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Beyond left-right: Nader coalition's possible appeal to traditionalist conservatives

By Mark Wegierski
web posted March 8, 2004

Ralph NaderAlthough independent presidential candidate Ralph Nader is conventionally said to attract left-wing Democrats, he may also appeal to some traditionalist conservatives, and thus weaken Bush's support in the "Red" heartland and among some eclectic urban subsectors.

Indeed, the Nader presidential campaign may attract some support from traditionalist conservatives inclined toward conservation and protectionism, as well those opposed to the war in Iraq. The anti-consumerist/anti-consumptionist stances of Nader can be given a "social conservative" cast. Probably the most prominently known figure who has combined ecology and traditionalism was J.R.R. Tolkien, who expressed the hope for a world of "less noise and more green."

Many persons today do not realize the simultaneously ultra-traditional and radical implications of a consistently ecological stance.

Ecology, for example, recognizes the finitude of resources and encourages various forms of rationing -- which traditionalists politely term "thrift." The systematic rationing of, for example, water-consumption; of "petrochem" consumption (resulting in the curtailment of 'car-culture'); of luxury (exotic) food consumption, and so forth -- is a desire of both the ecological fringe and ultra-conservative critics of the consumer society.

Secondly, those traditionalist conservatives concerned about global overpopulation are willing to support a campaign of fairly drastic population-planning measures such as those seen in China -- which are largely supported by the ecological Left (and opposed by the Bush administration). At the same time, many traditionalist conservatives are hoping for a possible corollary of global population control, that is virtually zero-immigration policies across the entire planet. Policies of near-zero immigration would perhaps become more acceptable if they would entail an imperative to give truly massive aid to the planet's "south."

Thirdly, both traditionalist conservatives and the ecological Left would welcome a drastic reduction of what they see as America's vastly overblown, current-day commodity-culture and consumer fetishism. Both "social conservative" and "radical" strands are possible in the attack on the consumption society. The increasing saliency of these critiques would mean the curtailment of Hollywood lifestyle and fashion-industry excesses, of expensive advertising, of massive sports industries (where athletic stars are paid tens of millions of dollars a year), and of what critics characterize as $500 running shoes manufactured in Third World sweatshops for a cost of $5, and so forth.

Fourthly, in a situation where an ecological attitude to the economy became more prominent, there would have to be the establishment of belief-systems which would ensure the continuation of a virtually zero-growth, stationary-state economy without massive social chaos resulting. These belief systems would probably have to involve some forms of neo-traditionalism and neo-authoritarianism, which could be summed up essentially by the phrase, "persuading people to accept some kind of limits to growth and to live within their means." To make life in such a society more tolerable, great concetrations of wealth would probably be heavily taxed, while the provision of welfare would be streamlined along the lines of a guaranteed annual income. Traditionalist conservatives would be likely to welcome the grinding down of what they often see as mostly oligarchic, "ill-gotten" wealth.

Today, traditionalist conservatism could indeed be seen as a possible ally of the ecological Left. Some ecologists practice a gentle activism, eating natural foods, promoting recycling, and so forth, but these individual efforts are seen by some ecological radicals as too slow to lead to a massive, planet-wide paradigm-shift on behalf of ecological understanding. Indeed, some individuals choose a consciously radical path of "direct action" -- which tends to alienate the vast majority of the population. What the environmental movement manifestly seems to be missing is a "middle ground" of major impact on the social and political arena.

Some traditionalist conservatives may indeed be hoping to add "muscle" to the ecological outlook. Given its philosophy of inherent limits on human behavior and recognition of human and physical nature, some forms of neo-traditionalism (such as those represented in the thought of figures like John Ruskin, William Morris, G.K. Chesterton, J.R.R. Tolkien, Christopher Lasch, and Wendell Berry) see themselves as "brothers-in-arms" with ecology. The neo-mysticism represented by such figures as C.G. Jung, Joseph Campbell, and Ken Wilber is also attractive-seeming for such "bridge-building" efforts.

Certain segments of the Left have gotten entangled in projects of utopian reconstruction that have led to massive social dislocation, and, in the extreme, to mass slaughter. In the United States, traditionalists argue that the advance of the "counter-cultural" lifestyle agenda and the massive extension of administrative and educational bureaucracies, in the wake of the Sixties, has contributed to increasing social disorder and the valorization of disruptive antinomian attitudes. At the same time, the ecological idealism which was possibly the best part of the Sixties, has failed to find much practical instantiation today -- America has become more commercialized and paved-over in the interval, and big corporations are more powerful than ever.

It also does not speak well for some parts of the Left that the death-toll associated with nominally Communist regimes (not to mention the surreal ecological blight in many parts of the former Eastern Bloc) has been estimated at over a hundred million persons. On the other hand, the extreme Right has also often been -- most notoriously in the case of Nazi Germany -- openly murderous and genocidal. It could be argued that a professedly moderate neo-traditionalism probably sees itself as the most efficacious ally of the ecological Left.

Indeed, neo-traditionalism sees itself as an antidote to the quasi-totalitarian impulse of untrammelled utopianism which characterizes some ecological thinking, while offering a strong, concrete, practical, and "authoritative" substance to ecological endeavor. Neo-traditionalism sees itself as operating through such powerful bonding forces as nation, religion, family, and local community and offering a profoundly social context to ecological theory that will stabilize and ground it in "the real world," and will make it more possible to be practically effected in the future. Neo-traditionalism interprets ecological action at the global level as precisely "inter-national" (i.e., between nations), rather than trans-national (i.e., above nations).

In its self-understanding, traditionalist philosophy shares with ecology a profound disgust with the late modern world, a critique of current-day capitalism, and an embrace of healthy and thrifty living -- rejecting what it sees as the current-day, ad-driven, consumption culture of brand fetishism and profligate waste. The possible commonalities and convergences of traditionalism and ecology have been pointed out by, among others, British political theorist John Gray (formerly at Oxford, now at LSE) in his essay "An Agenda for Green Conservatism" (in Beyond the New Right: Markets, Government and the Common Environment (Routledge, 1993)). John Gray has also written, among other works: False Dawn: The Delusions of Global Capitalism (Granta, 1998), which has been described by conservative commentator John O'Sullivan as "...an attack on globalization written with the dash and recklessness of a Polish cavalryman" ("Gray Dawn: The new tack of an ur-conservative." National Review, March 5, 2001, pp. 39-41).

The broadly centrist criticisms of traditionalist conservatism and the ecological Left are manifest: regardless of the traditionalist conservative claim to social and political realism, and ecology's claim of scientific justification -- they are both today nothing more than wildly utopian ideologies, endeavoring to force people into an idealized straight-jacket of what amounts to virtually the same type of materially immiserated existence -- whether for "cultural-moral" or "ecological-conservationist" reasons. Neither traditionalist conservatism nor the ecological Left appear to understand the essence of the processes of wealth-creation in a free economy.

From the center perspective, the supporters of figures like Nader and Buchanan are indeed highly similar, and deservedly on the fringes of American politics.

The Bush campaign will, however, have to remain aware of the distinct possibility of Nader "poaching" ultra-traditionalist support away from them, especially in the "Red" heartland, and among various eclectic socio-demographic subsectors. Bush's stress on opposition to gay marriage is one obvious way he will endeavor to keep his razor-thin 2000 victory intact. Given another possibly very close presidential race, the "Nader factor" might in some contexts impinge on the Republican candidate's chances -- rather than necessarily only those of the Democratic contender.

Mark Wegierski is a Canadian writer and historical researcher.

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