Reclaiming Small Town Conservatism

“Something is happening here. A movement is afoot,” surmised Patrick Henry College Chair of Government and Front Porch Republic blog editor Mark Mitchell as he closed out a conference about something held in the middle of nowhere, which drew a divergent mix of concerned citizens willing to look beyond our rigid two-party system for answers to some of the country’s most endemic social and political ills. That “something” – the diminishing returns of “progress” in modern America; the centralizing power of technology in our culture and our politics; the war on community by the forces of postmodernism and commercial individualism – drew conferees from around the United States and across the ideological spectrum. A movement was afoot.

On September 24 a “community of souls,” to borrow an Eliot phrase, gathered on the rural hallowed grounds of Mount Saint Mary’s College in Emmitsburg, Maryland. Summoned by the editors of FrontPorchRepublic.com, a website devoted to the virtues of localism and small-town America, they traveled across the mid-Atlantic’s Rust Belt and descended from the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont to a rural town on Maryland’s border with Pennsylvania, a place seemingly innocent of the regular coarseness of modern life in today’s homogenized America, for a daylong event concerned with “human good and healthy communities.” Notably, the 200 kindred spirits were overwhelmingly young; the majority likely in their twenties and thirties, with men and women represented in roughly equal measure along with a few tykes in tow. The group at Mount St. Mary’s was a searching bunch of free thinkers, who descended upon this second-oldest Catholic college in the nation looking to transcend conventional political categories, perhaps seeking a better way to live anchored deeply in the soil of place threatened by the ruthless co-conspirators of big government, post-industrialism, and a culture committed to self-actualization.

Napoleon was once exiled to an island called Elba where he would grow restless, gather an army, and retake Paris. In Upstate New York’s Genesee County, another Elba exists. The keynote speaker of this conference on reclaiming human dignity calls this Elba home. His name is Bill Kauffman. He is a writer, a pithy, pitch-forked poet of place. Kauffman rocked and riffed before recalling the soul of the great American poet Robert Frost, who once characterized our projects of human improvement thusly:

With him the love of country means
Blowing it all to smithereens

And having it all made over new

Like Napoleon, Kauffman may too be raising an army to take back the soul of his country. However, there need not be alarm in the vicinity of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. This bunch of crunchies, farmers, bow-tied, and bookish folk seemed a gentle lot. No need to add anyone to a new “enemies list”: If somebody in the military-industrial complex needs to know our names they may write down the same name Odysseus gave that Cyclops he jammed in the eye with a red-hot poker – Nobody.

After about seven hours I found myself in Emmitsburg, by way of the aging Eisenhower Hotel, just up the road in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, with her ramparts and cannons from past civil unrest. All heaved earth amid a world blown to smithereens, Gettysburg is a place our nation reveres, consecrated in a solemn idea, healed in a famous Address taught with regularity at schoolhouses across the country. Driving through this time-worn terrain, I was thankful for a friend riding shotgun with map in hand, which with the help of a talking GPS got me from my place to this place. Fittingly, the locals suggested a place on Emmitsburg’s West Main Street called Ott House Pub. It was where the townies mixed; three storefronts connected to an early 20th century firehouse. Fire patches from distant stations littered the walls of this meeting and eating place. We wolfed down our food, watched the local commotion and beat it out of there before trouble brewed.

Like Kauffman, I too was blown along this course by the breath of Robert Frost. You see, he’s my neighbor. Buried with his wife just a few minutes from where I live on the New York-Vermont border. His soul is still alive in that land’s crisp autumn air, where maple trees flare; where Grandma Moses forever preserved trees, hills, mills, and town doings across the canvasses of her folk art. Her ghost also lives on in this place: Moses’s great grandson Will painting in sacred spaces above the earth at the bottom of my hill in Eagle Bridge.

There was, however, someone missing from this conference that has his thumb nearly on what we were all trying to talk about: a modern Thoreau or Frost, who bypassed the sirens of New York, privilege, prestige, things, and bling, Kentucky farmer-poet Wendell Berry. He skipped out on opportunity and material prosperity offered by big cities and important institutions and returned home to the farm. The scheduled speakers strode to the podium at “The Mount,” as the college calls itself, almost all building their story upon the work of this agrarian poet.

Berry knew well that “however frustrated, disappointed and unfilled life may be, the pursuit of self-liberation is still the strongest force now operating in our society.” He knew “the net result of our much-asserted individualism appears to be that we have become ‘free’ for the sake of not much self-fulfillment.” He knew to get to big ideas we need to “think little.” In a time of disorder Berry tells us to return to the care of the earth, the foundation of life and hope. Isn’t that what all this politics stuff is about? A way of life? An order of the soul? A foundational thinker of modern conservatism, Russell Kirk, thought so.

Later, conference panelist Caleb Stegall urged us back to the earth, tempting us to join “the last man club.” Now the chief legal counsel for the governor of Kansas, Stegall further urged us to “grab a root and growl.” I could dig that; I could do that. But Stegall was more than a primitivist. He had soul. He took us back to his roots, and, in doing so, pointed to a way of life still possible, as long as one was willing to work for it.

The speakers came from established places and posts including: Notre Dame, Georgetown, Hillsdale, and the New Atlantis Journal. But make no mistake, this was not your run-of-the-mill political conference, especially for a crowd which probably leaned conservative in traditions and faith. One orator, for example, had to bolt at lunch – to deliver 11 new piglets. He made it back in time to tell us why he left his job in biochemistry to live the life of an organic farmer. He was joined by a Catholic professor of theology at the Mount, David Cloutier. The goodly professor warned us about the trappings of self-disorder, laziness, and indulgence. Then he indulged his own passion and split. No pigs needing delivery; just a board meeting for the farmers market he directs. The author of Wendell Berry’s “Life and Work,” Jason Peters, was at this place too. Peters clarified what Cloutier was espousing, so guys like me could get it. He suggested if we continue to live and work like some lifelike Dilbert parody, we will turn into a nation of fat asses with trim, well-exercised typing fingers. Fat ass. Got it.

Coming out is never an easy thing to do. Sometimes you don’t realize what you are until another steps out into the nakedness of the public square. Rod Dreher did it, streaking his exposed self across the screen of National Review Online. That was 2005. People loved what they saw. A Birkenstocked Burkean streaking with Russell Kirk and a community of souls to the beat of permanent things. Dreher mooned consumer capitalism and corporate glimmer, embraced family, community, marriage, self-order, and restraint in the course of unifying his thought with a reverence for life lived for things outside oneself.

National Review would respond by giving him a cover article to explain more about this “way of being.” He called the practitioners of this lifestyle “crunchy cons.” A book would come out of it. The life Dreher hoped to live became clearer through its pages. It was for gun-loving organic gardeners, evangelical free-range farmers, hip home-schooling mamas, right-wing nature lovers, Burkeans, and countercultural conservatives. For me, it was about living as a Catholic. I found my place; I came out.

So, naturally, I would come out for a shindig Front Porch Republic was throwing to extol the virtues of place and something which looked a lot like a crunchy conservative lifestyle. Rod Dreher on the program sealed the deal, and a road trip it would be.

As it turned out, Dreher would have to cancel at the last minute. In a moving story of life and community, he went home to Baton Rouge, to attend the funeral of his younger sister Ruthie. A mourning Dreher blogged it all out. It was at once poetic, tragic, and uplifting. Everything we were about to learn about the importance of community was already playing out in Baton Rouge.

I’m back home now, ruminating over this whole thing with my cashmere goats. It occurs to me Russell Kirk believed conservatives aspire to order: both order in the soul and order in the state. The modern heaves and lurches of politics is all someplace else. It’s big, abstract, on the television. It’s a war of the worlds: corporations, armies, nations all swirling around.

Absent is the self-examination of the person in the mirror and how we exchange with loved ones around the dinner table. Forgotten is how to live a life more thoughtfully, with reverence and veneration to community and creator.

I think about these things as I wonder about the meaning of jackasses and rogue elephants and “Decision Day.” Then I look to the heavens and see an eagle soaring on a different plane. Or is it a turkey vulture?

Matthew Dill is a Catholic, husband and dad of four. He yearns for conservative family life. He currently directs Member Services for the NYS Assembly Minority Conference (which is essentially a communications and advertising shop for the 51 Assembly Republican Members of NYS); is the past Republican Assembly Campaign Committee political director & Saratoga County GOP vice-chair/political director; and the former Assistant Director of NYS Right to Life Committee (Affiliate of National Right to Life Committee).

 

29 COMMENTS

  1. Matt,
    You really captured the spirit of the conference and like you, I am so grateful I could be a part of it.

    My only regret is there was little time for attendees to discuss what’s wrong with the world over some good dark beer. For me, caring for the sheep and cattle came first, so I did not arrive in the Emmitsburg area until midnight Friday.

    The event was worth all the attendant miseries of a long drive.
    Thanks to all who worked so hard to make it possible.

    Richard Grossman

  2. I should only add that Conservatives might favor order so that when disorder comes, its entertainment value can be properly compared against an august baseline, allowing one to appreciate both order and disorder to their fullest extent.

    Rampant disorder is like inflation, or perhaps stagnant deflation, it foists a cockeyed idea that indiscriminate activity is productive no matter what the outcome. “Whatever” is the mantra.

  3. Thanks for the kind words, Matthew. ‘Twas a pleasure meeting a fellow Upstater at the conference. I agree with you and Mark: this was the start of something small…

  4. Matt,
    Very good essay, your sentiments stike close to my heart. My fear is that things will get a lot worse before they get better. Too many people have the attitude that they cannot make a difference so why try. Thank you for not being one of them.

  5. Sounds like a fascinating conference. To blurry the lines between the arts and religion, politics and history, is a useful practice that both distills and invigorates the culture. It seems to me that this movement treads some fine lines, but it with its inherent dignity I have every confidence it will grow.

    Thanks for sharing Matt.

  6. Matt,

    I didn’t attend the conference, but your eloquent description of the event and the individuals who shaped it really hit home. In times of national disarray, we all seek balance and harmony in our lives. Often, focusing inward on the things most important to us – our faith, our family, our friends – will bring the balance we crave. Your personal journey is inspirational, and I hope many will listen and follow your lead.

    Michael Lenz (Christian, husband, father of four)

  7. I think I have a much better grasp and respect for your “crunchy con” worldview now than following any of our countless conversations over the past six years. That’s a tribute to some great writing. While we may not always agree empirically, your defense on the need to find order within one’s soul is spot on.

  8. The writer causes me to long for something greater than I am currently living — simplicity. He reminds me that contentment is a sought after prize that can be won by all who whose spirit will simply be still.

  9. Matt,
    You have opened up a whole new world to me with this post. I am very intrigued by what I’ve read and the “crunchy cons” sound like a group I’d love to learn more about. I believe as Americans our political views have strayed very far from our moral values, changing the way our society lives. Those of us with conservative morals are persecuted for not being “tolerant,” though I would argue those who claim to be “tolerant” are the ones who push their views onto other people and have made our society much less accepting of conservative, moral values. Society has made conservatives out to be the crazies, the drastic right-wing people who are intollerant and want to disrupt “society” by bringing back the importance of conservative family values when in fact they only want to live in peace and harmony, focused on their faith for the betterment of their family, community and society as a whole.

    Individualism is great, but in the end a society can’t function if everyone is out for themselves-their individual rights and not working for the betterment of their peers. I hope our society will wake up and start living life more thoughtfully as you put it, if we don’t I’m not sure what will become of us.

  10. At the root of where I came from are the values of conservatism, though not simply in the form of where our news came from or what papers we read but how I and my neighbors actually lived. Sounds like this was an excellent conference. Thanks for sharing, Matt.

  11. Great article. I really look forward to reading more about what you have to say about Crunchy Cons as a lifestyle, and how it really sparks the true meaning of Conservative both in politics, but in everyday life.

  12. This is a great reminder of what I have often aspired to have. A place where you can shut out the noise of the world. Well written Mr. Dill. I really enjoyed it.

  13. Matt,

    Very interesting article. I did like your mention of Gettysburg and Napoleon and found the term Crunchy Conservative fascinating. Perhaps you and I could play hacky sack sometime as we listen to Rush or Bill Kristol.

    Anyway, I did enjoy this blog and appreciate you keeping me on your list. Keep up the good work. Is that your new house below the masthead? Very nice.

  14. Very interesting Matt, first I’ve heard of this movement and your article painted a great picture of what must have been an excellent conference. Keep it up!

  15. Thanks for the comment Bill Kauffman. For my New York political friends, you ought to follow the work of this Western New York Author. However, be prepared to rethink and challenge your notions of political landscape.

  16. Your essay Matt reminds me of a time long ago when a wise friend convinced me of the attributes of permanently giving up city life (New York City to be precise) in favor of being a big fish in a much smaller pond. The small towns, villages and cities of upstate New York and New England (or for that matter in places like Wyoming, Montana or the midwest and south that I’ve visited), remind me of an America that once was and can be again. Great places to be one with your community, raise and educate your children and dream big dreams. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  17. Matt,

    I enjoyed your essay. I have reexamined my own political thinking in recent years and now differ often from my boyhood political dogma. I think that we are divided into the hatfields and mccoys because its easier then the messy free for all of different ideas. I see many prochoice women become moms and become pro-life. I am now anti-war because I cannot reconcile my previous stances with my pro-life views. I guess Conservatism is not a monolithic laundry list of policy dogma but a way of life. I think your eassay captures this well. God bless and keep writing.

  18. Great essay! I am not going to critique your work because it feels weird, but you gave an excellent, deep, and inciteful review of this conference you attended and the small town conservative movement. It worries me that the only people making “noise” in our communities are the liberals. For example, this whole “Take Back Wall St” fiasco and the Move On.Org people. Your essay made me think about getting back to our conservative values and I hope we will answer the call. I am

  19. Matt, that was a soulful and thoughtful piece, and it is gratifying to hear of people pursuing greater depth and substance in an otherwise increasingly shallow, culturally superficial time. I wanted to hear more about Berry. Keep this stuff going.

  20. Hi Matt, that country air on the New York/Vermont border is doing you well. Being a small town guy I can relate. Just last week I took a walk in my hayfield in Stillwater, a place I return to every few weeks. To live the crunchy conservative lifestyle is not a bad way to go. Your writing style is inspiring. Great essay!

  21. Matt,
    What a wonderful examination of this conference which typifies a new movement. For years now I have been striving to live a way of life that is important to me and my family. To me it was about family, community, the American spirit, and a love of the land and the great outdoors.

    Your essay has provided a new context for the lifestyle that I am trying to live. Thank you for giving voice to the thoughts and views of many of us who are too busy delivering piglets, growing crops, or just living to express these things ourselves.

  22. What a great essay! After reading your piece, I feel like I was at the conference, too. At a time when our lives seem unendingly busy and modern technology crowds out time for reflection and renewal, you make a great case for getting back in touch with what really matters.

  23. Well, your Uncle Roy approves of this essay. I can see that country life is doing you good. I’ve heard of Dreher, Crunchy Cons, but haven’t read his book. I think Bill Bennett talked about him on his radio program. Environmentalism has been poisoned so bad by the Left, I’m not sure the Right can lasso it into a Teddy Roosevelt corral. Likewise, the organic food movement which my wife and I semi-agree with, as much as we shop local organic farmers or get real excited when we’re in a Whole Foods, feeling kind of cool. I don’t know what that means.

    Still, what you write about is an upper to middle class brushstroke in David Brooks BoBo world. Throw in New England and the maple trees, but those big city problems have got me. I’m there more than I’m crunchy time. You know what I mean? I got a National election to worry about. I got a couple hundred people I can personally influence. I can’t control much, but I try. It’s all heroic in my own way. March on brother!

  24. Great essay- I would certainly identify myself as a liberal, but we have the same opinions about living a thoughtful life, one that has a connection to nature and creation. Its good to reinforce that there can be common threads between liberals and conservatives, and get away from the name-calling and stereotyping. Love the term “crunchy conservative”!

  25. Matt,

    Great essay. I knew you had it in you. It did make me want to back to my home in Vermont or my college hills in West Virginia. Ah the simple life. We miss you here in the “big city” but happy for you. Keep it coming.

    Ken

  26. Matt you did a wonderful job creating vivid images of your journey to the conference and the historical places you went through along the way.

    Through the midst of all the confusion going on today, God is working in great ways. He has not given up on America to find her way once again. His presence and mercy can be seen by those who seek Him in truth and love.

    Thank you for contributing your article and a piece of yourself for the reader to enjoy and think about.

    Craig

  27. Excellent read, but dude…why emulate Napoleon??? I mean, yeah he marched on Paris again, but he was crushed at Waterloo…ughhh, found it hard to get past that.

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