The Next Conservatism: Stuff and Nonsense

Some people think conservatism is just about stuff: materialism and consumerism. Whoever dies with the most toys wins.

That is not the conservatism of Russell Kirk, nor is it the next conservatism. Conservatives have seldom admired the “lifestyle” of the nouveau riche. It is understandable that the generation which grew up in the Great Depression of the 1930s was focused on accumulation. But the younger generations of today, who grew up in perhaps too much abundance, are not attracted to materialism. Neither are we.

In our book, The Next Conservatism, Paul Weyrich and I suggest conservatives adopt an intensive rather than extensive valuation of material things, i.e., that they put quality over quantity. A small number of beautiful things, made by hand by craftsmen and passed generation to generation, have meaning that cheap store-bought stuff (often made overseas) intended to wear out quickly and be thrown away can never have.

Does this conflict with the present notion of basing our economy on consumerism? Yes. Conservatives value saving over spending. We believe it wise for families to accumulate wealth over generations (which is why we oppose inheritance taxes). Often, “old money” fortunes built that way yield dividends to society as a whole, in beautiful buildings, patronage of art and music, and philanthropy. One need only think of the libraries Andrew Carnegie built all over America to see what wealth can do.

This leads the next conservatism to embrace author and writer for The American Conservative magazine Rod Dreher’s “Crunchy Cons Manifesto”. Some of its main points are:

  • Modern conservatism has become too focused on money, power, and the accumulation of stuff.
  • Big business deserves as much skepticism as big government.
  • Culture is more important than politics and economics.
  • Small, Local, Old, and Particular are almost always better than Big, Global, New, and Abstract.
  • Beauty is more important than efficiency. (We would add that efficiency has never been a conservative virtue.)
  • The relentlessness of media-driven pop culture deadens our sense to authentic truth, beauty, and wisdom.
  • We share Russell Kirk’s conviction that “the institution most essential to conserve is the family.”

The next conservatism amplifies Dreher’s warning about popular culture. It is now so destructive of everything true, everything good, and everything beautiful that it may have become the greatest threat to our civilization. It succeeds commercially by pandering to the worst human instincts in a downward spiral that must accelerate to retain its market. Violence, pervese sex, and human degradation in every form are its staples. It rivals and in some ways surpasses the horrors of the Roman arena.

Popular culture also injects messages into its victims, those who allow it into their lives. The most powerful is instant gratification. It could be argued that delayed gratification is the first requirement of civilization, which suggests instant gratification is civilization’s worst enemy. We need only look at the black inner city to see what a culture of instant gratification does to communities. The white lower class is now following the same road, as the death rates from heroin and other dangerous drugs show.

The next conservatism’s answer to all this is simple: return to the old ways. The old ways worked, the new ways that emerged from the 1960s do not work. Teach and practice delayed gratification. Spend less than you earn. Value the old and handmade over the new and mass produced. Want only what you have.

Previous generations knew these things and lived by them. The challenge of our time is to recover them, teach them to our children, and re-create the good world we had and have lost.