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Mar. 12 2010 - 10:29 am | 3,425 views | 0 recommendations | 8 comments

Out of the endless sprawl

Whatever else one thinks of how we live these days, it’s hard to not see it as temporary, historically anomalous, a peculiar blip in human experience. I’ve spent my whole life riding around in cars, never questioning whether the makings of tomorrow’s supper would be there waiting on the supermarket shelves, never doubting when I entered a room that the lights would go on at the flick of a switch, never worrying about my personal safety. And now hardly a moment goes by when I don’t feel tremors of massive change in these things, as though all life’s comforts and structural certainties rested on a groaning fault line. ~ James Howard Kunstler

Andrew points to both Austin Bramwell’s anti-sprawl piece and this response from Yglesias.  Both seem to agree that zoning and central planning is the culprit when it comes to urban sprawl. I think this issue rests at the heart of what went wrong with conservatism, so I wish Andrew had spent a little more time on it, especially given the eloquence of his recent writings on the ‘death of conservatism’:

In this worldview – which is now the worldview in American political analysis – ideology has infiltrated everything, it has saturated public and private, it has invaded even something sacred like religious faith, in which the mysteries of existence have been distilled in writing or even understanding the churches into a battle between “liberals” and “conservatives.”

People accuse me of pedantry or semantics in insisting that all of this – on the right and the left – is in fact a sign of the death of conservatism as a temperament or a politics, rather than its revival. But I have been arguing this for more than a decade. Conservatism, if it means anything, is a resistance to ideology and the world of ideas ideology represents, whether that ideology is a function of the left or the right.

Andrew argues for a conservative disposition, the sort of conservatism which Freddie DeBoer describes as Burkeanism – a conservativism all but lost to modern America.  Freddie’s understanding of Burkeanism is

the impulse to keep politics in the realm of the political, and to exclude them from the world of the family, religion, and personal virtue. This tendency supports conservative goals. Politics is ultimately the realm of government, and the steady creep of political positioning into more and more aspects of life cannot help but bolster the presence of government in our consciousness—and in so doing, support the underlying notion that problems are to be solved by government. An argument, successfully prosecuted, that government expense is inappropriate in a given situation nevertheless contributes to the steady mission creep of modern governance.

I believe that the death of Burkean conservatism and the rise of this hyper-ideological movement conservatism has many roots, but one important and oft-overlooked one is this modern American landscape of sprawl and steel, of suburbs and hour-long commutes, of strip-malls and vast concrete scissures. The distance created by sprawl is both a material and spiritual one. Something is lost when we tear apart the natural, organic community and replace it with long lines of indistinct houses, well-groomed lawns, and endless stretches of highway. The very wrong sort of ‘individualism’ which so infests the modern American left and right is spawned from such distances. While it is in the tradition of American ‘greatness’ to speak admiringly of the ‘rugged individual’ it is often as not a misunderstood theme, painting the individual as the most important social unit in society (until some social issue creeps into the discussion whereupon some generic ‘family values’ discussion inevitably ensues).

Conservatism itself is rooted more in the community and especially in the fertile soil of tradition than in the individual. In a land of strip malls and ten-lane freeways, of rampant materialism and unending competition, tradition and community become irrelevant – become skeletal ghosts on display behind panes of glass.  Anymore, the American right views its historical patrons – Burke, Oakeshott, et alia – as somewhat quaint figures, whose philosophy should be cherry-picked for all the ripest talking-points.

(Which reminds me: I heard Charlie Crist on NPR the other day talking about how he would be a conservative in the tradition of Reagan, a pragmatist and tax-cutter.  When it was pointed out that Reagan also raised taxes, Crist said he wouldn’t be that Reagan.  Oh no.  He would be the tax-cutting Reagan.  This was one of those many moment I find myself overcome with a sense of despair for our country.  When even the “pragmatic” or “moderate” conservatives can be so vapid.  Obviously the way we have come to understand both pragmatism and moderation is as distorted as our understanding of conservatism!)

The conservative disposition is all but impossible to achieve in an atomized world. Individualism has become interchangeable with entitlement, has come to be defined in terms of how we as individuals can stand above all others, how we can take from society rather than how we can work to preserve it.  Properly understood, individualism is a way for each of us to contribute some piece to the common good, to elevate society, to create a long and lasting and vibrant civilization.  The great mission of conservatism has always been to check the passions and whims of individuals who might destabilize the social order either through their politics or through technology or through ambition.  This is why we have erected checks and balances all across our government and work to keep it limited – why the powers accrued by the Bush administration and especially under the direction of Dick Cheney are so utterly antithetical to what conservatives ought to be working toward.  Why, in the end, politics in general and the constant struggle to gain more and more power is really an impossible contradiction.  Vaclav Havel once wrote:

Yes, ‘anti-political politics’ is possible. Politics ‘from below’. Politics of man, not of the apparatus.Politics growing from the heart, not from a thesis. It is not an accident that this hopeful experience has to be lived just here, on this grim battlement. Under the ‘rule of everydayness’ we have to descend to the very bottom of a well before we can see the stars.

Perhaps this is the mission conservatives should set for themselves. To return politics to the realm of the political. To work, instead, against these subtle enemies – sprawl, materialism – and to quit fighting this endless, empty political shouting match. End the culture war and its subversion of culture to the whim of the political.

Sprawl is a result of massive statist interventions into our culture and society, and its symptoms are equally enormous.  Everything that conservatism has historically stood for is undermined by sprawl.  It is not only the physical manifestation of our decline, it is a poison which continues to contribute to that decline.  Its repercussions can be felt in our discourse, in our speech, in our way of thinking.  This is not merely a matter of aesthetically pleasing communities, but of communities which allow individuals to be a part of the whole.  I doubt this is sustainable, this suburban maze – in any way: fiscally, socially, spiritually.  It is, as James Howard Kunstler called it, “a peculiar blip in human experience.”


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  1. collapse expand

    Urban sprawl is a nightmare now, but it was once the dreamy vision of a prosperous country. So-called Burkean conservatives like to rail against what Bush Sr. called “the vision thing,” and I agree that wet blankets play an important and under-appreciated role in restraining the excesses of visionaries, but that sort of temperament doesn’t inspire people. The reality is, in order to win elections and get things done, you have to offer a vision to voters, not just a critique. American conservatism right now offers a vision of restoration, a return to an imagined past of righteousness, prosperity, security and global dominance while we await the rapture. As a progressive, it’s hard to know where to start with what I find troublesome and downright scary with that vision, but it’s easy to see the appeal it could have for a lot of people.

    I agree it’s useful to counter ideological zeal with a Burkean temperament, but I don’t see how that mindset could become a movement that inspires people anywhere on the political spectrum.

  2. collapse expand

    Fantastic post, and congratulations on making the critical connection between sprawl and the evisceration of the American soul. For those interested in discovering how we got here, read Kunstler’s “The Geography of Nowhere.”

  3. collapse expand

    I’m curious as to why you think sprawl is due to “massive statist interventions,” rather than, say, cars, cheap gasoline, and the decreasing price of agricultural land.

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