What ever happened to the Birkenstocked Burkeans?
Nearly a decade ago, I published a cover story in National Review hailing a subgroup of conservatives I called “crunchy cons.” They identified with the cultural and political right, but their skepticism about the cultural effects of the free market, their green sympathies, and their general appreciation for rootsiness—loving old houses and savoring traditionalist styles of religion, for example—often put them outside the GOP mainstream. The slang term “crunchy,” which playfully refers to an aesthetic typically associated with “granola” liberals, pointed to how much this alternative sort of conservative has in common with dissenting left-wingers who share a “small is beautiful” mindset.
Five years later, Crunchy Cons became a book exploring this neo-traditionalist sensibility. It was not a volume of political theory, but rather one of popular polemical journalism drawing attention to the Russell Kirk school of American conservatism that had been largely overshadowed and marginalized by libertarian conservatism. In a favorable Wall Street Journal review, George H. Nash, the leading historian of the conservative movement, called the book “a reminder of the enduring tension on the right between those for whom the highest social good is freedom—the emancipation of the self from statist restraint and oppressive custom—and those for whom the highest social good is virtue: the formation of character, the cultivation of the soul.”
Crunchy Cons made a big media splash when it appeared and—as expected—attracted a good deal of contumely from neoconservatives, some of it thoughtful, most of it hysterical. Many right-wing Americans cannot conceive that there was any such thing as conservatism B.R. (Before Reagan) or that uncritical worship of the free market undermines the foundations of the social order. Despite the intentionally hyperbolic claim in its subtitle that the book’s ideas would save the Republican Party, Crunchy Cons did not suggest a political program but rather called for conservatives—especially religious conservatives—to rethink their way of life in light of first principles and reform accordingly.
So, did it work? The evidence is not strong that Crunchy Cons made much difference, politically or otherwise. The one area in which it seemed that a crunchy-con sensibility might have some impact—the nascent enthusiasm of young Evangelicals for environmental protection—has largely dissipated amid continuing economic anxiety.
Realistically, there never was a real chance that crunchy conservatism was going to take off. For one thing, it lacked a defined program or a clear constituency. For another, Americans don’t like to be told to live within limits, even if you can justify that stance by reference to traditional religion and conservative political philosophy. In a country whose approach to religion has become therapeutic, not prophetic—oriented toward feeling good about oneself rather than doing the right thing—a Kirkian conservatism is bound to be a hard sell.
And then there’s right-wing tribalism. A prominent critic wrote some years ago that one of the many sins of crunchy conservatism is that it gives liberals reason to believe that conservatives are not united. For a long time now, leading conservatives have been far more interested in policing the movement for heretics than in encouraging intelligent, creative debate. One reviewer who trashed Crunchy Cons wrote that he had “a hunch that five years from now [Dreher] will be less likely to characterize himself as a conservative, for it is hard to regard as one’s comrades so many people for whom one has such evident scorn and disdain.”
At the risk of being self-justifying, this says less about any actual hostility Crunchy Cons displayed toward mainstream conservatives and more about the intolerance movement fixtures like this reviewer have toward any criticism from the right. In any case, the reviewer was wrong: five years on, I don’t think I’m any less conservative than when I wrote Crunchy Cons—but I am, if anything, more alienated from the movement.
If it’s true that conservatives of a more Kirkian bent are fairly isolated on the right, it’s also true that we are not alone. This magazine arose chiefly to mount a critique of neoconservative foreign policy in general and the Iraq War in particular. Over the years, TAC has become an important sounding board for conservative dissent on a wide range of issues. Though Crunchy Cons didn’t take up foreign affairs, the fact that libertarian Ron Paul has established a beachhead on the right for a more realistic, less imperialistic foreign policy is significant to crunchies, who take seriously the responsibility to live within limits.
In Great Britain, the theologian and political philosopher Phillip Blond started a reform movement on the right with the publication of his book Red Tory, which argues for a socially conservative communitarianism. Blond is now trying to establish an American outpost of his London think tank ResPublica, in hopes of seeding the very different U.S. political landscape with his traditionalist ideas. While the left-right debate in the United States remains mired in ideological stasis, Blond and his left-wing counterpart on the British scene, “Blue Labour” founder Maurice Glasman, are taking post-crash politics in new and exciting theoretical directions.
Back on the home front, the past five years have also seen the launch of Front Porch Republic, a website started by young conservative academics such as Georgetown government professor Patrick Deneen and others who were early enthusiasts for crunchy conservatism. The FPR motto—“Place. Limits. Liberty.”—captures the political priorities of these neo-traditionalists. FPR held its first conference this fall in rural Maryland and attracted scores of young conservatives who know there must be something more to life than the self-satisfied nationalism and consumerism extolled by the mainstream right. This is progress.
A few months back, I was visiting a Washington think tank and met two brilliant young conservatives who told me they had been strongly influenced by Crunchy Cons. I thanked them for their kind words but pointed out that the book seems to have failed to change much. “I wouldn’t be so sure,” said their boss. “I travel a lot, and I meet young conservatives all the time who cite that book as having been key to shaping their outlook.” This brought to mind speeches I made to conservative groups when Crunchy Cons came out. I noticed that older members of the audience were visibly confused, while younger ones rushed to the podium after I finished to ask more questions. Maybe it’s a matter of time before neotraditionalist conservatism gains influence on the mainstream right, as the generation who thinks the war Reagan fought is still the war we’re in today passes from the scene.
It may also take skilled and articulate activists to come up with a coherent platform for crunchy cultural conservatives who are at best ambivalent about politics as a vehicle of social change. Many of the crunchiest conservatives are too busy with the work of rearing and teaching their kids, tending their gardens, and building up their churches and local communities to involve themselves in party politics. These folks are always going to be invisible to the national media and partisan activists. But there we are, serving as a “creative minority” on the American right.
As Pope Benedict XVI has said about believing Catholics in secularized Europe: “I would say that normally it is the creative minorities that determine the future, and in this sense the Catholic Church must understand itself as a creative minority that has a heritage of values that are not things of the past, but a very living and relevant reality.” So it must be with us crunchy cons. What else is there?
Rod Dreher is a TAC senior editor. His blog is www.theamericanconservative.com/dreher.