I interviewed [Bruce] Frohnen on my radio show recently and found it more appealing still. He lamented what he called “Wal-Mart conservatives,” by which he meant people who worship at the alter [sic] of the “cheapest price,” and the utilitarian values of the market right generally. He expressed dismay with the Bush Administration on everything from foreign adventures to his imposition of federal standards on local schools and the diminution of local control.

His dismay was akin to that of many on the decentralist left when the Clinton Administration stumped for corporate globalism; and when his “liberal” appointees to the Supreme Court voted to affirm the power of local governments to use eminent domain to kick people from their homes and give the land to Wal-Mart.  (That’s “public purpose”?)   There is congruity here, if not outright convergence.  It would be a stretch to call a Russell Kirk a commoner, or a father of them.  He had too much of a patrician quality, too much distrust of the rabble.

Still, someone who is a friend of Wendell Berry and Ralph Borsodi, and hangs with the thinking of Jane Jacobs and E.F. Schumacher, is sniffing around the right tree.  When was the last time we heard a Democrat in Washington invoke such people?  Those of us who are concerned about reviving communities and rebuilding their social wealth [bold mine-DL], have got to stop heeding ideological stereotypes.  There are allies out there. ~Jonathan Rowe

Mark Shea pointed out Mr. Rowe’s smart discussion of the important agrarian and conservationist figures who appear in American Conservatism: An Encyclopedia (ISI, 2006) and the possible points of contact between what I take to be his green/decentralist left view and an authentic conservative (which includes the decentralist right) one.  Mr. Rowe also refers to his surprising discoveries at Crunchy Con, so he would probably also have an interest in the figures lauded in Bill Kauffman’s book Look Homeward, America and the related blog Reactionary Radicals.  Better still, he would find a treasure trove of conservative thought on all of these important themes of local community, conservation, agrarianism and more at Chronicles, which is a superb magazine regardless of whether you agree with its politics or not.  The gentlemen (and a few ladies) there have been blazing the trail on these and other vital questions for 30 years now, and I think it is fair to say (although I am biased as an occasional contributor) that they continue to get better as time goes by.  Speaking of Wendell Berry, whom Mr. Rowe mentions, Chronicles had a fairly lengthy interview with him in the 30th Anniversary issue of the magazine this past summer (July 2006), where he said:

There is a kind of alliance in this country of people who want to take care of things–children, dark nights, the land, architecture, forests, ecosystems, rivers, and so on.  I don’t know the degree of competence there is in this movement.  I don’t feel much assurance that we know how to take care of much of anything over the long haul.  But the sense that things need to be taken care of is growing, and it’s a good thing. 

That description of an alliance is strongly reminiscent of the description from The End of the Modern Age of the ideas of the patriots mentioned as one part of the opposition that Prof. John Lukacs sees between nationalists and patriots (cited by Caleb Stegall at Crunchy Con):

Our “conservatives” care not for the conservation of the country, and of the American land. Yet: more than tax policy, more than education policy, more than national security policy, more even than the painful abortion issue, this is where the main division is beginning to occur. So it is in my township. It is the division between people who want to develop, to build up, to pour more concrete and cement on the land, and those who wish to protect the landscape (and the cityscape) where they live. (Landscape, not wilderness. The propagation of wilderness, the exaltation of “nature” against all human presence, is the fatal shortcoming of many American environmentalists.) Beneath that division I sometimes detect the division between a true love of one’s country and the rhetorical love of symbols such as the flag, in the name of a mythical people; between the ideals of American domesticity and those of a near-nomadic life; between privacy and publicity; between the ideals of stability and those of endless “growth.” 

With respect to those divisions, it seems clear that traditional conservatives and Mr. Rowe’s folks would very likely on the same side.  An ideal of stability, not of endless “growth”–surely, that is what conservatives should want to pursue.  Real growth is natural and needs only good soil and wise gardeners to encourage it; it is not hastened by the unnatural hyperactivity of endless consumption and acquisition.  

That idea Mr. Rowe mentioned of “reviving communities and rebuilding their social wealth” sounds excellent to me, and it sounds very much like a major part of what conservatives should be trying to do.  In fact, that is what conservatives do (allow me to explain), and those who do it are conservatives, though they may not care for the label and may never have heard of Richard Weaver.  Those who fail to do that but talk a lot about conserving this or that may be sympathetic to many conservative appeals and may well incline in the right directions most of the time but have yet to fully become living conservatives and conservators of a living tradition, living way of life (and I must plead guilty to being lacking in some respects in being the latter) and a specific place to which they are bound by time and fidelity.  Still others who can make quips about immanentising the eschaton but either a) don’t really understand what that means in the real world or b) don’t live as if they understand what it means are in worse shape yet. 

As Jeremy Beer observed in the recent American Conservative symposium, “What Is Left? What Is Right?” the localist, historic preservationist, conservationist and community values that should be hallmarks of conservatism are embodied instead in civil associations that are not self-consciously conservative and tend to align themselves with a different part of the spectrum all together.  Mr. Beer outlines who these people are and he then cites the example of Kirk the local patriot as inspiration:

The conservers, preservers, savers, and protectors—conservatism once stood for such folks, and such folks were at one time conservatives. But they make bad apparatchiks. They aren’t ideologically motivated and aren’t “thinking big.” They are simply concerned, if often locally prominent, citizens. They may also be sentimental saps, but that’s understandable. As normally functioning human beings, they have formed dear attachments to their social and physical worlds. They like their communities, want to see them thrive and prosper, want to see them made or kept beautiful, want to preserve (or reinvigorate) their sense of their places as unique, and prefer to interact daily with people they know and love—or even hate.

Here is where Russell Kirk was truly exemplary. He ought to be remembered not as “the principal architect of the postwar conservative movement,” as the quasi-official adulation has it, but because he went home. There he restored an old house, planted trees, and became a justice of the peace; took a wife (and kept her) and had four children; wrote ghost stories about census-takers and other bureaucrats getting it in the neck; took in boatpeople and bums; and denounced every war in which the U.S. became involved—especially the first Gulf War, which he detested. And he also denounced abstractions because he knew they were drugs deployed to distract us from the infinitely more important work of the Brandywine Conservancies of the world.

Mr. Rowe mentioned being surprised at the inclusion of Bryan in ACE, but there is really nothing all that surprising about including a latter-day hero of the Country party in a conservatism that can proudly embrace the Antifederalists, Agrarians and Bradford in its tradition.  But, then, you would never know that these people form an important (some might even say central) part of that tradition if your acquaintance with conservatism was limited to the main magazines and talking heads of the last ten years.  Conservative enthusiasm for Bryan and the Populists is not necessarily universal even among traditional conservatives (though I think almost all would readily prefer him to McKinley or T.R. given the choice), but where that enthusiasm exists it is powerful indeed.

If there are tensions between patricians and commoners here, this should be less troubling than might seem necessary, because decentralists across the conventional spectrum tend to affirm many, though certainly not all, of the same basic political, social and economic goods and share many of the same assumptions.  Men of backgrounds as diverse as Harrington, Bolingbroke and Chesterton understood the importance of widely distributed real property, resistance to the concentration of wealth and opposition to the consolidation of power as all being essential to the preservation not only of liberty but also, more importantly, the preservation of humane and stable community life. 

Update: More Jeremy Beer (again via Caleb at Crunchy Con) on the history of conservationism among conservatives, the obstacles to the potential future green-conservative alliance and the beginnings of a possible way forward:

You might not know it from the exhibit tables at most conservative gatherings, stacked as they are with explicitly anti-environmental flyers, articles, and books, but America’s conservative movement was once intimately linked with conservation. The influential conservative thinker Russell Kirk wrote warmly about Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring when it was published in 1962 and frequently held forth on the dangers of pesticides, the protection of endangered species, and the preservation of farmland. In fact, a near-apocalyptic tone suffused the environmental writing of many conservatives during the first decades after World War II. So, how did we get from there to where we are now, with environmentalists firmly established as the favorite whipping boys of conservative intellectuals, pundits, and politicians?

 

… This issue is particularly important to Christians, whose faith counsels a sacramental vision of nature and opposition to the hubris underlying the modern economy and its institutionalized disregard for the care of God’s creation. “You cannot know that life is holy if you are content to live from economic practices that daily destroy life and diminish its possibility,” writes Wendell Berry.

——————–

However, the environmentalist movement itself must deal with its own confusing and contradictory alliances with the left. As John Lukacs has written, Greens are often the self-made prisoners of their leftist and anti-establishment inclinations. They are split-minded: traditionalists and anti-traditionalists at the same time. They want to conserve the land, and they are opposed to the inhuman progress of bureaucracy, automation, technology. In that respect they are conservatives, in the proper, larger-than-political sense of that word. Yet at the same time they favor abortion, feminism, unlimited immigration, nomadism—at the expense of the traditional family, of traditional patriotism, of traditional humanism, of the traditional respect for rights of property.

 

Who knows? Perhaps Greens would not have been driven to embrace such allegiances if conservatives had not abandoned their conservationist roots. The crowd that forms around Lukacs whenever he speaks to young audiences is an encouraging sign that someday soon, there may be a conservative movement that is dedicated to healing that schism.