Jonathan Liedl, Managing Editor Emeritus
As a young Catholic man, Washington, DC is in many ways the place to be. There are a multitude of wonderful Catholic locales located within the District, from the Catholic Information Center on K Street to the Franciscan Monastery of the Holy Lands tucked away in Northeast. The city is also home to many of the nation’s brightest Catholic thinkers, and close encounters with the Catholic intelligentsia are frequent and fulfilling. And, probably because of its aforementioned qualities, DC certainly has its fair share of attractive and engaging (and single) Catholic girls.
Another perk of being in the nation’s capital is that I’ve been able to befriend a number of “my kind of people.” It’s a hard group to define, but, general characteristics include a fondness for bluegrass, an unwavering conviction that monks are cool, and a tendency to have the Front Porch Republic website bookmarked on one’s internet browser. Most importantly, we all share an understanding of society and politics that emphasizes community, tradition and virtue (a set of principles that I’ll simply refer to as “conservatism” for the rest of this piece). And we’ve all come to DC in an effort to articulate and advance that message.
Which, when you think about it, is kind of backwards. And perhaps even illogical. Because what it effectively implies is that in order to promote conservative principles, one needs to abandon them in his or her own life. In other words, if you want to champion the importance of family ties, rootedness and local community, you have to leave your hometown, move away from your family and relocate to a city that is built-upon a foundation antithetical to authentic conservatism: transience, centralization and bigness. Coming to DC is not only inconsistent with the conservative message—it undermines it. Because if conservatism’s biggest advocates can’t be bothered to abide by its tenets, then why should anyone else?
I often raise these concerns with like-minded friends. They’ve certainly realized this incongruity between thought and action, and have spent considerable time mulling things over. Most come to some sort of uneasy reconciliation between the way of life they recommend and the lifestyle they currently maintain.
The story of conservatives in DC is like a medieval ballad gone horribly wrong. The knight in shining armor rides off from his castle, ready to slay the dastardly dragon that threatens the realm. But unable to land a mortal blow, he becomes locked in a perpetual struggle, preferring the exhilaration of the fight to the home he left to defend in the first place. Or in explicit Tolkien-terminology, it’s akin to Frodo arriving at Mount Doom and deciding he’d rather challenge Sauron for his throne than make it back to the Shire.
Of course, that analogy raises an important point: perhaps someone does need to go to Mordor. The One Ring ought to be destroyed, and it will probably take a Fellowship to do it. Translated to our contemporary struggle against secular centralization, there is undoubtedly a role and a place for Catholic conservatives inside the DC Beltway and within the sausage-making process that is national politics. Some will need to advance conservative principles in a top-down approach, and Washington is the place to do that.
But the reality is that far too many conservatives take up this call. Truthfully speaking, most of us probably don’t need to be in DC. And the consequences of this overcompensation are devastating in two ways. Most obviously, the conservative influx in Washington has served to expand and preserve a conception of government and civil society that is anathema to authentic conservatism. It’s hard to bite the hand that feeds you, and for conservatives who’ve tied their careers to national-level politics and high-profile think tanks, there’s little incentive to deprive DC of some of the prestige and significance it errantly possesses.
But there’s a second consequence of concentrating conservatism in DC that is often overlooked. If all of our brightest and most committed conservatives are in Washington, it means they’re probably not where they should be: back home. You’ve heard of brain drain in Africa and other developing parts of the world, but something similar is happening in our own country. As a result, the “little platoons of society” that conservatives love to laud, intermediate institutions like churches, schools and neighborhood associations, don’t receive the attention they need in order to thrive. The cornerstones of a conservative society are crumbling not only because of the damage wrought by Washington, but because conservatives themselves have failed to maintain them.
The remedy seems simple enough: more action, less talk. Conservatives need to sustain and strengthen localized communities and institutions oriented toward virtue instead of just theorizing about them. They need to start and raise families instead of merely extolling their importance. And conservatives need to be home instead of simply talking about it. In short, conservatives need to prove that there are more important places than the nation’s capitol by leaving it.
A response to this avowal comes readily to mind, because it’s the one I often give myself when I reach this point of the conversation occurring in my head. Going back to Pequot Lakes and settling down in its beautiful woods, within miles of my parents, brothers, nephew and childhood friends sounds appealing. But in reality, it would never work out. There simply aren’t any fulfilling jobs for a political science/Arabic major in rural Minnesota. There’s no one with whom to talk to about the works of Alasdair MacIntyre or Graham Greene. And there’s not a Catholic school in the area for my future children to attend (not to mention that the options for “producing” said children with someone from home are somewhat limited).
And that’s the problem. Not the actual lack of stimulating work, or engaging cultural and intellectual outlets, or a robust Catholic community, per se; but my unwillingness to accept that perhaps those vital components of an authentic society are missing, in part, because I’m not there to help develop them.
I’ll conclude by telling you about my dad. He spent his early adulthood in Washington, leaving his quaint hometown in Wisconsin to take part in the conservative crusade upon the Capitol in the 80s. He eventually became fed up with East Coast living, and made his way back to Small Town, Middle America. But by this point, his kids were already half grown, and he no longer had the time or the energy or the inclination to improve the intellectual, cultural or social life of the town in which we settled in any profound way. As a result, I appreciated my six years there, but never considered staying in the place a viable option.
My life, and therefore the life of any hypothetical child I might have, appears to be following a similar trajectory. Perhaps it’s my purpose to break this cycle, and make my hometown a place where my son will want to stay. That, more than any prestigious career in Washington, seems to be the most conservative thing to do.
Jonathan Liedl lives and works as a journalist in Washington, DC. One day, he’ll return home and start an apple orchard. Don’t ask him when, because he doesn’t know.