Rural Progressives Foster Health Conservatism


When my wife, young son and I moved back to our rural place from the metropolitan area 35 years ago to begin our farming, I decided that as a liberal and progressive, I would need to do whatever was necessary to get along with our neighbors who were as Republican and conservative in the older sense anyone.

The “older sense” is tending to conserve, tending to preserve — moderate, cautious, and safe. Applied politically, the conservative approach is the one that favors change only if it is well thought out over a span of time, change that is brought in slowly, and with limits attached.

Conservative people do not go whole hog for anything. Immediately apparent is the stark contrast between this definition and what passes for conservative in today’s world.

What is less easy to see is that even progressive and liberal farm people, and there is a significant minority of us, tend to be personally conservative. There is no contradiction here.

What fosters the conservative streak in all of us is our close association with the land and with nature, as well as the unpredictable nature of farming itself.

But more than all that, one cannot be a farmer, or even be comfortable in a rural place as a nomad or drifter. Rural people, and farm people, are place bound people. We don’t regard being bound in place to be detrimental, but a blessing.

I once wrote a letter to a national liberal journal objecting to the argument made by a liberal economist that the way to mitigate some of the abuses of globalization was to make sure that labor moved as easily across international borders as did capital. This seemed to me to be obtuse in the extreme and I said in my letter that most people do not want to cross an international border.

I am surrounded by people who would not feel entirely at home in a neighboring county, much less another country. It is only, after all, the liberal or corporate elite who seem to be able to make a satisfactory life out of spending a large amount of time in the business class seats of an international jetliner. The Mexican corn farmer, dispossessed by Clinton’s NAFTA and trudging across the Arizona desert in search of work, is terrified he might encounter a posse and never really wanted to leave his cornfield in the first place.

When he does find a place and a job to do, he will find many of his new neighbors do not want him there and don’t mind saying so. My letter, of course, was not published. But this is the missing part of progressivism. It does not speak to place-bound people. To do so, it will have to find the conservative at the core of its belief system, if indeed there is such there.

I have wondered when my neighbors are going to clean up their party. Today’s right wingers masquerading as conservatives insult the intelligence of any true conservative. This is the contradiction at the heart of modern conservatism.

And because the destructiveness that results from the public venting of a Limbaugh or an O’Reilly always results in the weakening of the government or of society in general and never serves as a restraint on capitalism itself, conservatives see one valuable and worthwhile thing after another disappear from their lives and are left helplessly wondering why.

The left could take advantage of the situation to build a serious system of progressive policy thought. Such a set of institutions and brain trusts would need to be focused upon building up a real body of thought, which could eventually result in a sustained movement. Elections cannot be the primary focus for some time, at least until we have produced the possibility of more than a handful of serious candidates that we really want to vote for. Populism would be our guide. But if this is to succeed we must remember Populism as it was.

Those farmers, home owners and others were not interested in a mass movement to threaten the local, and then increasingly the national power structure in support of some notional “right” to cross an international border in search of work.

They got political to keep their farms and homes from being taken away from them. In large measure, they failed in this. The market figured out a variety of sneakier and quieter ways to get the farms in the years that followed until today perhaps the biggest obstacle to getting the banks under control is people’s lack of faith that they have any kind of right to be secure in their own homes. There is a bunch of work to do that goes well beyond getting out the vote. Our politics is being reconfigured. We will not succeed in constructing a counterweight to the right wing unless we honor the conservative that is standing at the center of Populism.

Jim Van Der Pol farms near Kerkhoven, Minn. A collection of his columns, Conversations with the Land, was published by No Bull Press (

From The Progressive Populist, May 1, 2012

News | Current Issue | Back Issues | Essays | Links

About the Progressive Populist | How to Subscribe | How to Contact Us

Copyright © 2012 The Progressive Populist
PO Box 819, Manchaca TX 78652