The Crunchy Con Manifesto - A Proposal for Actual Conservation of Something

Conservativism is in crisis in the U.S. The term has become altogether too closely aligned with a form of political populism that has little to do with conserving anything of value. For many people on the political left and the political right, conservativism has become largely about listening to angry men in cowboy hats and pretty women in tight t-shirts rail against immigrants, gender revisionists, and “liberals.” Often there is also implicit support for large businesses which are always good for America (especially when they support grifters on the right), except when they lobby for socially progressive policies and for one of the groups that the cowboy hats and tight shirts are angry at. Other than moving society in the United States back to some apparently great condition that is never defined, only reminisced about, there does not seem to be a coherent theme to what passes for conservativism.

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In truth, both conservativism and liberalism, as they are used (but rarely defined) in popular discourse are forms of social progressivism. “Liberalism” focuses on achieving atomistic individual freedom to enable people to pursue whatever sexual goals they have and free them from the economic need to do work that aids society. This is often, seemingly paradoxically, pitched as part of the goal of economic collectivism (e.g., socialism) and moral totalitarianism (e.g., attempts to outlaw Christian sexual ethics). On the other hand, “conservativism” tends to be focused progress toward individual freedom to pursue economic goals and social structures that more closely relate to some earlier ideal, which are rarely defined beyond a desire for neighborliness. The progress of conservativism is achieved through lack of government regulation on the economy and fighting against social outgroups that themselves feel as if they are fighting for a place to exist.

Of these two forms of progressivism, I have a decided preference for the “conservative” form. There are obviously destructive elements in contemporary political liberalism that only willful ignorance of economics, history, and basic philosophical anthropology can overlook. However, similarly obvious blind spots exist on the political right, as well. My chief grievance against political “conservativism” as it is often presented is that there is nothing that it is trying to conserve. It is just progress in a different direction toward a goal that is just as undefined as the goals of the left.

As I’ve been exploring this dilemma of political homelessness, in part through the work of Patrick Deneen, though there are others, I discovered a book that Rod Dreher wrote in 2006 that presents a better vision of conservativism, in my opinion. At least, it forms a different starting place for dialogue about what conservativism ought to be aiming at. His book, Crunchy Cons, is a valuable book for those dissatisfied with where the GOP has gone, but completely appalled at the corrosive politics of the DNC, as well.

There are ten articles in Dreher’s “Crunchy-Con Manifesto” that I will quote in their entirety here. (After all, Dreher is the king of block-quoting other articles online, so he can’t mind too much if I take a couple of pages from his book.)

A Crunchy–Con Manifesto

1.       We are conservatives who stand outside the contemporary conservative mainstream. We like it here; the view is better, for we can see things that matter more clearly.

2.       We believe that modern conservativism has become too focused on material conditions, and insufficiently concerned with the character of society. The point of life is not to become a more satisfied shopper.

3.       We affirm the superiority of the free market as an economic organizing principle, but believe the economy must be made to serve humanity’s best interests, not the other way around. Big business deserves as much skepticism as big government.

4.       We believe that culture is more important than politics, and that neither America’s wealth nor our liberties will long survive a culture that no longer lives by what Russell Kirk identified as “The Permanent Things”––those eternal moral norms necessary to civilized life, and which are taught by all the world’s great wisdom traditions.

5.       A conservatism that does not recognize the need for restraint, for limits, and for humility is neither helpful to individuals and society nor, ultimately, conservative. This is particularly true with respect to the natural world.

6.       A good rule of thumb: Small and Local and Old and Particular are to be preferred over Big and Global and New and Abstract.

7.       Appreciation of aesthetic quality––that is, beauty––is not a luxury, but key to the good life.

8.       The cacophony of contemporary popular culture makes it hard to discern the call of truth and wisdom. There is no area in which practicing asceticism is more important.

9.       We share Kirk’s conviction that “the best way to rear up a new generation of friends of the Permanent Things is to beget children, and read to them o’ evenings, and teach them what is worthy of praise: the wise parent is the conservator of ancient truths. . . . The institution most essential to conserve is the family.”

10.   Politics and economics will not save us. If we are to be saved at all, it will be through living faithfully by the Permanent Things, preserving these ancient truths in the choices we make in everyday life. In this sense, to conserve it create anew.

Having sent a salvo against mainstream “conservativism” on the beginning pages of his book, Dreher goes on to journalistically explore people living out particular aspects of this manifesto. They tend to be (but are not exclusively) theologically conservative within their faith tradition, live within a large nuclear family, and community focused. Most significantly, the people Dreher interviews are focused on achieving a positive goal, not simply attempting to escape some negative restriction.

For those seeking an alternative response to contemporary political options, Crunch Cons may be the beginning point for future exploration. This is the book in which Dreher introduces the concept of the Benedict Option (I have not yet read his book), which he explored more fully in the hotly debated volume by that name. Although some of the content is dated, this book remains a good counterpoint for the GOP/DNC binary we seem to be stuck with, and may inspire a positive shift toward a conservative movement seeking to actually conserve something important.

Love Your Enemies - A Review

Publishing tends to go in trends, which is not unexpected since contemporary events tend to drive the topics of discussion and publishers are attempting to gain revenue by producing quality content that deals with the themes everyone is discussing. One of the recent, recurring themes is the divided nature of our political climate. Ben Sasse’s book, Them, is a recent entry on the subject. Arthur Brooks, former president of American Enterprise Institute, has recently published the fruit of some of his research on the topic in a book entitled, Love Your Enemies.

Brooks is an economist who has spent his academic career researching happiness and charitable giving. His recent books have dealt with the idea of compassion and social healing, as in his book, The Conservative Heart. The message that Brooks comes back to is that having an ideological bias does not require despising the other side. In fact, this book highlights the reality that holding others in contempt is a recipe for continued discord and personal unhappiness. Brooks sets out in Love Your Enemies to show the science behind finding common cause and engaging in respectful dialogue. This is needed not just for personal happiness, but to help heal the bleeding wounds in the American civic culture.

The book opens by describing the culture of contempt. Brooks makes the case that this is not just a culture of disagreement, but that an essential characteristic of the political wrangling is that it hopes for the destruction of those who hold opposing views. Our political opponent is not just wrong, but also morally evil. This attitude has taken over the culture because of the popular misconception that seeking the obliteration of those that disagree is the only possible solution. In Chapter Two, Brooks shows that this just isn’t true; nice guys do not finish last necessarily, whether in love or politics.

Our political discord is significant because it largely inhibits any progress toward a common vision of good. This leads people that want action on some front or another to see authoritarian leadership as the only possible way to achieve results. It is no accident that the abuses of power in recent presidents (Bush, Obama, and Trump) are increasing in magnitude and divisiveness.

Finding a way to respect people who disagree ideologically is needed, so Brooks explores some of the concepts of moral structures, drawn from Jonathan Haidt’s remarkable book, The Righteous Mind. This research is invaluable because it helps unlock the reasons why people come at moral questions from diametrically opposed perspectives. While this doesn’t lead to agreement, it at least enhances understanding. This understanding will, in turn, help readers to begin to deconstruct irreconcilable ideas about identity, so that we can recognize the goodness that comes from identity and differentiation, but also avoid the trap of making personal identification the only significant aspect of our interactions.

Brooks also deals with the importance of stories, noting that personal stories help to break down divides, emphasizing the humanity of the individual. As Brooks notes, stories motivate compassion, statistics convince the already converted. He goes on to deal with the popular (particularly on the left) misconception that competition leads to division. Brooks astutely notes that competition nearly always requires cooperation: this is true is sports, where the rules of the game are an essential bedrock that enable the competition to exist. Politics, too, would benefit from more competition. The polarization of the two major US parties is largely due to the fact they do not have to compete for geographical regions, but can head for extremes to please the tail ends of the ideological spectrum. Brooks then concludes the body of the book by arguing that he really wants healthy disagreement in society, because it is the best way to hash out ideas and pursue the common good.

Based on his research, Brooks closes the book by proposing five rules to help undermine the culture of contempt, which I will cite here, because they are so helpful:

Rule 1. Stand up to the Man. Refuse to be used by the powerful.

Rule 2. Escape the bubble. Go where you’re not invited, and say things people don’t expect.

Rule 3. Say no to contempt. Treat others with love and respect, even when it’s difficult.

Rule 4. Disagree better. Be part of a healthy competition of ideas.

Rule 5. Tune out: Disconnect more from the unproductive debates.

Love Your Enemies is not an epoch shaping book, but it is a timely, important discussion of a major problem of our day. This is a book that should be read by people on both sides of the political spectrum, because no one (besides the cable news networks and our global political adversaries) are really happy with the status quo. The best way out of the eternal cycle of bickering we are presently experiencing is for a critical mass of individuals to begin to adopt some of the principles Brooks outlines in this book.

Note: I received a gratis copy of this volume from the publisher with no expectation of a positive review.

Thoughts on Contemporary "Conservativism"

I recently witnessed a media “conservative” criticize the San Francisco airport for having a compost receptacle beside their recycle bin and regular trash can. She also noted that she does not go in for sorting trash beyond a simple recycling bin and that her desire to sort trash goes down “exponentially” when there are more options offered. When I asked her why she didn’t like to sort trash, she replied that she shouldn’t need a PhD to separate her trash.

This was a Twitter discussion, so I left it at that point without raising the logical question why one would need an advanced degree to separate trash into a few receptacles. That really wasn’t her point anyway.

If I may be so bold as to read beyond the actual words in this individual’s comments, I might suggest that what she really meant was that she didn’t want to be inconvenienced by having to sort her trash. That answer would have had a bit more validity, but it raises some interesting questions about the nature of popular conservativism.

True Conserativism

The heart of legitimate conservativism is that it takes a long time to build good things and very little time and effort to tear them down. Therefore, we should be careful in making sweeping changes—even when we have good intentions—because we may unwittingly destroy something that is good, true, and beautiful in a hasty attempt to make “progress.”

Photo credit:  Mayberry Health and Home  Used by CC License.

Photo credit: Mayberry Health and Home Used by CC License.

Based on that definition, which most thoughtful conservatives that I know share, environmental stewardship is a thoroughly conservative ideal. If we presume that the ecosystem is a natural good and that we all benefit from minimizing disturbances to it, then it takes little to jump from the notion that we should value the nuclear family to the idea we should value the created order. Both have their roots in nature, both have observable positive impacts on the world, both are worth conserving.

But preserving the family and conserving the environment take work. It is inconvenient to invest time into raising children. Before conservative became being “anti-progressive” it was supposed to be about conserving that which is good, true, and beautiful. If you’ve ever spent time dealing with historical artifacts, conservation is always exceedingly inconvenient.

In other words, when it is functioning as a distinct approach to life, conservativism is not about convenience, which is typically self-centered. Rather, it is nearly always concerned with something beyond the self, which is typically inconvenient.

Selfish Anti-Progressivism

Progressivism as a political movement often claims the mantle of selflessness. When it comes to economics, they typically favor a large, centralized government, which necessarily restricts individual freedom. They claim that this inconvenience is necessary to do the selfless good of ensuring some other good is provided—the poor are cared for, emissions are regulated, people are paid a particular amount of money per hour. Often these are legitimate goods that are being pursued at the highest level of bureaucracy available.

At its best, conservativism recognizes legitimate public goods, which are often also celebrated by progressives. However, when they are functioning to conserve the good, true, and beautiful, conservatives have a longer timeframe of concern; they look to pursue future good without creating perverse incentives or undermining existing goods unnecessarily. For example, true conservatives see caring for the poor as a good and necessary goal, but recognize the perverse incentives that permanently subsidizing able-bodied people creates; they tend to remain outside of the workforce and can form a permanent lower class, among other dangers. Thus, blind redistribution of funds is viewed by many conservatives as unjust and ultimately unhelpful because of its long term deleterious effects on society, including those who are the target of the assistance.

However, the position that the federal government is not the proper source of support from the poor must be accompanied by localized efforts to do the same if a conservative is to be consistent. That is, conservatives must engage in the inconvenient practice of engaging with the poor to help them. This is, in fact, the most effective means of poverty alleviation, but also the most difficult. It is the most consistent with conservative principles. One reason for conservatives to resist efforts to create a federal universal basic income is that it is primarily a means for progressives to claim to solve the world’s problems as conveniently as possible; give the poor a steady stream of checks so that we can otherwise ignore them. Regulate the companies producing merchandise to the maximum extent possible, because it would require too much work for consumers to make wise spending choices regarding the environment, employment practices, and product quality of companies they buy from. The convenience is found in gaining a clear conscience with as little effort as possible. Progressive political ideas tend to buy personal convenience at a high cost to the public purse.

Anti-Progressive Convenience Seekers

Unfortunately, in reaction to the high cost of progressive political ideas, anti-progressives have begun to label themselves as conservatives, including the person I interacted with about composting her garbage. In this case, at least, she is opposed to something she perceives as progressive simply because it is inconvenient. In fact, observing her public social media presence, she makes her living as a media persona by claiming to be conservative while really simply being anti-progressive.

Anti-progressives are convenience oriented like many progressives, but without the concern for a clear conscience. They argue there should be less federal welfare because of the freeloaders; they ask, “Why should my money be used to support those that didn’t work for it?” The poor are to be despised as inconveniences. The environment is to be used for convenience without concern for the long-term effects. Convenience is the main aim. One shouldn’t be bothered by having to separate leftover food from a plastic bag, that is entirely too inconvenient.

Many of those who brand themselves as conservative these days are really just anti-progressives who are seeking maximum personal convenience. Those who are true conservatives—those of us concerned with conserving and pursuing the true, good, and beautiful—would do well to differentiate ourselves from media personalities whose goal is to maximize liberal tears and garden variety convenience-seekers whose goal is to maximize their bank account balance and minimize their support for their neighbors.

Resist Bad Alliances

True conservatives are not simply anti-progressive. That would be too simple and too convenient. No, true conservatives are pursuing the common good in a decidedly high-effort, inconvenient manner. True conservatives will be willing to entertain an inconvenience such as sorting one’s trash, as long as it contributes to the true, the good, and the beautiful, whether the idea came from a progressive or not.

If we are pursuing the common good, we will likely be confederated with strange co-laborers at times. It is a good thing to link arms with people in a common cause, but we should be careful about becoming too closely associated with people that hold views ultimately contrary to ours. Confederation—a loose association, typically temporary and for a common cause—is a much healthier approach on many issues than formal alliances. We can build a community park with anyone in our community who has a similar vision for a shared public space, regardless of their position on euthanasia, eugenics, or human sexuality.

At the same time, we should be very careful of making close alliances with people who don’t hold the same positions we do for approximately the same reason. That leads to the sort of confusion we have today with self-centered, convenience-seeking, anti-progressives masquerading as conservatives.