Crunchy Cons by Rod Dreher

Rod Dreher’s recently released Crunchy Cons is a frustrating book. Dreher, a writer and editor at the Dallas Morning News, raises a number of issues worth discussing, and delivers interesting accounts of passionate people – including Dreher himself – who live out their ideals in ways difficult to categorize along simple right-left political lines. But the book’s tone, style, and structure undermine clear argument and limit its appeal beyond those already highly sympathetic to the label.

The epiphany for this entry in the ongoing hyphenization (or adjectivization) of conservatism came to Dreher when he mentioned to an editor at National Review that he had to pick up his organic fruits and vegetables at the local co-op. When she responded “Ewww, that’s so lefty” Dreher began to think about the political labels associated with certain activities.

After some thought, he realized that he was involved in a number of “counter cultural” activities that are usually associated with the left: organic and slow food, Birkenstocks, urban living, the Arts and Craft movement, giving up TV, etc. He went on to write an article for the magazine on the subject and was inundated with emails from likeminded individuals. With such an outpouring of interest, Dreher decided to dig a little deeper. Crunchy Cons is the result.

Dreher’s basic argument is that traditional conservatism, represented by the ideas of men like Russell Kirk and Richard Weaver, requires a counter cultural response to today’s “libertarian lifestyle” environment. He offers this rule of thumb: “Small, Local, Old, and Particular are almost always better than Big, Global, New, and Abstract.” For Dreher a relentlessly materialistic world who’s god is efficiency is an enemy of the Permanent Things conservatives are seeking to conserve.

Telling the stories of the crunchy cons he has discovered, as well as his own path to crunchiness, makes up the bulk of the book. Each chapter contains a mix of personal reflections, citations from sympathetic writers and thinkers, and interviews with those who have embraced this approach on issues ranging from food and housing to education and religion.

Dreher is at his best when he is relating the life choices of these crunchy cons. He talks with devout Christians who have given up their careers to start small traditional family farms; college graduates who reject McMansions in the suburbs and move to the inner city because they love old houses or want to reclaim the community; home school educators who feel the public education system offers scant protection from a vulgar consumer culture that threatens to overthrow their own values and beliefs; and former seekers and agnostics who are finding a spiritual home in more orthodox denominations.

The people highlighted in these anecdotes and discussions are passionate and committed to making a difference. Even if you don’t wholeheartedly agree with their perspective, or can’t imagine yourself making the same choices, you can respect their idealism and commitment. Dreher himself is clearly in this category.

The book is less coherent, however, and often quite frustrating, when it tries to make this collection of anecdotes and personal choices into something more. What is it exactly about what you eat, or where you live (insert your own cultural or personal choice) that is conservative or liberal? Dreher asserts that traditional conservatism requires a sacramental life where what we believe in, what we value, has an impact on how we conduct our daily lives. Fair enough. But there are some significant problems with the way Dreher goes about making this argument.

One area where Crunchy Cons goes off the track is in its insistence that “mainstream” or conventional conservatives – in contrast to Crunchy Cons – fail to live out their ideals. While Dreher frequently insists that he isn’t mapping out a political program or ideology but rather a sensibility, all too often his tone is one of a purist who is disgusted with those who can’t see that they have sold out.

He frequently calls out conservatives for having strayed from the true path and posits crunchiness as a more authentic conservatism – as a more effective way to live. This tone is bound to offend and irritate those who don’t consider themselves crunchy or who aren’t already sympathetic to the label.

To add to this problem Dreher consistently conflates conservatives, or at least mainstream ones, with Republicans. This is both unhelpful and confusing. It is unhelpful because the two are obviously not synonymous. It is confusing because Dreher insists that it isn’t about politics. Despite this claim he spends a good part of the book’s first few chapters denigrating Republicans/mainstream conservatives.

Examples:

– “[I]t is difficult to identify anything within the contemporary Republican party that stands against the dogma of the Market Supreme.”
– “The problem with too many of us conservatives is we think holding he politically correct (from a right-wing point of view) position, and faithfully voting Republican, is enough to guarantee our conservative bone fides. We talk the talk but do we walk the walk? Not if we are consumerists first, and conservatives second.”
-“Does anybody really believe we can grow our way out of our problems? Is another tax cut, gimmicky educational scheme, or entitlement reform – or whatever glorious program the Republican Party promises will call down the New Jerusalem – going to save marriages, restore children to their parents, heal the land, renew the commonweal? Come on.”
– “While their political brethren confine their conservatism to the voting booth and their stock portfolios, many crunchy cons see historical preservation as almost a spiritual calling.”
– “[T]oo many people who call themselves conservative share the same fundamental conviction of many liberals, namely, that individual fulfillment is the point of life;” adding that they believe that “the free market should be the guiding light of our lives together.”

While I will admit that there is a certain type of libertarian that might take their admiration for the free market to this length, I certainly don’t believe that the average conservative resembles this caricature. Are their Republicans that fit this description? Yes, but acting as if conservative and Republican are synonymous undermines both his credibility and his clarity. It also muddies his distinction between a political agenda and a sensibility. If the issues isn’t primarily about politics then why go after Republicans?

But even if this hyper-libertarianism was a legitimate temptation, Dreher never really explains exactly how a belief in something bigger than oneself, a belief in things like community and the importance of family, requires choices like organic food, Arts and Craft bungalows, or stricter environmental regulations.

I don’t eat a lot of organic food, live in a rather plain subdivision, and frequently shop in big box stores and even strip malls. And yet I am a student of Russell Kirk and consider myself a traditionalist conservative. I don’t think I have become consumerist, have failed to defend the family, or lost my sense of beauty because I don’t have a crunchy sensibility.

It is one thing to offer a call for open-mindedness and another to castigate those who choose differently. Dreher explains and illustrates how conservatism can inspire, and be compatible with, a range of cultural choices, but fails to demonstrate that “mainstream” choices that don’t involve his explicit counter-culturalism are outside the pale of conservatism.

Part of the problem is that Crunchy Cons is a pop culture book at its heart and is therefore anecdotal and conversational. This wouldn’t be a problem if Dreher had chosen to simply offer Crunchy Cons as an example of people who are living out their conservative ideals in unconventional ways. Instead he attempts to construct a philosophy that involves economics, sociology, history, and theology without the necessary depth.

He cites authors and thinkers across the philosophical and political spectrum that line up with the Crunchy Con sensibility without adequatly explaining how they all tie together. Dreher writes as if he is making an argument when he is mostly offering anecdotes.

It is also worth noting, that to be taken seriously an argument should address at least some of the more compelling counterarguments. It could be argued, for example, that the free market has created the wealth and leisure time that makes possible many of the very counter cultural choices Dreher embraces.

“Small, Local, Old, and Particular” are great but if these were the only choices his beloved Birkenstocks and host of other products and services would not be available. Dreher makes no effort to reconcile this seeming contradiction.

In fact, Dreher shows little sign of having wrestled with the complexities at the root of the problems he discusses. Yes, a dynamic economy can be upsetting to local businesses and customs. But it is difficult to temper or restrain the free market with out unintended consequences. Yes, our values should inform our economic decisions, but what does that mean in practice?

Dreher’s adoption of questionable theories like Peak Oil, alarmist global warming scenarios, and his assertion that particle contaminates are causing asthma rates to skyrocket (not to mention his willingness to endorse a pro-choice Democrat over a pro-life Republican because of the issue) make it hard to believe that he is offering much beyond liberal ideas dressed up as crunchy.

His call for conservatives to move to the urban center, rebuild old houses and home school their children is laudable but unlikely to be appealing or feasible to most. There are larger problems than the fact that suburbanites have lost their appreciation for fine architecture or that we are all consumed with owning bigger and bigger houses.

He touches on what he believes is the unethical nature of the factory farm system but offers few details for those who are skeptical or unfamiliar with the arguments. He remarks that supporting local agriculture is a “moral good” but fails to unpack the argument. On these issues and others Dreher seems to offer simple solutions for complex problems.

I don’t want to sound as if there is nothing of value in Crunchy Cons. All of us would do well to consider how our ideals and beliefs impact our daily lives. It is all too easy to become passive and to allow the world to shape our lives rather than the reverse. Strengthening our communities, defending our families, and wisely using our resources should be important to all of us.

In Crunchy Cons Dreher offers some thought provoking and challenging examples of ways people are choosing to live their lives. The issues he raises are worth talking about.

But the book’s often-strident tone, its conversational style, and its anecdotal structure undermine its effectiveness. If you want to start a discussion you shouldn’t build it on a carricature of the other side. As a result, it seems that rather than successfully reaching out to mainstream conservatives, Dreher has written a sermon to the crunchy con choir.

About the author

Kevin Holtsberry

I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season – oh, and watching golf too).

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6 Comments

  • “This tone is bound to offend and irritate those who don’t consider themselves crunchy or who aren’t already sympathetic to the label.”

    But isn’t that probably his intention–to goad conservatives into reflecting on their ideology, perhaps to suggest voting Republican isn’t necessarily getting them what they want?

  • I am sure that is part of it, but I don’t think it will be effective. I don’t think it is likely you can change people’s minds on such a sensitive subject by insulting them and by relying on caricatures.

  • Nice post. In my experience, the more someone prattles on about “authenticity”, the less authentic he usually turns out to be. I believe a lot of this boils down to snobbery.

  • I just don’t think anyone will take him seriously. He’s trying to be like the people that South Park made fun of just last week – the overly “smug”. Basically, upscale hippies.

  • To the extent that the consumer economy is bad it is because it distracts its enthusiasts from their proper concern for the permanent things which Conservatives ought to value. To take the false god that is Consumerism and turn it into an evil god is to miss the point entirely. Whether one lives in the thrall of Consumerism or devotes oneself entirely to opposing it, having ones life be all about Consumerism leaves little time for those things that any Conservative should feel are more important than pesticide residue in their corn flakes.

    Living a bit outside the mainstream can be the result of deep and thoughtful consideration of what is important and how ones life should best be lived, and eccentricity can be side effect of such reflection — but it is not a substitute for the reflection. As long as “Crunchy” Conservatism is anecdotal — as long as it is about this or that individual who has reluctantly decided that his neighbors are wrong about something or other — then I am fine with it. It is when the attempt is made to draw it together as a whole — when it asserts that most of our neighbors are wrong about everything that its negative definition starts to bug me.

  • Lee wrote:
    > when it asserts that most of our neighbors are wrong about
    > everything that its negative definition starts to bug me.

    I heartily agree. Furthermore having read the book, I feel that this “negative definition” as you put it is present from the get-go and runs through the entirety as a judgmental implication on all “non-crunchies.”

    Kevin’s right on with this review and I especially appreciate his pointing out that what’s laudable might not be feasible. Keeping a “big tent” is important for conservatives in the public arena and giving those close to you personal advice about personal life-style choices will be far more effective in the long run that shouting your indictments from a pulpit.

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