A review of 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
While working at National Review, Rod Dreher coined the term "crunchy conservatism" to describe a "lifestyle" he had recently adopted. Subsequently he discovered and sought out others who shared the requisite enthusiasms. Now he has written a book about it. The book is unrelentingly breezy. Introducing a rabbi who helped found an organic farm, Dreher exclaims, "How crunchy con is that!" Citing a secular-humanist friend's desire for a moral revival that will relieve existential misery, Dreher thinks aloud, "Well, me, too, and I sure don't want to live in a theocracy; a society in which one is free to choose one's religion, or no religion at all, is the best of all alternatives, it seems to me." Befitting its style, the book presents crunchy conservatism as an alternative and a rebuke to "mainstream conservatism" while neglecting the well-known disagreements within the conservative movement and in effect conflating conservatism with Republican politics.
Dreher identifies the "fundamental difference" between "crunchy" and "mainstream" conservatives as involving "the place of the free market in society." Crunchy conservatives are less sanguine about capitalism. Drawing this distinction, he wildly distorts the view of those in the mainstream: they "exalt personal fulfillment through individual choice as the summit of human existence," hold that "the point of life" is "to become a satisfied shopper," "believe…that the phrase 'standard of living' refers only to the size of [one's] bank account and the square footage of [one's] house," extol the free market as "the holy of holies," etc. One would think that Ayn Rand had excommunicated William F. Buckley, Jr., from the conservative movement rather than vice versa. Dreher does not provide quotes or attach names to this characterization. He just pummels away.
Even worse, he calumniates Americans en masse: "Are we willing to sacrifice our individual desires for the common good? I don't think so." While it is hardly off the wall (or original) to observe that many Americans today fall short of their grandparents' virtue, this is the kind of blanket indictment one might expect from a college freshman puffed up by receiving a high grade for a term paper on Jonathan Edwards. Dreher, well into adulthood and raising a nice family in the midst of a nation with soldiers on the battlefield, should be ashamed.
Dreher now works for the Dallas Morning News. He underwent his epiphany regarding free-market extremism (in his words, he was "poleaxed") when the Texas legislature failed sufficiently to fund a children's health insurance program; as a result, a woman in his Catholic home-schooling group had to take a job and enroll her kids in public schools. He gives no date or details, but this episode led him to editorialize for higher taxes in the name of "traditional family values." In appearing to promote an extension of the social safety net to guarantee the ability to home-school, he does not acknowledge, much less engage, the considerable scholarship over the past 40 years suggesting that the welfare state has proved destructive of the family, both here and (more dramatically) in parts of Western Europe. Nor does he betray cognizance of the school-choice movement into which Milton Friedman and others have poured so much effort in recent decades. The irresponsibility that plagues this book reaches one of its crescendos when he writes: "What kind of an economy should we have, then? I don't know; I'm a writer, not an economist" (emphasis added).
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Dreher leans heavily for his theoretical framework on Russell Kirk, described as the "patron saint of crunchy conservatives" (and elsewhere as their "paterfamilias"). Indeed, in reacting as he did against the Texas legislature, Dreher says that he "got in touch with [his] inner Russell Kirk." This is unfair to Kirk, who believed in principle that higher taxes were inimical to strong families and was deeply suspicious of government paternalism. This is not the only indication that Dreher is not as well versed even in Kirk as he lets on, e.g., endorsing the view that "Adam Smith and Karl Marx are two sides of the same coin" in holding a materialist view of human life, whereas Kirk famously named Smith (along with Edmund Burke and Samuel Johnson) as one of the West's "three pillars of order." Kirk did, as Dreher does, differ with most conservatives in endorsing the idea of government intervention to give small businesses (especially family farms) a leg up against larger ones. But in general Dreher's animus against free markets is far less measured. Likewise his animus against America, which at times extends to Western civilization itself.
Crunchy conservatism, according to Dreher, is "about returning to tradition…[in order] to reclaim a life that's richer, more satisfying, more grounded, more sustainable, more meaningful and…more authentically joyful than what mainstream American life offers." The problem with this definition and goal—the problem for all traditionalist conservatives—is tradition's infinite forms. To which tradition(s) should we return? The obvious conservative answer is "ours." Here, American traditionalists bump into the unsettling fact that our tradition was born of revolution; confounding their dilemma, it was a revolution based on abstract principles that are incompatible with many, albeit certainly not all, traditions.
Kirk, to his credit, recognized this as the problem it was. Less to his credit, he resorted to bad scholarship to skirt around it. Against all evidence, he dismissed the Declaration of Independence as a propaganda tool aimed at gaining French support in America's war against Britain; he enlisted John Adams as an opponent of social contract theory, seemingly unaware that Adams wrote the Massachusetts Constitution (1780)—the oldest still-operative constitution in the world—which is, if anything, more explicitly social contractarian than the Declaration; and he attempted to promote dissenters from America's political tradition (e.g., John Randolph) to the front ranks. But Kirk did feel obliged in his thought and in his writings to pay considerable attention to the Constitution. Not so Dreher, whose confrontation with our tradition is at best fleeting.
Crunchy Cons alludes (slightly inaccurately) to the Declaration in a reference to America's "secularist catechism [which] teaches us that the preservation of 'life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness' is the goal of our politics." Weirdly, Dreher calls this (without explanation) a "fine thing," and says he does not "want to diminish [its] importance"—weirdly, because he then writes that this catechism "is indifferent as to what happiness is, or how it might best be achieved. All this credo grants us is the freedom to decide for ourselves." This view of America's founding principles is in agreement with modern liberalism (as endorsed by a Supreme Court majority in 1992, in Planned Parenthood v. Casey, which embraced "the right to define one's own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life"). It is deeply at odds, however, with the view of America's founders, for whom both liberty and happiness were inherently moral concepts. If many Americans today, including Dreher, believe that the words we celebrate on July 4th represent an amoral blank check—that liberty is compatible with license and happiness unconnected to virtue—it is because they have not been properly taught, or taken time to teach themselves.
Dreher goes on to employ poor John Adams, again, to sum up what is wrong with our country. Adams, he writes, "saw the limit of the American framework in 1798: 'We have no government armed with the power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion…. Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.'" Adams here was making a point that America's founders made repeatedly: education and religion are essential if the American experiment in self-government is to succeed. In Dreher's clumsy hands—clumsy, because Dreher probably doesn't intend it—Adams appears a critic not only of the Declaration, but of the limits the Constitution places on government as well. In any case, apart from this brief passage, Dreher makes no attempt to grapple with America's political thought or history.
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It is in addressing prescription or tradition that Crunchy Cons comes closest to achieving clarity and appears most radical in its critique of conservatism by almost any definition. The traditions with which Dreher is most concerned—and the topics of his two longest chapters—are religion and food, in that order. Regarding religious traditions, he suggests on the one hand that any will do as long as it is "small-o orthodox." Thus he introduces the reader at some length to four crunchy conservatives: a Protestant, a Catholic, an Eastern Orthodox, and a Jew. (Dreher does not address the compatibility of crunchy conservatism and small-o orthodox Islam.) On the other hand, he recounts how he takes his family to an Eastern Rite mass that is celebrated in Aramaic ("crunchy cons are big ones for authenticity," he says), and this is clearly where his heart is: "Theologically, [Eastern] Orthodoxy is much more mystically oriented than Catholicism and Protestantism. In fact, a centuries-old Orthodox critique of Western Christianity is that it is too logical, too cerebral…. It's easy to see why the ancient traditions of Orthodoxy…captivate the crunchy-con imagination."
Russell Kirk traced the baleful influence of reason only back to the Enlightenment; he seemed to think that reason operated benignly (through what he called prudence) before then in a way that did not challenge the "wisdom of our ancestors." Dreher's critique of reason–influenced less by Kirk than by E.F. Schumacher, "the late crunchy-con economist and social thinker who…can show us the way back to sanity"—is wider ranging, and by no means restricted to the celebration of Christian mysticism. Citing Schumacher's Small is Beautiful (1973) in his chapter on economics, Dreher condemns not only laissez-faire economics, but "Western economics," for "exploiting and encouraging greed and envy," and suggests that Buddhism might offer a corrective. In his chapter on food—which promotes the "slow food movement" (founded by an Italian Marxist named Carlo Petrini in reaction, obviously, against fast food) and small-scale as opposed to corporate farming—he endorses the criticism of American conservatism that it "tend[s] to be very Western in [its] thinking. Greco-Roman-linear-segmented-compartmentalized thinking…as opposed to the eastern mind-set, which thinks more holistically, and more along the lines of 'we' than 'I.'" One supposes it would surprise Dreher to know that achieving a workable balance between "we" and "I" is one of the defining achievements of Western civilization, an achievement that goes a long way to explain why the East, and not the West, has been historically mired in despotism (see Herodotus, et al.).
It is a recurring lament in Crunchy Cons that "politics cannot save us." Dreher's proposed alternative emerges most clearly in the final chapter when he appeals to St. Benedict, who "inspired men and women of goodwill to leave the collapsing cities of the late Roman Empire and establish monasteries in the countryside." Today, Dreher writes, "it's time we became our own Benedicts" (although he makes clear that in the American context, this doesn't require ascetic monasticism; the crunchy-con "lifestyle" can be plenty comfortable). Recommending this retreat into private life, he adds—in surely the craziest (there is no other word for it) utterance of the book—"Why not? We have nothing to lose…" (emphasis added).
In this same chapter, Dreher recounts how "Defense expert Frank Gaffney told [him] that the successful detonation of a single [electromagnetic pulse] weapon could 'take the United States from a twenty-first century society to an eighteenth-century society instantaneously.'" Dreher's riff on this warning is, "Folks would [then] have to learn to do more for themselves and for each other…. It doesn't take a genius to see that the people who will thrive under such conditions are those who have preserved, or relearned, traditions" (by which he means farming and crafts). But Gaffney's objective in recently warning about the real danger of an electromagnetic pulse attack on the U.S. has been to convince our government of its moral responsibility to build a missile defense system. He is animated by this political purpose, rather than by Dreher's cultural concerns, because Gaffney understands that a country or a terrorist organization that would launch such an attack would do so as a preliminary step to conquest, and that conquest would entail murder, rapine, and enslavement. Nothing to lose?
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Crunchy Cons now and then touches on an important and compelling question: Does the tremendous wealth and prosperity that we enjoy in America today make it harder to cultivate virtue? Does the lack of necessity in our lives make it harder to remember our obligations to God, our families, and our fellow citizens? The supreme irony is that in counseling a retreat from politics into a comfortable private life at a time of great danger to our country and our civilization, Dreher becomes Exhibit A in his own indictment of America.
In its discussion of food, Crunchy Cons quotes a nutritionist: "'Our food is a sign of what we've lost in general. I think if we could start…rebuilding the quality of our plates, we could start rebuilding what we've lost in our culture.'" There is no equally strong statement in the much briefer discussion of education, which deals only with the virtues of home-schooling and of teaching religion (both fine and good, as far as they go). For reasons by now clear, Dreher does not address citizen education, education in politics and history, or higher education, which America's founders understood first and foremost as the education of statesmen. Elsewhere in the book, Dreher indulges in a "thought experiment": he imagines himself a presidential speechwriter who draws on Jimmy Carter's infamous "malaise" speech (1979), which he has come to admire. He writes for a president who is a scold: "The truth is, we Americans have lost our way. We used to believe in hard work, in family, in our communities, and in sacrificing, when necessary, for the greater good of all…. But our power and prosperity have made us spoiled and self-indulgent, and we have given ourselves over to the idea that we can find our greatest happiness in unbridled consumption."
Compare this imaginary presidential speech to a real one delivered in 1923, by Calvin Coolidge—whose portrait Ronald Reagan, the only conservative Dreher criticizes by name in his book, ordered placed in the cabinet room of the White House in 1981:
It is necessary always to give a great deal of thought to liberty. There is no substitute for it…. Unless it be preserved, there is little else that is worth while…. Individual initiative, in the long run, is a firmer reliance than bureaucratic supervision. When the people work out their own social and economic destiny, they generally reach sound conclusions. This is by no means saying that we have reached perfection in any province; it is merely a consideration of some of the things that the liberally educated ought to do to promote progress.
We have reached the antithesis of the asceticism of the Middle Ages. There is no tendency now to despise self-gratification or to hold what we call practical affairs in contempt. To adjust the balance of this age we must seek another remedy. We do not need more material development, we need more spiritual development. We do not need more intellectual power, we need more moral power. We do not need more knowledge, we need more character. We do not need more government, we need more culture. We do not need more law, we need more religion. We do not need more of the things that are seen, we need more of the things that are unseen. It is on that side of life that it is desirable to put the emphasis at the present time. If that side be strengthened, the other side will take care of itself…. The success or failure of liberal education, the justification of its protection and encouragement by the government, and of its support by society, will be measured by its ability to minister to this great cause, to perform the necessary services, to make the required redeeming sacrifices.
Rod Dreher comes across in Crunchy Cons as a good-hearted man. He loves God and his family above all. He has many sensible concerns about our country. One suspects that if he would read more about our tradition—and given his concerns, where better to begin than the speeches of Calvin Coolidge (who spent his spare time translating Dante and Cicero into English; as Dreher might say, "How crunchy con is that!")—he would discover that Western civilization and America are not so indefensible; that we have come through times as difficult as these before; that what it takes is more and better politics, not less; and that the key is education, which is what makes a writer more than a writer, and his books worthwhile.