Conservatism and Place – Geographic Force

Thoughts from a Principled Conservative Outpost—Eighth in a series on the aspects of Panhandle conservativism.

The place where people live makes an indelible impact on how and what people think. To borrow a line from Winston Churchill, “We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us.” His argument was being made during the height of World War II to ensure the bombed-out British parliament building would be replaced exactly as it was originally constructed. The Prime Minister thought the building’s shape and organization impacted British thought. If he was right, which, as an architect, I believe he was, the same logic would suggest geography (place) impacts how and what we think and do. The earliest known historical documents, up to and including the Jewish Bible, were influenced by place. One of the oldest known literary works, the Sumerian Kesh Temple Hymn, almost 4,500 years old, is about place. Tip O’Neil had it almost right when he quipped, “All politics are local.” “Politics is about making arrangements between people so that they can live together in groups such as tribes, cities or countries,” according to Wikipedia Simple English. Not to put too fine a point on it, but all politics are driven by geography, and all geography is defined by locale.

Principled conservatism recognizes the importance of a place in establishing a culture. A thoughtful conservative perspective assigns a high value to heritage derived from cultural, historical continuity and identity as defining characteristics of values. Identity to place is glued together by shared values. Values of place recognize localism and decentralization as primary origins of worldview. Business advocates see leadership and management as most effective when decisions are made at the lowest possible organizational level closest to the people impacted by decisions.

The way people in New York City live—population 8.468 million (2021)—may not work for people in Guerra, Texas—population 42 (2021). Place matters. National identity, sovereignty, respect for others and understanding of local opportunities are all place-driven. Individuals, families, communities and larger social structures are endlessly created and recreated by inertia and human will. Locale creates and sustains communal bonds and, therefore, culture. The powerful combination of a heterogeneous collection of communities (the living room of a house or a nation bordered by oceans), which see things differently based on place yet organized into a nation, is based on the power of sovereignty.

In a world increasingly defined by borderless societies, such as Facebook, X, Snapchat and Quora, place evaporates, forming place-less cultures. The values of group membership in these geography-free societies are up for grabs. The seemingly powerful prisons of place are not prisons at all, but liberators of the human spirit through group membership. Twenty-first-century tribes should be defined by rites and routines related to place. Principled conservativism values the power of place, without apology.

The impact of place on industry, economy and ways of doing is inarguable. The production of food, fuel and fiber creates a culture in the Texas Panhandle which typically favors deregulation, lower taxes and limited government control and are most often defined as “conservative” values. On the other hand, Massachusetts Route 128 around Boston and Cambridge and Silicon Valley in the San Francisco Bay Area are technology furnaces located in places that may favor regulation and oversight to help industry and enterprise expand their reach, effectively making them placeless industries thriving in different geographical settings. The impact of the Internet on every nation, regardless of locale, political leanings, notions of governance or fairness, knows no boundaries, leading to universalism.

Regions dominated by industries which favor deregulation, lower taxes and limited government intervention, such as agriculture and energy, operate best from a thoughtful conservative perspective. These industries often advocate for policies supporting free market principles and view with chagrin regulations that could increase operational costs. The same might be said for technology industries. Industries contribute to culture best when allowed to flourish in a way informed by place. The deepest values of many rural regions often emphasize national sovereignty, patriotism and the importance of maintaining national borders and culture.

Universities significantly impact the communities where they are located through outreach programs, economic development, cultural contributions and public service. Engaging positively with the political environment can facilitate these contributions and foster good relations with community stakeholders. Research impact and opportunities, student and staff welfare, policy influence and advocacy are all factors in the matrix of forces constituting a regionally responsive and regionally reflective research university. Nobel laureate Frederick Hayek might agree based on his reflection, “I sometimes feel that the most conspicuous attribute of [traditional] liberalism that distinguishes it as much from conservatism as from socialism is the view that moral beliefs concerning matters of conduct which do not directly interfere with the protected sphere of other persons do not justify coercion.” (Emphasis added.)

At WT, we have a deep responsibility to engage with and contribute to the Panhandle’s progress because this place has been our home since its founding in 1910. Responsibility requires an ongoing relationship, a marriage, between the university and the communities we serve, both on and off campus. Universities become a powerful geographic force when they embrace the distinctiveness created by place.

Walter V. Wendler is President of West Texas A&M University. His weekly columns are available at

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