AS a writer for the right-wing U.S. journal National Review, Rod Dreher had conservative credentials that should have been impeccable.
But when his colleagues raised eyebrows at his penchant for organic vegetables and his family’s choice to home school, Dreher was inspired to write an essay on his outlook on conservatism. Thus was born 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)
Dreher, based in Dallas, describes an overlap between conservative politics and a “granola” sensibility (hence “crunchy”). The two broad categories have historically shared little common ground, but the number of people identifying with both is growing.
Dreher’s presentation and analysis of the phenomenon, and of several self-identified crunchy cons, is fascinating.
“Crunchy conservatism” is not, according to Dreher, anything new. Despite the seeming novelty of home schooling and organic farming, he sees a direct link between the crunchy-con sensibility and the works of earlier conservatives, such as Russell Kirk and especially Edmund Burke.
Burke, the 18th-century Irish-born writer and politician, emphasized the necessity of strong families, communities and civic groups to healthy society.
This philosophy finds its modern expression in conservatives who choose to buy local when possible, to invest in their own families, churches and neighbourhoods, and to challenge conventional wisdom, especially when the status quo undermines these bonds.
To many Americans and Canadians, the term “family values” has become shorthand for opposition to same-sex marriage and evolution. Dreher suggests that crunchy conservatism represents a true commitment to families.
Many of the book’s subjects sacrificed a second income to provide their children with a parent at home. Having bucked one trend, they then find themselves asking whether a school system that takes 35 hours of a small child’s week truly benefits children or families, and many conclude that home schooling fits their values and lifestyle.
The crunchy cons in the book are often influenced by their religion. Dreher interviews members of major religious groups in the U.S. (a Roman Catholic and an evangelical Protestant) and minor ones (an Eastern Orthodox Christian and a Hassidic Jew) who all identify their religion as the source of their unorthodox lifestyles.
What Dreher identifies as a “sacramental” approach to eating, for instance, has led many of his subjects to eat organic foods, to become vegetarian, or to buy meat from animals raised and slaughtered humanely.
How do crunchy cons differ from hippies, PETA and Greenpeace members? Well, the former vote Republican in the U.S.
While they share many broad goals with these groups, they differ, often radically, on values and means. PETA, for instance, advocates vegetarianism out of an explicit belief that all living things are equal. A crunchy con’s vegetarianism stems from the inverse belief, that humans were created superior to animals and must therefore protect them.
And while the left in the U.S. seeks to oppose consumerism through legal and legislative action, such as forcing Wal-Mart to accept unions, or zoning big box stores away, Dreher rejects such a heavy-handed role for the state, He urges instead personal choices that reward local, responsive businesses and support one’s immediate community.
A significant amount of the tension felt by those profiled in the book comes from the rigid two-party system in U.S. politics. In Canada, the lines are more complex, with four major federal parties, and also are constantly moving.
Nonetheless, it will be interesting to watch the first Conservative government in more than a decade deal with consumerism, environmental stewardship and protecting the family.
Dreher has not written a polemic or a call to arms. He hints at the shapes crunchy conservative activism and politics could take, but never calls upon his readers to take direct action.
As a description and analysis of a political philosophy, though, this book succeeds, and is an informative and entertaining read.