By Mike D’Virgilio
In this season of conservative and Republican discontent, there has been much soul-searching about what went wrong and how to fix it. One of the strangest attempts I’ve seen is from the ever-vexing Rod Dreher, former National Review writer and author of Crunchy Cons. His diagnosis can be found in his provocatively titled USA Today article, “GOP’s path to victory still goes through God.” Of course that all depends on what one means by “God.”
Most conservatives would agree that God should be part of the deal in some way, but Dreher has a nasty habit of accepting the left’s assumptions in looking at problems. Consider for example the article’s third paragraph:
Today, the greatest threats to conservative interests come not from the Soviet Union or high taxes, but from too much individual freedom. Look around you: Americans have been poor stewards of our economic liberty, owing to cultural values that celebrate unfettered materialism. Our families and communities have fragmented, in part because we have embraced an ethic of extreme individualism. Climate change and a peak in oil production threaten our future because we have been irresponsible caretakers of the natural world and its resources. At best, the religious right stood ineffectively against these trends. At worst, we preached them, mistaking consumerism for conservatism.
One hardly knows where to start dismantling this Rube Goldberg-like contraption. Perhaps most fundamental is that there is something dangerously utopian about Dreher’s worldview. Utopians hold in their heads some ideal of what society should look like, and it is usually an imaginary, bucolic past untainted by the messiness of modernity. In this ideal world, communities flourished because they were tethered to the earth, and people knew their place in the world because the seasons and rhythms of life were predictable.
That vision is at the center of Dreher’s "crunchy conservatism" philosophy: to find a way to get closer to "real," human-scaled lifestyles, and his action plan is to badger everyone else into doing the same, with the government there to step in as necessary (and it will be necessary).
It is this utopian, ultra-idealistic mindset that connects such conservatives with the left—going right back to Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Neither sect trusts the free market and personal choice in the slightest; on the contrary, both believe some elite government entity is better suited to run our lives, just as the “community” and indeed the earth (meaning, poverty) in the past kept the people from going wild.
How else can one make sense of Dreher’s grotesque claim that we now have “too much individual freedom"? How much, after all, is just the right amount of freedom, and who is qualified to define what that amount is? And that decision having been made, what would he propose be done about it?
Dreher is too cagey to state explicitly that he’s for more damned big government, but that’s the only conclusion a reasonable person can draw from his article and other writings. Individuals, he makes it clear, cannot be trusted to be stewards of our own economic liberty, because unfettered materialism is obviously just too tempting. We cannot help ourselves from falling into “extreme individualism,” he assumes—although here too, the question arises of how much individualism is just right. Clearly Dreher is nominating himself and his fellow crunchy cons to be the deciders for the benighted, materialistic masses.
The elitism in Dreher’s assumptions is breathtaking—and exactly as powerful as that of the modern left.
That is why Dreher embraces so many leftist ideas and policies: he’s an elitist and statist just like them. This is exemplified by his statement that "climate change and a peak in oil production threaten our future because we have been irresponsible caretakers of the natural world and its resources.” Certainly it’s important to take care of the environment, but this leftist cant is entirely without foundation: the society he characterizes as "irresponsible caretakers of the natural world and its resources” has the cleanest air, the cleanest water, and the cleanest cities.
Such absurd claims are not based at all on facts but instead on personal sentiments of revulsion and guilt over the prosperity and wealth that has made America the most powerful society in the history of the world. Deep down, Dreher simply feels guilty to have so much while others have so little, and he wants to discard a few things about which he doesn’t really care much anyway, so that he can feel he’s doing his part to consume not too much more than his "fair" share of the world’s resources.
What is particularly ignorant and galling about that notion is that we Americans consume so much precisely because we produce so much, and the key for the less fortunate is for them to be freed to be more productive, not to hamstring productive people so that they can’t create as much wealth. And given that greater wealth makes for a cleaner environment, Dreher’s formula would have the opposite of its intended effects in that area as well.
Also repugnant are Dreher’s claims of greed and selfishness among the hoi polloi. America is the most generous nation in the world, much more so, in fact, than the supposedly enlightened European nations. What holds back people from generosity is not inherent selfishness but governnent: if the state is expected to take care of the needy, people are less inclined to give out of their own pockets. After all, government is already taking a good chunk of our income for that purpose.
It is a fact that self-described conservatives give more to charity than self-described liberals. Just look at Al Gore’s and Joe Biden’s tax records if you want a good laugh.
The most generous people in the world are those whom Dreher condemns as having too much freedom, celebrating unfettered materialism, being poor stewards of the environment, and addicted to sensual pleasures (meaning ones that don’t turn Dreher on).
There is in fact a historical precedent for Dreher’s conservative mindset: the older-era British Tories. Theirs was not a conservatism of markets and liberty but of ensuring that everything runs smoothly from the point of view of the elite, with a social system that seems orderly and reasonably fair to the other classes. The Tory view of society posits a fairly rigid class structure in which the higher-ups take good care of those below so as to keep them quiescent, It involves a social order in which there is little room for real commerce or social advancement.
If it sounds familiar, it’s because it is. We see it in modern liberalism and the Democratic Party agenda. That would certainly not seem to be the best recipe for a conservative comeback.
—Mike D’Virgilio is executive director of The Culture Project.