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American Conservatism is (Still) Fusionism

The synthesis of traditionalism and liberalism can, and must, still be defended.

NEW YORK - 1973: Author William F. Buckley, Jr. poses in his dressing room during "Firing Line" in 1973 in New York. (Photo by Michael Tighe/Donaldson Collection/Getty Images)

In the winter of 1963-64, Frank Meyer asked me to help him put together a book on the political development du jour—the emergence of a nascent conservative movement. We collected essays from F.A. Hayek on classical liberalism, Russell Kirk on the permanent things, Willmoore Kendall on majoritarian governance, Stanley Parry on Catholic values, and eight other more-or-less conservative contributors. The book was rushed into print under the title What Is Conservatism? and against all odds it perdured, even to this day.

Many readers dismissed the book as a quickie campaign book, which it was. Others dismissed it as the cacophonous voices of a political movement not yet congealed, which it also was. A few readers managed to apprehend Meyer’s main point, which was that, to have any prospect for political success, conservatives would be obliged to subordinate sectarian obsessions to a loose, right-of-center consensus. The inevitable tensions between coalition partners, Meyer assured us, would conduce to a vibrant national movement. 

In the many years since Meyer’s book first appeared, modern conservatism has traced the full arc of the development cycle, from exuberant youth and powerful maturity to incipient decay and ultimate decline. We find ourselves today with a hulking legacy infrastructure but with no strategic priority, no tactical boldness, no chiliastic rhetoric, and most conspicuously if not most importantly, no gifted political leadership. We have become what an acerbic friend, Neil McCaffrey, predicted we would one day become—the so-called conservative so-called movement.

What we have retained, and it is no mean thing, is the doctrinal framework bequeathed to us by Frank Meyer. It may be cobwebbed by time and flecked by rust, but it remains the best mechanism ever devised for the diffusion of conservative ideas. Meyer was an intellectual to his toes, a hard-smoking man of the book-jammed study, but he never lost sight of the democratic imperative to “get to 51,” as he would put it. I wish we had a better name for his framework, a newfanglish name, because its birth-certificate name comes so freighted with presupposition. But it’s still called today what it was called back then. Fusionism.

The question for our day is: can fusionism still serve the cause? Is it, as it was in that earlier day, the best of the alternatives at hand? I think it is. It will require a dash of epistemological humility from coalition partners, but that should pose no large challenge. Every conservative knows that he will never have all of the answers. And the constituent factions will have to realign themselves to meet the current circumstance. But that shouldn’t be much of a challenge, either. Fusionism is nothing if not supple.

To reinvigorate an effective fusionism would require us, first, to solidify what remains of our base. We must attend immediately to “social conservatism,” which is the euphemistic swaddling employed by both Left and Right to denote opposition to abortion. That opposition—the pro-life cause—is the moral movement of our time. It is not the temperance movement, or even the suffrage movement. It is the abolition movement—the once-in-a-lifetime issue the response to which will define all of us, first as individuals and then as a society.

Coastal elites, by which in this case I mean to include conservative coastal elites, have treated our pro-life partners as bumpkin cousins from out of town. Within coalition councils, we have treated them as just another fringe group, bearing the same moral weight as the term limits people, say, or the semi-automatic weapons people. We have socially distanced ourselves and they deserve better. As the record will show, redundantly, they’ve been model partners: they’ve supported our coalition even when it’s been badly led; they’ve been collegial to the point of deference, tolerating a me-first approach from partners with lesser claims to primacy. (And they should be lauded, as well, for avoiding the 501(c)(3) trap. Easier to discern than describe, the trap is sprung when a well-intentioned nonprofit ceases to engage an issue and begins to represent an interest. The transition is marked organizationally by the shift of bureaucratic power from the visionary’s office to the development office.)

If the partnership with social conservatives must be reset, the relationship with libertarian conservatives must be reestablished. Rightist pundits, occasionally in these pages and incessantly elsewhere, have in recent years disparaged the liberty movement, fearful, the pundits aver, that traditional values, village wisdom, and even the little platoons will be overrun by libertine looters. These pundits are dousing a fire long since trampled. In contemporary public life, the libertarian flame has been all but extinguished.

Two examples, if any be needed.

Think back to the last weekend in March. Between Friday afternoon and Saturday morning, the President and 534 members of Congress “deliberated” and agreed that what the nation needed was fiscal stimulus on an unprecedented scale. A bill was passed and signed that fire-hosed two trillion dollars around the U.S. economy, increasing the national debt, already unmanageable, by 10 percent of pre-virus GDP. The bill was opposed by a single congressman, an obscure libertarian from Kentucky, who argued that a) much of the money would be wasted, b) much of the rest would find its way to left-wing causes or last responders, and c) our children would have no way to pay it back. For his trouble—for saying what every conservative knew in his bones to be true—the congressman was denounced roundly, branded by some as treasonous and by many as pyromaniacal. (One wonders. Are we all Weimar Republicans now?)

Or consider the ideological moonwalk performed recently by the Democrats’ precision dance troupe. Bernie Sanders has been howling in the wind for decades and, happily for the rest of us, to no practical effect. He must have been shocked when, following his rote asseveration that healthcare is a basic human right and therefore—therefore!—Americans should pay medical bills for illegal immigrants, most of his rivals for the nomination thrust their hands skyward in rapturous concurrence. It wasn’t that long ago when the accepted wisdom of America’s political system held that basic human rights are conferred not by Bernie Sanders but by our Creator, and that those rights are secured not by a crank party platform but by the U.S. Constitution. How could Bernie have carried that day? Could it be that, in a political vacuum, even oaken doors can be pushed open with a single tap from the bony forefinger of socialism?

As Frank Meyer told us those many years ago, we don’t have to love the libertarians. We need them. The dynamics of ideological debate tell us so. The mathematics of electoral politics tell us so. If the cause of individual freedom is allowed to expire—if it’s even allowed to become less than robust—we will be left to the mercies of the mob or the state or, more likely, to an unholy alliance in pursuit of unlimited government. All conservatives, and especially those of the reform or nationalist stripe, should be blowing on the embers of the libertarian cause. 

Neal B. Freeman is a former editor and columnist for National Review and the founding producer of Firing Line.

Related: Introducing the TAC Symposium: What Is American Conservatism?

See all the articles published in the symposium, here.

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