The birth of conservatism?

Reading Rod Dreher’s assessment of the present moment in the conservative moment inspired a few thoughts, and I intend to flesh them out over the coming days. Dreher argues that certain aspects have conservatism are beginning to wane, and now is the time for a renewal of more desirable tendencies in the movement. In many respects I agree, though of course not without a few disagreements.

I have very mixed emotions about Dreher’s concept of crunchy conservatism. It might be fair to say that I come down in the middle of the disagreements between Dreher and Jonah Goldberg. Yet the one area where I find Dreher’s argument holds enormous merit is the subtle feeling – let’s call it an intuition – that east coast conservatives don’t understand flyover country. I don’t mean that the editors of the Weekly Standard are involved in any sort of condescension towards the red states, but that the way of life in Birmingham is very different than it is in New York City or Washington D.C. And here’s the best way to describe it.

There’s a stretch of country from Dallas to Richmond that is experiencing enormous growth. This stretch includes Baton Rouge, Birmingham, Atlanta, Columbia, Charlotte and other cities within another two hundred miles like Nashville and Chattanooga. All of these cities have their old neighborhoods; some are rundown, others gentrified and funky. In each city, however, one will find a lengthy stretch of highway – perhaps several lengthy stretches – full of shopping centers, hotels and restaurants. And each stretch of highway is virtually indistinguishable from the other. Highway 280 in Birmingham is almost identical to Fayetteville, Georgia, for instance. And lurking behind the Targets, Wal-Marts, Best Buys and Outbacks are subdivisions and apartments; some large, some small but everywhere you find a maze of houses where twenty years ago were forests. In Alabama, Florida and Georgia this growth is directly affecting water supplies and in all places there’s a concern about new roadways and interstates.

Now this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, because growth is in many ways in evitable. But the problem comes when this change, this unbending will to progress and expansion is at every turn cheered by “conservative” Republicans. And that’s what is happening in every case, and those of us concerned with conserving our neighborhoods and traditions and who believe that expansion for the sake of an increased tax base is risky business feel marginalized. Why? Because Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity and others who have become the voice of conservatism in America defend Wal-Mart blindly and present those with concerns about development as latte-swigging liberals who only shop at the co-op. Now I’m not out to trash Rush; I’m a regular listener and I understand that there are leftist elements who use Wal-Mart and other retailers as targets for a socialist agenda. You’ll get no argument from me on that point. But those of us conservatives who take a Russell Kirk approach to the conservative life are stuck in the middle between conservative spokesmen who cheer on development (and our friends and neighbors who agree with them) and liberals on the other side.

I’m not sure what the answer is to this question, but I refuse to submit to state-centered, collectivist solutions for these problems. But something about it leaves me and many others deeply unsettled. And it’s rare to peruse a conservative publication and find much sympathy.

If the centers of conservative thought made even a small effort to understand these frustrations, it would, in my own estimation, do a great deal to again root conservatism in the small, local and particular.

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