

Dreher is reaffirming the truth that capitalism, more than any other economic system, demands much of those who live within it. In a free market, the good actors must greatly outnumber the bad actors, or else two things happen: A more invasive government becomes necessary, and your local butcher, baker and candlestick maker, with whom you likely have long-term relationships, get squeezed out by Wal-Mart.

Dreher seethes at the ethos that puts efficiency and lower prices above all else, even community. Why should we not pay a few bucks more, he argues, to buy our beef from the local man who raised it?

The book’s politically tinged sociology mixed with anecdotal reporting will be familiar to anyone who’s read David Brooks’s Bobos in Paradise. But unlike Brooks, who ridiculed his subject from outside its boundaries, Dreher is very much of the subculture about which he writes. More handbookish than Brooks’s volume, Crunchy Cons offers a 10-point credo and even suggests what the aspiring crunchy con should look for in a home.

There is a criticism to be made here, however, and it’s a large one. Dreher’s relentless equating of traditional conservatism with the rather contemporary notions of counterculture identity often seems well off the mark. After all, one can certainly remain socially conservative and raise an eyebrow at the Bush administration without wearing Birkenstocks to Whole Foods to pick up soy milk.

Nor does a Dreher-like return to first principles require home-schooling one’s children, moving to a farm or even — and he is adamant about this — devotion to orthodox religious beliefs.

Another problem: Dreher’s sensibility requires that there are enough people who share his values, who eschew sprawl and McMansions, to sustain his vision of the ideal. Are there? Not if the million people in Fairfax County are any indication. So, sooner or later, are crunchy cons going to step in and ask government to preserve their vision? If so, that’s not very conservative at all, is it?

Nevertheless, even if Dreher’s program isn’t always convincing, his criticisms are more than worthy of discussion. It has been said before, but it bears repeating: Minority parties have the luxury of cohesion, while majority parties end up paving over fissure after fissure in their fragile coalitions. Dreher has given voice to yet another within the GOP.