In response to a column last month, a Charleston City Paper reader took me to task for calling Ralph Nader more conservative than mainstream Republicans. Here's the paragraph I wrote that seemed to upset him the most:
"Given the choice between Republicans like [Mitt] Romney and [John] McCain, who call for open borders, stagnant wages, lost jobs, corporate welfare, and more wars, or a man of the left who wants to stop illegal immigration, save jobs, end Washington bailouts, and would prefer to spend tax dollars on Americans instead of Iraqis, I would gladly show Nader my Green card."
After questioning my conservative credentials, the irate reader finished his e-mail with "Nader's a stupid liberal — get a clue!"
Inspired, I've since been gathering many clues in an attempt to shine the light on conservatism in unusual places. Nader's in good company.
While for decades conservatives have championed the family as the basic unit of society, Kentucky writer Wendell Berry takes it a step further by promoting the family farm as an economic ideal. Berry argues that both the welfare paternalism of big government and the reckless urban sprawl of big business have disrupted traditional patterns of community.
The man who raises his family on his own land and earns his living from that land is more at liberty to "pursue happiness" than the man who never gets to see his family and works for a corporate boss whose only stake in any patch of soil is the bottom line.
"Land" becomes "real estate," "father" becomes a paycheck, and apple pie becomes Applebee's, where Dad might be able to afford a brief family dinner, so long as Wall Street remains healthy.
In such an environment, argues Berry, capitalism becomes the enemy of liberty, not to mention the Christian concept of stewardship and respect for all Creation.
While in contemporary politics any criticism of capitalism is categorized as leftist, Berry's agrarian outlook differs little from that of Thomas Jefferson, the Twelve Southerners (including author Robert Penn Warren) who defended the Old South in the infamous 1930's manifesto "I'll Take My Stand," and conservative founding father Russell Kirk.
Indeed, if writing in 1950, Berry would be heralded as a thoughtful, southern conservative. In 2008, Fox News probably wouldn't even let him in the building.
Working in talk radio, I have noticed that some of the most genuinely conservative callers are older black folks. I say "genuinely" because I take plenty of calls from white men who believe defending the Republican Party at all costs is inherently conservative, an absurd proposition at best.
Writes conservative columnist — and my friend — Dylan Hales on the online conservative site, Taki's Magazine, "Blacks generally take an 'America First' view on foreign policy (non-interventionist), oppose mass immigration (illegal or otherwise), and are culturally far to the right of most suburbanite whites who vote GOP. They are deeply suspicious of public officials, elected or otherwise, for good reason."
Conservative critics of illegitimate birth rates in the black community often blame government welfare, as it subsidizes anti-family behavior, which in turn has lead to rampant criminal behavior.
They're right. After slavery and segregation, government welfare is arguably the worst thing that's ever happened to the black community.
But it might be worth noting that the most "extreme" black advocates — black nationalists — essentially agree.
They have always stressed seceding from both government paternalism and "white culture," believing blacks would do better by looking inward and reinvigorating their communities on their own terms.
What's often advertised as conservatism today, as expressed by everyone from George W. Bush to Sean Hannity, seems to mean having complete faith in government so long as a Republican is in charge. Black nationalists don't trust anybody — especially the government.
Who's actually more conservative?
My purpose in pointing out the conservatism that can be found in unconventional places is not to dilute the term, but to rescue it, from the know-nothing pundits and party hacks who have commandeered and cheapened an important political tradition.
If finding conservative qualities in leftist presidential candidates, agrarian essayists, and black nationalism sounds strange, what might earlier conservatives have said about men who promote open borders in the name of multiculturalism and diversity, consistently seek to expand the power of the executive branch, consider individual liberties and the Constitution a hindrance to "security," are beholden to transnational corporations whose practices hurt working class families, are attempting to impose American-style democracy on nations who have never known it, and are spending the next generation into oblivion in order to accomplish this task?
Would earlier conservatives have called them socialists? Fascists? Crazy, perhaps? They certainly wouldn't have identified with them.
Today, we call them the Republican Party.
Catch Southern Avenger commentaries every Tuesday and Friday at 7:50 a.m. on the "Morning Buzz with Richard Todd" on 1250 AM WTMA.