Crunchy Cons by Rod Dreher
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
Crown. 272 pp. $24.00
Conservatism, Edmund Burke wrote, is a philosophy that embraces tradition and experience while shunning radical abstractions. But according to Rod Dreher, a member of the editorial board of the Dallas Morning News, American conservatism has become enraptured by just such an abstraction: laissez-faire capitalism. And it is in the image of this brand of capitalism that our society has been remade since World War II. Working mothers, suburban sprawl, day care, sterile architecture, factory farming, and television culture—all, Dreher argues, are symptoms of an obsessively consumerist society that venerates financial wealth above all else, including the spiritual health of American families.
But as its attention-grabbing title suggests, Crunchy Cons aspires to be more than just an alarm bell, or a call to arms for conservatives in the traditionalist, Burkean mold. Dreher also seeks to claim ownership of ideological real estate that the modern Right has ceded to the beaded Left: environmentalism, pastoralism, and—yes—the organic-food movement. If that puts Dreher at odds with mainstream Republicans, he does not mind. “It is impossible,” he writes, “to be truly conservative nowadays without being consciously countercultural.”
On the surface, crunchy cons, the term Dreher uses to describe himself and others of like mind, seem to resemble garden-variety hippies. Both groups go in for food fads, venerate nature, and cast a suspicious eye at large corporations and modern technology. The major difference lies in the source of their convictions. Crunchy conservatism is grounded in religion, and applies what Dreher calls a “sacramental” approach to constructing the good life. This does not necessarily entail being personally religious; but, at the very least, a crunchy conservative would concur with Jesus that “man cannot live by bread alone.”
To view the world sacramentally—the word appears often in Crunchy Cons—is to regard both objects and human actions as “vessels containing or transmitting ideals.” Once soil, livestock, buildings, and whole communities are treated as mere economic cogs, Dreher asserts, the fabric of life becomes artificial. Victorian homes are razed to make way for McMansions, Main Street dies at the hands of Wal-Mart, and family farms are driven to extinction by agribusiness. In nominal terms, such signs of “progress” may help improve the economic bottom line. But by taking away everything that is familiar and human, they also damage our collective soul. If we do not regard our surroundings and sustenance as sacraments worthy of protection, even our faith, writes Dreher, can become a “pious veneer.”
The triumph of materialism has done more than make our society crass and unattractive. To Dreher, it has also radically undermined family and community life. In search of bigger houses and three-car garages, middle-class Americans have radiated out into sterile suburbs and exurbs—the “geography of nowhere,” in James Kunstler’s memorable phrase. Meanwhile, the need to earn and to spend propels both parents into the workforce. Without a dedicated homemaker, child-care inevitably is outsourced, sit-down family dinners give way to microwave munchies, and family interaction is replaced by television and Web-surfing.
The first step in altering this landscape, Dreher contends, is for families to acknowledge that they cannot have it all. Maintaining a healthy household means having one parent—almost always the mother—stay at home. On this subject (as on many others), Dreher happily offers his own life as a case study. Until recently, he tells us, he and his wife Julie were an entry-level, conservative New York power couple. He wrote for National Review; she worked as an editorial assistant at COMMENTARY. But having started a family, the pair decided to migrate to inner-city Dallas, where they could afford life on a single income. In the three years since then, Julie has spent her days tending the couple’s modest house and homeschooling their two children while Rod spends his at the newspaper.
Since crunchy cons regard “the body as the temple of the Holy Spirit,” Dreher’s family eschews junk food and factory-farmed produce in favor of organic, locally grown fare—preferably procured at the community-supported co-op or neighborhood butcher. In his view, such culinary practices advance conservative principles in two ways. First, as a matter of sacrament, healthy home-cooked meals bring the eater into closer connection with God’s creation. Second, as a matter of economics, it supports small farms in their battle to survive the encroachments of agribusiness.
Though Dreher is not a vegetarian, he is a strong advocate of the humane treatment of animals. Like Matthew Scully, a former Bush speechwriter and the author of a 2002 book about the suffering of farm livestock, Dreher urges respect for animals not because they have inherent rights but because they are part of God’s creation. He is ashamed that a sneering disregard for their agonies should have become, in his opinion, a hallmark of mainstream conservative political discourse.
Such admonishments are sprinkled throughout Crunchy Cons. Indeed, Dreher’s voice takes on its most passionate timbre in challenging the perceived hypocrisy of those standing with him on the Right. “Too many people who call themselves conservative share the same fundamental conviction of many liberals, namely, that individual fulfillment is the point of life,” he writes. “Too often, the Democrats act like the Party of Lust, and the Republicans the Party of Greed. Both are deadly sins that eat at the soul.”
Crunchy Cons makes an easy target for critics: any manifesto containing a testimonial to, for instance, Slow Food—a culinary movement developed in the 1980’s by an Italian Marxist—is guaranteed to set its share of conservative eyeballs rolling. But Dreher’s larger thesis deserves an airing. His lament for the malnourished state of American families and communities is widely shared—even among many who would regard his version of the picture as somewhat overdrawn, or who lack a desire to take up his recommendations.
Nonetheless, readers looking for a rigorous analysis are likely to come away disappointed. Most centrally, Dreher’s alternative to our society’s material obsessions would appear to involve little more than replacing the Wal-Mart variety of consumerism with its boutique cousin. From the superior taste of organic, grain-fed beef to the refined appearance of homemade furniture in the tradition of the Arts & Crafts movement, Dreher’s recommended approach can often seem indistinguishable from that celebrated in Martha Stewart Living.
Dreher has anticipated this criticism, at one point even admitting that his rapture over gourmet butter sounds a lot like “yuppie jackass talk.” His answer, one gathers, is that while Martha Stewart types are motivated by snobbery, crunchy cons are instead following a higher power. But this only draws attention to a second problem: Crunchy Cons consistently blurs the distinction between the moral and the merely aesthetic.
One may agree with Dreher that an old house with hardwood floors, a traditional square-columned porch, and low-pitched roof is more appealing than a cookie-cutter tract home. But, try as he does, Dreher fails to demonstrate that living in such a house makes for a more spiritually enriched person. The same reservation applies to his broad statement that agrarian life is inherently a “moral good,” or his assertion that God would be displeased by the way Americans eat. So long as we follow the Ten Commandments, does God truly care if we gorge on Fritos and root beer?
The trouble here goes beyond issues of taste. It has to do with Dreher’s rather radical program for getting us from where we are to where he wants us to be. Among other things, he advocates zoning restrictions to protect old buildings, the imposition of aesthetic standards on land developers, and a scheme that would provide an economic boost for small farmers, who would then “repopulate” rural America.
Moving millions of Americans from city to country and decreeing how their houses should look would certainly advance the aesthetic vision Dreher has for America. But is such a program of social engineering in any way conservative? Or is it just plain crunchy? Read this lively book for its writing, its high spirits, and its undeniable charm, but take its prescriptions with a pinch of Maldon sea salt.