rod dreher, crunchy cons, family, conservative

DALLAS, TX. I am bemused, appalled, and fascinated — more or less at the same time — by the foofarah over Rush Limbaugh’s CPAC speech. His version of conservatism is popular, of course, but is not recognizable as any kind of conservatism worth defending. I did a quick fisking of the Limbaugh address on my Crunchy Con blog, but in brief, the gist of what’s wrong with Limbaughism is that it’s right-wing Rousseauism. That is, he believes that man is born free, but is put in chains by the government. He believes in living without limits is the essence of conservatism, which is just … crazy. If traditional-minded conservatives know anything, it’s that human nature is fallen, and there are natural limits that must be respected. Conservatism is a form of humility. I see none of that in Limbaugh and what he stands for. The media are framing the conflict between Limbaugh and RNC Chairman Michael Steele (as well as reformist moderates like David Frum) as a battle for the future of the Republican Party and the conservative movement. Funny, but where I sit on this front porch, I’m asking myself: can they both lose? I must say, though, that one good thing about the woebegone state American conservatism finds itself in right now is that it opens up space for dissenters like the writers who have gathered around the Front Porch Republic blog to have conversations about conservatism, or conservatisms, that aren’t part of mainstream political discourse. Yet. I’m honored and thrilled to be part of this team, and look forward to many good Front Porch conversations in the future (the photo with this post, btw, was taken on my front porch in 2005; we have added a little girl to our brood since then).

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Rod Dreher
Rod Dreher is author of “Crunchy Cons,” a 2006 nonfiction book exploring the lifestyles and values of neo-traditionalist conservatives, and is also a columnist and editorial writer at The Dallas Morning News. He writes the Crunchy Con blog on He has worked as a writer and editor at National Review and as chief film critic of the New York Post. His work has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, USA Today, City Journal, The Sunday Times of London, among other publications. He is an occasional contributor to NPR’s “All Things Considered,” and has been a guest on ABC News, CNN, Fox News and other broadcast outlets. In addition, Dreher is a Fellow of the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture, and a recipient of a 2009 Templeton Cambridge Journalism Fellowship in Science and Religion. He is a native of south Louisiana, a convert to Orthodox Christianity, and lives in inner-city Dallas with his wife, three children, and five backyard chickens. See books written by Rod Dreher.


  1. Well said. I was at CPAC for that speech. Though it made for good entertainment it hardly espoused any ideals worth aspiring to as a nation. Unless of course you find a Rousseauian state of nature to be a utopia. Good insights.

  2. “Conservatism is a form of humility.”

    Precisely. Conservatism, it was concluded in a course I took from Dr. Mitchell, is a sort of disposition. It accepts the grace of existence and responds with the return-gift of gratitude. As I see it, conservatism realizes that the default state is ignorance. The capacity for knowledge is unmerited and knowledge is not merely a tool.

  3. I’ve listened to Rush off and on since 1990, and find Rush does believe in constraints – self constraints. He also sees the value of faith and family in supporting and informing those constraints. What he does not believe in is restraints imposed by the government. He may be more libertarian for your tastes, but to say he believes in no restraints tells me that you have not really listened to him for any real amount of time.

  4. Hi Rod,

    I think you make some interesting points about conservative Rousseauism, but I think if you were to engage in a conversation with Rush Limbaugh about this–wouldn’t it be nice, a give-and-take rational conversation, what a concept?–that his positive view of the American people is predicated not on some noble savage concept of humanity but on the Judeo-Christian foundations of American society. So your fisking has some straw men lurking about.

    Of course mankind is fallen. But a man redeemed in Christ (or obedient to the Ten Commandments), though certainly not perfect, is more able to be a virtuous, independent, honorable man who takes care of his family and other responsibilities and cares for the common good. When the state rushes in to take care of basic human responsibilities, it creates dependency and fosters more of the problems it purports to solve. So I believe Rush Limbaugh is referring to the potential in each one of us to be virtuous and prosperous within that Judeo-Christian context, one that would also allow for the creation strong families and other intervening institutions to keep an overweening state in check.

    What Rush is railing against is the kind of big government nanny state that crushes the family and religions and all those intervening institutions that are necessary to inculcate virtue and independence from the state. In fact, preaching virtue and restraint is becoming the new hate speech, at least here in Canada where I live.

    With Obama’s moves to kill conscience rights, America is not that far behind.

    I think it is useful and interesting to have these debates about the true nature of conservatism, but let’s give each other the benefit of a doubt. To defeat Obamism, we’re going to need Rush. We’re going to need David Frum and we’re going to need you and your Front Porch folks. I hope we can avoid attacking each other and engage each other in debate with courtesy and respect. Our country is at stake.

    We will have to unite as a coalition and we will have to find a way to appeal to the mainstream, but on the road to that end, let’s remember that each of us appeals to a certain constituency, and all those constituencies are needed and valuable in getting our country back.

    Deborah Gyapong

  5. Very nice introductory piece, Rod! (And a great photo of the family.) Your description of Limbaugh as preaching a “right-wing Rousseauism” is thought-provoking. Rousseauism–if one can speak of Rousseau’s thought in ideological, “ism” terms–is a lot more than the belief that in the state of nature human beings enjoyed an essentially perfect and equal freedom, because of an absense of any kind of collective consciousness or restrictions that would group them or oblige them or limit them in any way; it would also have to be the belief that history tragically fated us to become dependent upon one another, as we formed communities and such. So, if we want to take your reading of Limbaugh all the way (and why not? this is just a blog comment, after all), you’re saying that he thinks we’ve somehow allowed ourselves to be snookered into believing that “government” is necessary, because of our tragic tendency to…well, being social beings. In other words, he’s not just a goofball anti-government blowhard, he’s an Ayn Randian, anti-Aristotelian, human-nature-denying fruitcake.

    This may not be fair to your comment, or to Limbaugh. But it sure is fun to write down!

  6. I’m going to like it here. 🙂 Growing up in a Limbaugh listening household I always felt that Rush was not my kind of conservative. As I’ve grown older I’ve discovered that there existed a kind of conservatism that made sense and could comfortably coexist with my faith. Conservatism isn’t about a lack of restraint or the deification of big business. Rod, I really appreciate what you said about conservatism being a form of humility, and I think that’s what I always found missing in Rush.

  7. There are many good things about Rush but humility is not one of them. Indeed, isn’t humility the one virtue that modern conservatives seem to ignore consistently? Think of George W. refusing to admit his mistakes. Or Bill Bennett neglecting to place it in his “Book of Virtues.” Or Jindal talking about the ability of Americans to “do anything.” The truth is American “conservatives” are really progressives and have been so for decades.

  8. No, Robert. He would not say that there is not a role for government, but that government has usurped too much of what should be left to the individual or voluntary associations.

  9. Well said.

    While a few @ the CPAC conference spoke of restraint and self-limiting, Rush Limbaugh was not one of them…

    I didn’t think his joke about God was funny, either…

    Check out Michael Dougherty’s article about Mark Sanford @ The American Conservative. It speaks about this subject.

  10. I’m not a fan of Limbaugh. I do find his show entertaining when I have occasion to hear it, but the notion that he is the leader of American conservatives just appalling. As I’ve been heard that said recently, I thought it was just President Obama putting a face on a straw man, but now I disappointed to learn that so many people who identify with conservatism agree.

    I guess Limbaugh does stand for mainstream GOP conservatism, which is more of a populist classical liberalism than anything else, but from a substantive standpoint, I think that’s a dead end. Classical liberalism is certainly a legitimate and valuable tradition that should be a part American conservatism, but it has tended to crowd out other aspects. Populism has its merits as well, and may be particular justified in the present moment, but it’s not constructive in the long run. It’s more fruitful to cultivate the right kind of elite than to tear down the established one.

    It seems to me that what is needed is a new synthesis of ideas, a vision for rebuilding a cohesive society that provides an alternative to the liberal-progressive’s statist approach. That would require intellectual leadership, perhaps someone in a Buckley-esque role who can bring the right people together, facilitate debate and help popularized their ideas.

  11. I don’t listen to Rush Limbaugh or any other talk radio for the same reason I don’t read comic books. Still, treating Limbaugh like a leader political leader instead of a political entertainer only plays into the hands of the President’s political operatives. I fear that our current debate is locking us into an endless cycle of defense or denial about everything Limbaugh says. Of course the National Review and other conservative outlets made the mistake of elevating him far beyond his station. Now we are paying the price. If I were a National Republican leader my response to Limbaugh questions would be to ask why the questioner doesn’t ask such questions of the President about Janine Garafolo. Real leaders do not stoop to such trifles.

    Conservative office holders and intellectuals of stature should speak for Conservative ideas and ideals.

    On another point, Limbaugh talks a lot about freedom from government because of listener feedback. Let’s not forget that it is overbearing government action that creates a conservative mentality in many. That, and the individualistic inclination in the American Character is a very real theme informing the rise of our movement in the Post War era.

    You are right to place emphasis on community and spiritual traits such as humility and Civitas. But I think we are doomed in this country to balancing our competing impulses.

    I look forward to visiting this site and partaking of what is written here.

    Finally, I can’t resist mentioning something re what Ed O says aboute the need for a “Buckley-esque figure.” Let’s remember that Bill Buckley abandoned his classical music station in New York years ago. He was criticized for it at the time and defended himself on financial grounds. Here was an opportunity to start a middle brow conservative media entity, alas gone for good.

  12. Rod hit it out of the park here. Rousseauistic conservatism is an apt description for Limbaugh…who like most CPAC attendees and presenters still buy into the National Review/Fox News/Ann Coulter brand of mainstream conservatism. By not accommodating this form of conservatism real conservatives can take back the movement or at least pull it away from its current direction.

    I also wouldn’t call David Frum a reformer or a moderate. He is a neoconservative and most if not all of his beliefs have little in common with the traditionalist conservatism of Russell Kirk, Richard Weaver, and Robert Nisbet and their Distributist, Southern Agrarian, and New Humanist predecessors who I assume influence Front Porch Republic. I’ll take order, tradition, faith, hierarchy, authority, the natural family, and organic society over spreading democracy, monopolistic capitalism, “big government” conservatism, and atomistic individualism any day.

  13. @ Stewart

    That was well summarized. An individual or a nation are both well served by gratitude. Somehow we’ve replaced gratitude with a sense of entitlement, both as individuals and as a nation.

    “It accepts the grace of existence and responds with the return-gift of gratitude.”

    Very well said, beautiful definition of humility/conservatism.

  14. My main concern after watching the speech was that it came off as libertarian, but listening to Rush over the years he is anything but. He believes government should punish evil, he is not an anarchist. In regards to the economy, he postulates that it is government regulation that has created the housing/mortgage crisis not greed by bankers and investors. I think it is both. Ultimately, people dislike his tact and style, but he is not a politician where euphemisms are the order of the day. He attacks the liberal fluff firmly and squarely. That’s essentially Rod’s argument – Rush is not humble and true Conservatives are. What does this mean really? Conservatives are suppose allow liberals set the premise, and thus we are to supinate? There is nothing Conservative about defeatism. I have heard this fallacious argument before that it is one’s tact not one’s rationale that makes an argument persuasive.

  15. I think your connection to Rosseau might be a bit strained, I would connect Rush much more along the lines of Ayn Rand. His talk of self-interest and self-determinism is much more in line with her philosophy of objectivism (virtues of selfishness) as well as the actual verbiagee that Rush uses to speak of these issues. I think the tension in what Rush proposes is the attempt to reconcile his Christian roots (i.e., human depravity, et. al., things reflected more in works by his brother) and the rationalist, humanist philosophy of Rand. As a Christian, I admire Rand’s critique of false humility (which is actually pride), self-determinism and government largess but I realize that her philosophy is flawed because it places human reason as the final arbiter of morality and truth rather than God and His Word. I’m not certain that Rush has come to grips yet with how to reconcile this. That said, I’m a big fan of Rush and I would rather debate the ideological tension in his thought than the insanity and lack of thought in liberal ideology anyday!

  16. I enjoy Rush for the entertainment value, e.g. he always manages to poke a finger into some liberal’s eye. Where he comes up short is his kowtowing to the party line and his, apparent, firm conviction that happiness and materialism are existentially co-joined, plus his devout faith in American foreign interventionism.
    BTW, this is a really, really good site!

  17. By and large…Rush is an entertainer who knows how to mingle enough principle in the mix to hold an audience. Yes, he is effective and knows it.

    He isn’t a Christian, as most of us realize. He isn’t even pretending to uphold a Judeo-Christian ethic (whatever that is). He’s said as much. He has some generic sense of morality that could fit in just about any works-righteous format under the sun. He, like all media (yes, even so-called Christian outlets), is willing to utilize whatever means necessary to keep the radio business afloat. Again, he’s said as much just a couple of weeks back.

    I appreciate Rush being honest. Yet, I don’t appreciate when genuine, albeit well-meaning Christians want someone like Rush to carry the torch. Brothers, Christ has a chosen means for that…and it ain’t Rush or Conservatism.

    Rush has a radio appeal. He knows his business.

    Ultimately, all political theory/application is under the sun and wears out with using. All of it limited. All of it is apt to lack humility just as each of us.

    Whenever we are found ascribing to our own works/wisdom some degree of inherent sacredness…we’ve begun to lose our way. Rush (like Hannity) have gone so far as to state explicitely or by implication that the Constitution is a Sacred Document. We know it isn’t, but too many of those who claim the name of Christ are willing to go along with this sort of thing in order to fend off those *terrible* liberals.

    Funny thing is (actually it’s sad), that, both conservativism and liberalism are of this world but both go on and on as if they were heaven sent. Fact is, even at their best they are dependent upon one another to continue there relatively short existence here. Meaning, they keep one another in check as it were. In a Fallen world that’s essential!

    Let us remember, the whole notion (of earthly government) operates on the principle of compromise, and rightly so. And, this distinguishes all earthly government from that everlasting government in which there is absolutely no compromise. To mingle the two realms is to diminish the ultimate value of both.

  18. I appreciate JMJR’s comment about the tension inherent in Limbaugh’s point of view. Reading Niall Furguson’s The Ascent of Money has once again reminded me that our financial system (and our politics) reflects and magnifies the confraternity of the human type — the universal democracy of sinners. While I decry Limbaugh’s seemingly embrace of progress and limitlessness, I stand with JMJR in his defense of Mr. Limbaugh’s apologetic against the idolatry of the State.

  19. I used to listen to Rush L for a while, but I had to stop because I couldn’t stand the commercials or the repetitiveness, and because I get real paranoid when people tell me what I think I want to hear.

    Rush Limbaugh believes only in Rush Limbaugh. He is an entertainer, not a guru. His daily extended (OMG! boring) rants are contrived to play the same strings as the advertisers on his program. The entire show is a sales pitch for Rush Limbaugh. It sounds like the sea stories on long boring night shifts in the Navy. Someone said “Rush Limbaugh believes in personal limits.” LOL! Yeah, as long as they are YOUR personal limits, not his. There is no limit to how much money one can make when preaching to people who think they want to spend money on telling each other how ‘right’ they are.

    The only true evil in the world is an action taken based on blind faith. Whether that faith is in gods, guns, government or gurus, if you do something without questioning your premises, you are taking steps toward evil things.

    I’m so far right, I’m left. Follow the logic as you have done above, and Limbaugh Conservatism leads nowhere. Government is by the consent of the governed. When the group decides that the individual can’t consent to be governed, then the group is just as wrong as the individual who decides that everyone must consent to be governed. The relationship between the individual and society is an education issue. Usefulness is at stake: the usefulness of the human race and the individuals who choose (mostly) to be part of civil society. If we can’t put to rest the most basic concepts of governance, how are we supposed to get on with living usefully?

    Talk radio is like junk mail: most people should just throw it out, and those who choose to embrace it need to understand the consequences of believing “They wouldn’t LIE to me!.”
    Limbaugh is great at telling us the not-quite-complete information that is just enough to justify our not-quite-complete reasoning so that we feel good about ourselves and call the number for the Bose radio or vitamin pills that will make us feel even better (but not quite as good as Percocet)

  20. Dan Conine & others,

    You are spot on. Rush is about Rush. He is a salesman & an entertainer. God help those who seek more in this blowhard.
    Ayn Rand is his only light. Rush worships at the foot of Mammon. His only goal is self service.

    And unlike the poor misguided, unlearned sheep that follow him, Rush knows exactly what he is doing.

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