Bookish, Outdoorsy … and Conservative

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The topic below is complex and wide-ranging. Discussing it will require defining some terms, but also making some generalizations. I’ll do my best to honor the nuances of this topic, but it’s not going to be possible for me to cover every subtlety. So please bear with me, assume good intentions, and if I fail to make something sufficiently clear, we can discuss it in the comments.

Defining “Conservative”

This blog (much to my delight) has readers from around the world. That’s a problem for this post, because I will be using the social/political term “conservative,” which means different things in different countries.  Because I am posting about attitudes in the United States, I will be using “conservative” in an American sense.

In most places (so I’m told), “conservative” roughly means aristocratic. Conservatives are assumed to be in favor of existing power structures, and that could include a class system or a monarchy.

American conservatism is a bit different because America, from its founding, was anti-royalist and in fact deeply suspicious of all governmental power. America was also populist relative to the rest of the world. Not that we didn’t have wealthy landowners, but one of our basic values was that anyone ought to be able to buy land and live virtually without interference from any kind of overlord. We also didn’t think there ought to be a national religion, and strove to set up barriers to keep governments from interfering with churches.

In other words, in the United States, the term “conservative” basically means those same values that in the 18th and 19th centuries were called “liberal.” This is why some American conservatives call themselves “classical liberals.”

Political conservatism, as I will be using the term, is the belief that national government is very limited in the range of its legitimate authority. It’s basically limited to law and order, national defense, and a few big public works projects such as national highways. Everything else, including religion, health care, commerce, and education, is outside its purview.

Social conservatism means a belief in what used to be called (before the term was mocked out of existence) “family values.” Social conservatives value clean living (no drugs or alcoholism) and traditional sexual morality (an emphasis on intact families and a disapproval of the sexual revolution of the 1960s). They also tend to value community structures such as churches, synagogues, and local clubs and organizations.

Social conservatives may or may not believe that laws are the way to promote all these good things they value. Increasingly, they are realizing that “politics is downstream of culture,” and that the way to promote all these good things is simply to live them. 

I happen to be both politically and socially conservative, so I’ll be using the term to mean both. But you will occasionally meet people who are one but not the other. Libertarians, in particular, are often politically conservative but socially liberal. They believe government should be very limited, and this includes not outlawing alcohol, drugs, or any dangerous sexual behavior that does not rise to the level of assault.

OK, I hope that is clear enough to go forward.

Defining Bookish and Outdoorsy

I am bookish. Like many fellow book lovers, I started life socially awkward and found a refuge in fiction. I also have an academic bent. While fiction is my favorite, I enjoy reading just about anything (theology, psychology, philosophy, history, memoir … even popular-level science books, though I am somewhat retarded when it comes to science, especially the more esoteric theoretical stuff).  I got this bookishness from my dad, who is a true egghead and reads four languages. Our house growing up was an extremely print-rich environment.

There are millions out there like me.

I am also a little bit outdoorsy. Not athletic, so I’m not a hard-core skier, rafter, or even hiker and camper. But I enjoy being out of doors. I like taking walks (another gift from my dad).  In principle, if not perfectly in practice, I approve of living simply: gardening, keeping chickens, being frugal. Not keeping up with the Joneses.  Some of this is forced on me by a low budget. OK, I admit it. I am kind of a tightwad. I got this from my Dutch mom, and it too is a gift.

Also millions of people like this out there.

Now, This Is Where It Gets Strange

According to the preponderance of American books, TV, and movies … people like me do not exist. You never, never see the possibility entertained that a person could be bookish, outdoorsy, and also conservative.

You will sometimes see rural conservatives portrayed who like to hunt and fish, but these people are not represented as educated or even, in some cases, literate.

When conservatives are portrayed who are not rednecks, they are typically shown as wealthy businesspeople or heirs and heiresses of the kind who might star in a soap opera. The men wear suits, the women get plastic surgery and wear a ton of makeup.  They are less likely to go to the library and more likely to go to the mall or the spa. You would certainly never see them put on old clogs, a kerchief on their head, and go out to weed the garden. 

But yet, in real life, I know quite a few conservatives who do just that. They are educated. They aren’t overly concerned with looking like Barbie or with getting a new outfit of clothes every season. They garden. They pinch pennies. They might not even own a TV (rarer these days). I was raised among people like this. Quite a few of them were farmers; others were academics.

Public libraries in the U.S. still haven’t gotten this memo. Based on the activities they offer, the things they post on their bulletin boards, and the types of books they feature prominently, it’s pretty clear that their assumption is, if you’re bookish enough and frugal enough to be coming to the library, you must be a leftist. By which I mean, you are probably in favor of a big, extremely involved “nanny state” style national government. You may be Marxist. You probably approve of the sexual revolution and all its fruits, including the LGBTQ revolution. You might be in to the New Age, but you certainly hate “organized religion” (because what educated person wouldn’t?).

Wendell Berry is a good example of this attitude. He’s a writer and a farmer. A few years ago somebody gave me a book of essays by him (because, hey, he’s a writer and a farmer!). He writes beautifully about farming, about the earth, about the relationship of people to the earth and the spiritual aspects of farming. And then he goes on to assume that his readers are leftists and would vote for leftist candidates.

One Partial Explanation

I’m sure there are plenty of reasons for this widespread assumption that people who are educated and fond of a simple lifestyle are leftist. As I said above, this post touches on several spheres, all of which are complex and can’t be discussed exhaustively. I’m just going to focus on one possible explanation: the conflation of capitalism with consumerism.

Capitalism, as I understand it, has two components. The first is private property. On a socialist or Marxist philosophy, nobody ought to own anything. Everything belongs to everybody, which in practice means everything belongs to the government and if you try to “hoard” something of your own they will take it. Capitalists, on the other hand, are big on private property. So, if you buy some land, it’s your land. If you buy or build a house, it’s your house. You can’t be forced to share or give your house or land to someone else, because it is yours. People tend to take better care of things when they own them. They tend to work harder at a job when they know that its fruits will not be capriciously taken from them.

The second component of capitalism is the free market. This just means that if I want to sell you (let’s take a really woodsy example) a cord of wood off my land, no third party is going to step in and say “You are charging too much” or “You have to give me a percentage of the sale” or “You don’t have a license to sell that.” If I agree to sell it and you agree to buy it, the wood and the money can change hands, and everybody’s happy.

Now, it should be clear from my explanation that neither of these principles has any quarrel with the simple life. Quite the opposite. Farming works better when private property rights exist. So do gardening, making art, selling your work, or building up a personal library.

However, in many people’s minds when they hear capitalism they immediately think of consumerism. They don’t think of private property and unregulated sales for the small farmer, shopkeeper, or artist. They think of huge corporations. They think of advertising, overspending, jockeying for social status by virtue of our possessions. They think of consumerism.

Hence, if they write a book that combats consumerism, such as a book about how to live a simple life, they assume that they must necessarily combat capitalism as well.

I would argue that these people have thrown the baby out with the bathwater. Consumerism is certainly one possible result of capitalism. But it’s really kind of a separate problem. Capitalism might make a consumerist culture possible (any other system prevents the kind of wealth that allows widespread consumerism), but if a culture is very consumerist, it’s really because of other cultural values that they hold.  It’s not because somebody told them they could have private property. Private property and a free market, as I have shown, are just as a friendly to a simple, quiet lifestyle as they are to consumerism. And if we stamp out private property in an attempt to get rid of consumerism, we will end up getting rid of quite a few other things as well.

We Are Invisible to Each Other

It’s weird to me when people assume that the wealthy, consumerist lifestyle is characteristically conservative. I was raised by conservatives who lived a simple, bookish lifestyle. All the new clothes and cars, the plastic surgery, the materialist beliefs that I saw were coming from the people I saw in the movies and on TV, who were consumerist and leftist. I figured those two things went together.  But apparently … not always. Apparently there were a bunch of leftists out there who were living simple, bookish lifestyles, but because they were not on TV I could not see them, just as they could not see me.  

And they still don’t.

19 thoughts on “Bookish, Outdoorsy … and Conservative

  1. “Apparently there were a bunch of leftists out there who were living simple, bookish lifestyles, but because they were not on TV I could not see them, just as they could not see me.

    And they still don’t.”

    There’s a lot here to digest in this post, and I am so happy you wrote this! It can honestly be a bit exhausting to be a part of the bookish community while also holding conservative beliefs. Many books and book-related events and spaces make assumptions about who readers are, and falling outside of that circle can feel very isolating. I’m talking podcasts, Youtube channels, reading circles, writing organizations, cons, the books themselves… I honestly have gotten to the point where if something book-related does not espouse leftist or social justice values, then I assume the creator is conservative and staying silent. The worst thing is that I feel as a writer like I am constantly walking on eggshells so as not to offend people, since a Twitter pile-on can sink a teeny tiny business like my own. Yet at the same time I feel the need to not hide my beliefs; I don’t like feeling cowardly!

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Thanks for voicing these thoughts. There is a lot to digest in your comment as well. 🙂

      I am glad you liked the post. I was wondering whether it would resonate with anyone out there. I was a little hesitant to write it, because I don’t want this blog to become a political blog. But Eustacia reviewed a book about unplugging from our devices, which book she discovered halfway through was Marxist, and she seemed interested in the phenomenon, so I figured perhaps other book bloggers would be as well.

      Unfortunately many of my favorite topics, such as history, spirituality, and motherhood, have become politicized.

      I’m not super active in the online book world, partly from limited time and energy, partly because of Twitter being the minefield that you describe, and partly because I sometimes don’t feel welcome. But even I have stepped on a few landmines. It’s good to hear someone who is more active digitally confirm my impression.

      You are so right about career consequences. It’s hard enough to make a living as an artist or writer, without factoring in political bias! (I wonder if this is why you indie publish?) But I don’t think it’s necessarily cowardly not to speak up. It depends what our goals are. Do we want to be a political commentator, or do we want to get our books out there? Of course, sometimes we might have to speak up (say, to stop a pile-on of someone we have some relationship to). A writer I admire, who started out leftist and made a “right turn” later in life, has said to students and aspiring movie directors who ask this question, “What you’re really asking is how can I speak up without suffering consequences. Answer is, you can’t. You have to decide when to speak and when to stay silent based on your priorities at the time.”

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I can understand being hesitant to write this post, though I’m glad you did. You’re not wrong–the current politicization of the book world was a definite factor in me going the indie route. Trad publishing requires having a strong connection with your agent and editor, and at the end of the day I felt the chances were slim of finding people I could have a satisfying working relationship with. I queried my first book, The Gold in the Dark, and I remember using Manuscript Wish List to come up with agent lists and feeling very disheartened about the state of the industry. With my second book, Specter, I loved the manuscript exactly the way it was and suspected there would be some things I would be requested to change for social justice reasons if I went trad, so I went indie instead.

        That wasn’t the only factor–the chances of making any kind of substantial money are wayyyyy higher if you go indie, and I really like being in charge of all aspects of my work and owning my own business. The indie sphere is also much more optimistic; people in trad publishing can be very doom and gloom about the industry, but all the people on the indie side of things are seeing publishing trends move in their direction and it’s exciting! So there was a whole host of reasons I went indie, but politics was certainly one of them.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. That’s great. I am still querying agents because it would save me sooo much work not to go indie, but it’s quite possible that I will have to eventually. It’s good to hear your optimistic words about that side of the industry.

          There are so many factors that go into whether an agent clicks with our work and whether we click with the agent. It’s like trying to find a soul mate, only more complicated. 😀

          Liked by 1 person

  2. Yep, gotta agree with you.

    A lot of us are silent because we don’t want to make waves and force ourselves on other people. so all the *fracking* loudmouths who do want to destroy our lives simply assume we don’t exist. Because obviously, if “they” want to do something, then that is what everyone else wants, secretly or openly.

    You can’t argue with someone who won’t think. You either kill them (which would be a bloodbath that would get the world community and blue hats taking over our country) or ignore them until everyone has to suffer the consequences of their disastrous life styles. I just hope I’m dead before the US suffers those consequences, because it is going to be B-A-D!


    1. Um … Bookstooge. You are making me look bad.

      Big Brother, if you’re reading, I am 100% certain that Bookstooge is not calling for an actual bloodbath. Neither does this blog endorse such a thing.

      I agree that there are hard cases out there who refuse to think. But many people are merely ignorant, so there is plenty of wiggle room between “kill” and “ignore.” You’ve talked about it before … actual relationships. Getting to know people. Good fiction. Stuff like that.

      Agreed, every great empire has its decline and fall, it always starts with decay from within, and you never want to be there when it happens. I, too, would prefer not to be present at such an historical moment. … Hold me back, I’m about to quote Gandalf’s words to Frodo …

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Interesting post! I’m not from the US and in a country that has historically been suspicious of communism (in the early days of independence, the ruling party used to arrests communists – whether that was needed is debatable but that was how much of a threat the idealogy was seen as) so the political leanings of the bookish community, which in many ways is dominated by American politics and issues, was a bit surprising to me.

    I do enjoy learning about how others think but I do think that this is due to the fact that I don’t passionately identify with either faction and have more of an observer status. I won’t comment on American politics in public because I’m not American and I don’t quite get what’s going on, but seeing how vicious online communities can be to those who don’t think like them (in general) makes me thankful for this observer status.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, I think that in being an observer you are both wise and fortunate.

      You are not the only one who doesn’t get what’s going on, either. 🙂 I used to think it was just me, but the more I observe, the more I think that about 99% of us don’t really understand the issues. You have to know so much history, for one thing, and most Americans in my generation and younger don’t even know our own history very well. Add to that the fact that many people in political debates will equivocate (use the same word to mean different things at different points in their argument). Equivocation is hard to spot, and it’s made worse because even people who don’t equivocate don’t usually define their terms.

      I finally feel like I’m starting to get a grasp on things, but I’m in my 40s and I’m actually interested in this stuff, which many people aren’t or are too repelled by it to want to learn about it, which I can understand. It’s exhausting for a sensitive soul to think about.

      Anyway, rant over. Have a good day …

      Liked by 1 person

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  5. Yeah I do think there are differences between conservatives in America and the rest of the world (especially since I’d generally consider myself to be a classical liberal, which would put me in the centre here… well at least by any reasonable metric- I think there are some nutters on the left here that would think that was akin to calling myself far right 😉 )

    And you make such a good point about how being bookish/outdoorsy/conservative is basically a type of person that’s not supposed to exist. And definitely agree that libraries- and indeed the state education system- does not want to acknowledge that there’s a possibility of being on conservative- and especially not socially conservative. It’s interesting, because I’ve heard from many readers over the years (both on and offline) who have serious contentions with popular books (and have had issues myself) that assume they’re in the hands of someone that agrees with them. I have frequently come across books that do something like *nudge nudge* “of course you agree with me”- it can be kind of cringey actually (I feel like they could at least put some effort into their propaganda or, at the very least, present their arguments properly). Interestingly, this is always presented (especially in books aimed at younger readers) as “broadening people’s minds” but I wonder if they would have the same response to a YA contemporary defending the rights of freedom of speech (even if said speech comes from a terrible person)… so I guess what I’m saying is, where is thinly disguised classical liberal propaganda? 😉

    And yeah I do think there is a conflation between capitalism and consumerism. I think a lot of the time, people just want to critique the concept of greed- but don’t want to acknowledge that this is a moral issue and that anyone can be greedy.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks for your perspective.

      Unfortunately I have seen online articles on this side of the pond that say flat-out, “classical liberal is code for far right,” so you’re absolutely correct. Even though these writers haven’t done their research, that is what will come up if someone does a Google search of the term.

      Yes, I think you’re right that the propaganda for leftist views is done in a rather naive way. Perhaps it comes from not having heard arguments from both sides, except straw-man arguments. Weirdly, at the same time, it seems to be assumed that people’s default world view is conservative/classical liberal and that when people start “questioning what they have been told,” they become enlightened and then move left. That’s pretty much the opposite of my experience growing up. Most of the adults in my life were hippie types who thought they were blowing my mind when they presented ideas that I’d been taught since I was knee-high. 😀 Because, I guess, those ideas were new to them when they were younger.

      So yeah, in the current climate classical liberals can’t afford to engage in thinly disguised, naive propaganda. Not that we should want to, of course … really good fiction is so much better, amirite?

      Andrew Klavan has also made the point that humanity’s default preference is not for liberty and moral responsibility, but rather to be taken care of, told what to do, and control or be controlled. So the values of classical liberalism kind of go against the grain of human nature in some ways – although they produce the best results for people – so I guess it shouldn’t surprise us that the burden of proof is always placed on those values.

      Yeah definitely agree with you that greed is a human problem that afflicts everyone. And maybe it does get worse when people become prosperous … but it’s still more complex than rich-people-bad-poor-people-good.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. haha yeah I’ve seen similar arguments 😉 (lots of “if you believe in free speech, you’re a fascist”- I feel dumb even repeating that, but such is the state of political discourse!)

        Yeah absolutely agree. Don’t get me wrong, I wouldn’t be a fan of leftist propaganda, but I still think they could put some effort in 😉 I definitely think it comes from not having heard the other point of view (actually I used to be left wing, so I know that’s the case 😉 ) Yeah absolutely get what you mean! (but most of the adults I knew that were on the left had always been on the left as well).

        Yeah I completely agree with you! (I may joke about someone writing classical liberal propaganda, but I’ve no intention of writing it and wouldn’t get much pleasure from reading it!)

        Oh yeah that’s completely true.

        Yeah very true.

        Liked by 2 people

  6. This was such a great read. It is strange people always assuming all bookish people are left-wing. Conservative rarely feature in books at all, unless it’s in a negative way.
    Also, I’m politically/fiscally conservative, but not socially conservative (not completely anyway-I mean, I’m pro life, but I also write NSFW stuff so how socially conservative can I be? lol). I have no issue with trad-cons and actually think the rest of the world could learn a lot from them, but the fact is I’m not a trad-con. People hear “conservative” and assume that means I’m conservative in all of the ways, including socially. There’s no understanding of the nuances of right-wing ideology.

    We all need to start putting more positive portrayals of right-leaning characters into books! I’ll admit, I usually write characters with no interest in politics, or they lean left, because I like writing characters different than me and I don’t want the book to seem like it has an agenda. But maybe a little bit of an agenda is okay. I think humanizing people who are…you know…human might be a good move for fiction.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Glad you found this!

      Yeah, there are a ton of nuances to this topic and I’m sure I’m not even aware of them all, let alone be able to put them into a single article. And that goes double for writers, since as you point out, a genre like horror can actually be very life-affirming, but it could still be off-putting to many conservatives I know who are in to clean living and being careful what we put in our minds.

      I try not to write stories that are a thinly disguised rant or parable, just to follow the story. But I have had people expect that my story will be trying to make some kind of clunky moralistic point, because they know I’m a Christian. I imagine that’s what you mean by not having an agenda. But I do agree that as a writer, you have values and things you’re indignant about, and of course those are going to come out in the story and give it its force. And interestingly, if you have touched on some real human value that your reader also cares about, they might interpret that to mean you are on their side politically. For example, one reader wrote in her review that The Long Guest was “a story about power.” I certainly didn’t set out to write a story about power, but since power dynamics show up in everything and they are important to that person, that is what they saw.

      I like stories that take a stereotype and then as you get to know the character, you find out that while the stereotype wasn’t 100% wrong, the person has unsuspected depths. Maybe somebody needs to do that for a hillbilly or wacky conservative survivalist. Humanizing, as you say. I try to do it for moms in my writing, because that’s something I actually have some experience with.

      Anway, I’ll stop running on now before this turns into another post …


  7. Ann

    Books are consider be read by people that are open minded. There this stereotype that libels are “open minded”. Now a days I find hard to believe. Open mindedness shouldn’t be associated with one pollical party or the other.

    Independent, liberation or third party doesn’t seen to cross people’s minds when it comes to politics.

    There are Conservative that read. My GoodRead’s group proves that. with seventy five members..

    Liked by 1 person

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