September 6, 2006
I've been reading Crunchy Cons: How Birkenstocked Burkeans, Gun-loving Organic Gardeners, Evangelical Free-range Farmers, Hip Homeschooling Mamas, Right-wing Nature Lovers, and Their Diverse Tribe of Countercultural Conservatives Plan to Save America (or at Least the Republican Party) , by Rod Dreher. The author was featured in the Washington Post Style section a few months ago, and I was intrigued. I only fit into one of those groupings (can you guess?), but I'm generally very sympathetic to all of those offbeat folks.
Dreher lays out a comprehensive agenda for radical common-sense reform, and most of it consists of public policy measures or personal attitudes that I have long favored. Why "personal attitudes"? Because Dreher is keenly aware, as any traditional conservative* should be, that governmental action is simply not suited to tackle many of the social problems that plague us. He cites conservative philosopher Russell Kirk at several points, evoking an earlier, kinder era in which which thoughtfulness and toleration were still respected attributes among conservatives. Above all, Dreher rejects the nearly-universal assumption that conservatism is necessarily tied to a materialistic, wealth-maximizing lifestyle. To the contrary, he reminds us all of the many ways that Western consumerist culture tend to undermine traditional values and respect for authority.
Whereas eating for most Americans is either a boring routine or an occasion to splurge, to Dreher a meal is sacramental -- it is a ritual in which we reflect upon the cycles of life that have gone into making the food we put in our bodies. The pressure on the government to favor mass-produced food processing in its regulatory policy has had severe negative consequences on the public health. Ironically, small-scale meat packers were run out of business by inspection standards that were impossible for them to meet, and the result is that our beef cattle and hogs are now fattened, by and large, in enormous, filthy, overcrowded stockyards that are a literal breeding ground for all sorts of diseases, including "mad cow disease." The use of hormones and other drugs in livestock, plus the frequent slaughtering for human consumption of "downers" (animals that are too sick to stand up) makes one sick just to think about it. Here is the Shenandoah Valley, there is a growing controversy over the use of meat sold directly from farm to restaurant, based on the bond of trust that develops between regular sellers and customers. Sinclair Lewis, the author who exposed unclean meat slaughtering practices in The Jungle a century ago, could not have imagine how his reform objectives ended up backfiring because of the ties between big business and big government. Thinking about eating as a sacrament, as Dreher suggests, might make it easier for some of us on a budget to pay the extra price for organic foods and free-range poultry.
Likewise, too few Americans these days think of the houses in which they live as a real home, but rather as a status symbol. Dreher is scornful of the ubiquitous super-sized McMansions that spread out across the exurbs of our big cities, taking away prime farm land in the process. They simply lack the integrative quality that is needed for building a community of good neighbors. Dreher also upholds home schooling as a serious alternative for parents who are leery of the permissive, mediocre public school system, for which I long held out hopes that it could be fixed. Not in our lifetime, I'm afraid. All the frantic measures such as standardized tests and "charter schools" cannot hide the fact that public education in this country is rotten to the core. School vouchers may be a temporary expedient, but I think it is time to consider a widespread privatization of elementary, middle, and high schools.
Even though Dreher and his family are devout Christians (orthodox rite Catholic), he is leery of the politicized way that religious and moral issues are often treated by some conservatives. Me too. Whereas most Republicans these days are strongly in favor of the Second Amendment, few of them are active hunters or really appreciate the Great Outdoors, as Teddy Roosevelt did. Hence, they are generally less concerned about protecting Mother Nature. Dreher explored how it was that conservatism became tragically divorced from conservationism over the years:
It's true that Reaganism, for all the good it did, also mainstreamed a kind of conservatism that viewed environmentalism with contempt. Scorning environmentalists as tree-hugging kooks became a way of proving one's right-wing bona fides. (p. 163)
Ouch. The truth really hurts. So, what place could independent-minded folks with lingering counter-culture sensibilities have in the Republican Party of today? That is the $64,000 question that may well determine whether the party thrives or retrenches in the next few years. Many people think of Republicans as starchy, grumpy, wealthy white males, but that stereotype is gradually losing its validity. Meanwhile, many in the right wing of the party are growing anxious about recent political setbacks, and have taken to calling the moderates "Republicans In Name Only" -- RINOs. For his part, Rush Limbaugh brags about never wearing blue-jeans, which he associates with the "maggot-infested, dope-smoking, FM-listening, phony baloney, plastic banana, good time rock and rollers." (The precise description varies from time to time.) There's enough truth in that stereotype to make me crack a smile, but I think it's time to ease up on the name calling and instead start to attract new members into the conservative movement.
One Washington Post reviewer cast doubt on Dreher's "crunchy con" movement, and thinks that folks like us will remain marginalized from politics for years to come. Perhaps. The situation could change radically, however, if another energy crisis or an unforeseen calamity in our food distribution system (bio-terrorism?) forced people to rethink their lifestyles and values. For those who are mildly interested but are too busy to read the book, Glenn and Helen Reynolds recently interviewed Dreher and another author, and the podcast is available at Instapundit.com.
* Obviously, the Big Government "compassionate conservatism" that President Bush espouses (as exemplified by his "No Child Left Behind" initiative or the Medicare prescription benefit) has little if anything to do with the traditional conservatism that folks like Dreher and I espouse.
Republican candidates George Allen (Senate) and Bob Goodlatte (6th District House) played a prominent role in the traditional Labor Day campaign kickoff parade in Lexington yesterday. Chris Green has a batch of pictures and impressions from the event, noting the low turnout among Democrats. Their candidate James Webb had already made plans to spend "Labor Day with his son, Marine Corps Lance Corporal Jimmy Webb, before his deployment to Iraq next week." See the Webblog. With all due respect for Webb's devotion to his son and his son's devotion to his country, it seems to me that Webb just doesn't have the "fire in the belly" needed to beat an incumbent. In all the media outlets that I follow, he has kept a very low profile.