KEY WEST, Fla. -- That crunching noise George W. Bush and the Republicans hear is not ice in the White House bird feeder, where those of us taking in the sun here at the southernmost tip of America imagine ice must be. It may be the faint sound of the conservative coalition cracking at the edges. A few tiny cracks don't constitute a trend, of course, and strange and unexpected noises in the night aren't necessarily trends.
Nevertheless, Rod Dreher may be an outrider of the new counterculture. He's a columnist for the Dallas Morning News with impeccable credentials in Hillary Clinton's celebrated "vast right-wing conspiracy" -- he worked in the nation's capital at The Washington Times and then at National Review -- and his new book, "Crunchy Cons," rebuking the perceived sins and shortcomings of what he regards as runaway mindless capitalism, got a glowing review in The Wall Street Journal. He's a devout Christian (a lapsed Protestant who became a Roman Catholic) and a father of two small children who should expect to be schooled at home.
But he doesn't like shopping malls ("the point of life is not to become a more satisfied shopper"), industrial farming, big cities, television, and what he calls "lifestyle libertarianism." He likes environmentalism (by any other name), organic farming and the New Urbanism, the anti-urban sprawl movement. He even has kind -- if carefully measured -- words for Hillary and Jimmy Carter. "If by saying 'it takes a village to raise a child' Mrs. Clinton meant 'it takes more government programs,' well, count me out. But if by that she meant that parents can't raise good children alone, that they need the support of a strong, healthy society, she's right." He thinks President Carter is entitled to a mocking laugh at critics who jeered a quarter of a century ago when he proposed oil conservation as a patriotic duty, and who now are saying much the same thing. The Republicans, he says, look like "a Party of Greed," and "the Democrats act like the Party of Lust."
This is strong stuff, and there's more in his book, whose subtitle identifies his allies in the new counterculture: "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)." None of this is likely to endear him to his old friends in that vast right-wing conspiracy. Robert Stacy McCain, in an interview in The Washington Times, asked whether his harsh indictment and his kind words for Hillary Clinton and Jimmy Carter isn't a career-killer for a conservative writer?
"Well," he replied amiably, "let's hope not. I was being intentionally provocative with those comparisons, because I think we on the Right (like the Left) fall into intellectual ruts that prevent us from seeing when the other side has a good idea."
He cites conservative icons as his tutors in crunchy environmentalism. "It drives me nuts that conservatives have ceded environmentalism -- or as I prefer to say, conservation -- to the Left," he says. "We ought to be concerned, as postwar intellectuals like Russell Kirk and Richard Weaver were, with treating the land God gave us with a sense of piety, which includes good stewardship." He notes slyly that hunters, the good old boys he grew up with in Louisiana, were "some of the most committed conservationists I've ever known."
His "good ideas" aren't necessarily all that new. But if he really is onto something, what we have here is a bit of ying and yang, the inevitable action and reaction, rebellion and counter-rebellion of culture and politics. We've seen it before, and long before the hirsute hip of the '60s counterculture thought they had discovered the keys to a heavenly kingdom on earth. The literary rebellion of "the Lost Generation" of T.S. Eliot, Gertrude Stein and Ernest Hemingway fled to London and Paris in the '20s to escape what they saw as the cynicism of the American culture. The rebellion of crunchy cons owes more to the Agrarians at Vanderbilt in the late '20s and the Depression '30s. Robert Penn Warren, Allen Tate, Donald Davidson, John Crowe Ransom, Stark Young and John Gould Fletcher railed at what critic Lynn Dumenil describes as "the erosion of community and personal autonomy in the face of an increasingly nationalized and organized society."
A selfish, crabbed consumer society "obscures the God of nature" and makes it impossible for religious faith, the arts and a decent culture to flourish. The Agrarians, or Fugitives, as they also called themselves, had never heard of either granola or conservatives. But the Fugitives and maybe even Hemingway, whose ghost stalks Key West, would understand the crunch.