I am a curious choice to comment on a manifesto entitled “The Next Conservatism” in a magazine that includes the word “conservative” in its title since I am a religious agnostic and, in political terms, a libertarian, classical liberal, individualist, or radical—anything but conservative. Still, I respect the authors and admire the magazine and found myself nodding in agreement more than I initially expected.
I thought I was a hopeless romantic, wanting to dismantle the American Empire and return to the Republic of the Constitution. But Weyrich and Lind make me look like an incrementalist. They not only want what I want, they also want to return to “the 1950s, the last normal decade.” (I suspect they really have an earlier date in mind—the 12th century, perhaps, “the last normal century”?) This is where I get off the train—and I love trains and trolleys almost as much as they do. I actually prefer the American society I live in today over the one I left behind in high school.
I suspect most Americans my age would, at first impulse, wax nostalgic about “the good old days” but in the end would choose to live in today’s society. Of course we don’t get that choice. I predict the Weyrich-Lind brand of cultural conservatism won’t get very far because, while society is in constant change, it rarely, if ever, makes a U-turn to an idealized past. Totalitarian governments can seek to enforce a return to an imagined golden era, but even with all their power they fail. Given freedom, very few people choose to return to an earlier lifestyle. We cope with the present and try to improve it, piece by piece.
In my favorite paragraph, Weyrich and Lind rightly laud the home-schooling movement as an “important act of secession” and refer to “the only safe form of power: power of example.” Substitute “is” for the colon and that phrase belongs in our lexicon right next to Lord Acton’s “power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” On this cultural libertarians and cultural traditionalists can agree.
As long as we are free to choose, I can choose to favor—as I do, with them—small organic farms, mass transportation, and the New Urbanism while at the same time enjoying—as I gather they do not—a multi-ethnic America with Latinos and Asians sharing my neighborhood, workplace, and social life.
We have that freedom to choose—culturally if not politically—to an amazing degree rarely seen in history. Yet very few Americans choose to live a quasi-Amish lifestyle, or even a Russell Kirkean lifestyle with electricity but no television.
In fact, I suspect Weyrich and Lind will find it harder to wean their fellow conservatives from their business-culture lifestyle than from the GOP. Let me give you an example from my personal life that illustrates why I say this.
While I love world music and African dance, my home base is traditional American music and dance. In particular, you’ll find me contra dancing every Friday. The odds are that you haven’t heard about contra dancing, so let me explain that its initial roots are in England, but by now it’s as American as, well, apple pie. When I’m on a contra line, I’m sharing that line with colonial Vermonters of the Green Mountain Boys era and every generation of Americans before and since. We dance to live music, with New England, Appalachian, and Celtic tunes being the dominant influences. Many of our dance moves are the same as in square dancing, though we are arranged in long lines of couples rather than squares.
This is a quintessential American experience harking back to an earlier era. Live acoustic music, not the DJ- and rock-oriented club scene. No alcohol or drugs—people come only to dance and socialize. We often share potluck meals or snacks. It’s truly intergenerational, with everyone from grandparents to teens and young children dancing with each other. Dance flirtation is encouraged, but try to go beyond that and you’ll be invited to find a different venue. At a contra dance weekend, everyone adopts the young kids by looking out for them so their parents can dance too. This is a uniquely American cultural community, found in hundreds of towns and cities across the nation.
Why do I bring this up? Because in 15 years of contra dancing and all the conversations I’ve had with the other dancers when we’re not on the floor, I cannot think of one conservative among them. Occasionally one will show up for one or two dances, but they don’t come back. I don’t know why, but from conversations with a few of my conservative friends who know of my strange obsession, I suspect they find it too quaint, too hokey for their tastes. They prefer the more fashionable forms of dance and partying that are popular in the suburbs, the synthesizer over the fiddle, the country club over the Grange hall. Heck, they don’t even know what a Grange hall is. So from my personal experience in social and cultural traditionalism, I’d say Weyrich and Lind have their work cut out for them, culturally perhaps more than politically.
But wait. All this was true in contra dancing until a couple of years ago. Inexplicably and spontaneously, at dances across the country, high-school and college students have discovered this ancient art form and taken to it with all the energy and enthusiasm you’d expect in their age group. Church youth groups are beginning to come together to our dances. And from conversations with the kids, particularly at rural dances outside metropolitan Washington, D.C., I know that a surprising number of them are home schooled. Being outside the cultural mainstream already, they have no problem with a dance form that might be sneered at by the “in” kids at school. And their parents certainly have no problem with the wholesome atmosphere at the dances.
I’m not sure that Weyrich and Lind will ever realize their cultural dreams through an organized movement. Nevertheless, individual by individual, in an apparently non-directed fashion, some people will make the choice for more traditional pursuits over the commercialized consensus. And just possibly, thanks to the dedication of Weyrich and Lind and others, significant numbers of Americans will make the “right” choices.
David Franke is co-author with Richard A. Viguerie of America’s Right Turn.