The Next Conservatism, the book Paul Weyrich and I published in 2009, argues that the only way conservatives can win the culture war is through Retroculture: deliberately returning to past ways of thinking and of living. In terms of culture and morals, America from the Victorian age up through the 1950s was a far better place than America is today.
What does that mean in terms of national policy? One place to begin answering that question is environmental policy. Conservatives are not environmentalists. We do not believe the world would be a paradise if mankind could be wiped out. But we are conservationists.
Just as conservatives want to conserve our historic culture, so we also want to conserve our land, our water, and our air. We do not like waste. Nor was over-consumption ever a conservative virtue. We want to pass the physical world around us on to our children and grandchildren in as good or better condition than we received it. That is good stewardship, and good stewardship is a duty to God.
But our conservation goes beyond things. We also want to conserve local life. Local is real, and because conservatism is rooted in reality, not ideology, we prefer the local to globalism. We value the variation in local life that occurs naturally; we find abhorrent the efforts of the federal government to make life in Massachusetts and South Carolina the same.
Because we are good stewards who value local life, we want many of the things we need and buy to be made or grown locally. We therefore support organic farming and sustainable agriculture. Both focus on preserving and restoring our single most important resource, our farmland. If we use that resource up, we all starve.
Unlike environmentalists, our conservation does not stop at the physical level. As cultural conservatives, we are agrarians.
Earlier generations of conservatives, especially in the South, understood that agriculture is a culture, a way of life. They realized that way of life was good for children and families, far better in many ways than city life. In our time, very few people get to enjoy farm life. We want to open that option up to many more people. How? By making the family farm viable again.
The agribusiness types who preach “get big or get out” will say that is impossible. They are wrong. In many parts of our country, we have people who earn good livings and live good lives from successful family farms. Who are they? The Amish.
Our nation, if it wants to eat, needs a new generation of farmers. The next conservatism would create programs to help young people learn farming and acquire farmland. The Amish could help teach them. A country of lots of small farmers, many following sustainable agriculture and organic practices, would enable Americans to keep eating when disasters from genetic engineering wipe out monoculture farms, as they will.
As Paul and I wrote in our book, “The next conservatism should look toward a world where, as Tolkien put it, there is less noise and more green.” If that sounds like something that would appeal to many Bernie Sanders supporters, I hope it does. They, too, are anti-establishment, and if we find we have some things in common, so much the better for repairing the damage establishment policies have done to our country.
For conservatives who want to learn more about how to recover traditional farm life and culture, I recommend Farming magazine, a quarterly. The editor is an Amish friend of mine, David Kline. His beautiful farm in Holmes County, Ohio, shows that traditional family farming can work in today’s world. It provides him a good income, and more importantly, a good life.