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Fusionism Is Dead! Long Live … What?

And: Where do religious and social conservatives fit into the Right's future?

Someone on my Twitter feed posted a link to this Dan Scotto essay from September. In it, he autopsies the death of conservative fusionism, and speculates about what might follow it. “Fusionism,” in case you don’t know, was the guiding ideology of the US political Right for the last half-century, fusing together social conservatives, pro-business factions, anti-statists, and national security hawks in a durable coalition. But it began to break apart after the fall of the Soviet Union, and now the rise of Trump has pretty much destroyed it. So what’s next for the Right? Excerpt:

Six months into Trump’s tenure, the fractures on the Right are best identified by how they feel about Trump himself, and how they feel about the Left. There is some overlap between the groups, but most public figures can fall primarily into one group or another.

The Institutionalist Right sees the greatest threat from Trump as beyond specific policies and more about the challenge he presents to the governmental system over which he presides. They fear both Trump and the consequences of the system reacting to him. In particular, there is a lot of focus on the separation of powers, the rule of law, and the efficient administration of the bureaucracy. What they objected to about Obama with respect to governance, Trump has escalated by orders of magnitude. Ben Sasse is probably the most prominent figure from this faction. It’s also probably the smallest segment, and the one that faces the toughest challenge in making the rhetorical case. It probably needs to co-opt another faction or find a sympathetic leader in another faction to hold influence beyond some very small fringes.

The Libertarian Right opposes Trump on economics, generally, with an emphasis on his disgust for free trade, and his rhetorical support for police brutality. (Immigration is much more of a mixed bag here.) They oppose the Left on the size and scope of government, and tax policy. Jeff Flake has been a leader here, with Rand Paul in and out depending on the issue.

The Fusionist Right opposes Trump for not being a movement conservative and rejecting the old three-legged stool of Reaganism. Dan McLaughlin and Jonah Goldberg are probably the two most prominent conservative writers here; Trump’s most vocal conservative opponents over 40 tend to fall in this group, with their fellow Gen-Xers Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio hanging around as well.

The Moderate Right opposes Trump for his personal failings, his vulgarity, and his support for policies they view as cruel, particularly on immigration and health care. From the pundit class, I’d put Ana Navarro and Michael Gerson here. Among elected officials, John Kasich has laid down a marker.

The Nationalist Right largely supports Trump’s priorities but would object to the fundamental incompetence sabotaging his program. They oppose the Left for failing to prioritize what they see as America’s national interests, putting the interests of “cosmopolitan elites” ahead of traditional American values. Tom Cotton is striving to lead this group, and Jeff Sessions is a member in good standing. A lot of talk radio has moved in this direction, now that the opportunity is there.

Do you see who’s missing? The Religious Right. I suppose you could fault Scotto for being blind to the Religious Right, but I think it’s probably more truthful to say that the Religious Right is only a shadow of its former self, and its most powerful segment, politically engaged white Evangelicals, has been almost fully absorbed into the Nationalist Right.

But what about religious conservatives who cast our votes primarily based on social and religious conviction, and who are either not supporters of Trump, or lukewarm at best on him? Have we ceased to be any kind of discrete group on the Right? Have we been absorbed into one of Scotto’s factions? It seems pretty clear that we have. Ask yourself: is there a Republican politician who could be considered a leader of the social and/or religious conservatives? I can think of a number of Republican politicians who are religious and/or social conservatives, but none whose public identity is primarily based on their social views. Maybe I’m overlooking some folks, but I can’t think of any prominent Republican politicians in the past who have been primarily seen as champions of socially conservative causes. I suppose this is because fusionism meant that social conservatism was mainstream conservatism by implication.

But now? See, this is why the Indiana RFRA debacle in 2015 was such a bellwether for the Right. Back in 2015, in the immediate aftermath of the GOP-led state caving on its RFRA law under Big Business pressure, Ross Douthat wrote that the political landscape for religious and social conservatives was now very different, and posed a serious of questions about the place of religious and social conservatism in the rapidly-evolving landscape.

It’s worth re-reading that list today, because those questions are all still very much alive — and it’s hard to have confidence at all that conservatives might prevail, even in just holding our own. Ask yourself: how likely are Republicans at the national level to spend down political capital defending religious liberty under these circumstances? Answer: about as likely as religious conservative voters are to vote Democratic. Republican politicians who want to have a future know which way the wind is blowing, culturally and politically. I think they are intellectual and moral cowards for not mounting a vigorous defense of the importance of religious liberty as a bedrock American value, but I can’t deny that to do so would cost them a lot. You simply cannot compete with the Civil Rights Movement narrative. Not only do most Americans now support same-sex marriage, but most of them oppose giving religious business people an exemption from having to serve gay couples.

The polling question is crude. I’m against same-sex marriage, and in favor of strong  religious exemptions — but even I would limit them. For example, I would favor an exemption for florists and wedding cake bakers, but would oppose a blanket exemption giving business owners the right to refuse gay customers across the board. The poll does not measure those fine distinctions. Still, I don’t think most Americans think about the issue in that level of detail, and our news media certainly aren’t interested in informing them. Bottom line: in our culture, homosexuality is increasingly seen as like race — and where the culture is going, so too will law. Religious conservatives are now and are increasingly going to be considered in the same category as segregationists. 

That being the case, ask yourself: what kind of Republican politician can build a national career as a “segregationist”? You might get yourself elected Senator from Alabama, but you aren’t going anywhere beyond that. The thing is, this narrative ought to have been confronted years ago, but now, it’s hard to see that it’s going to be reversed. This is a political reality. We religious conservatives find ourselves in the same position, roughly, that gays and lesbians did 20 years ago: dependent on courts to guard our rights, given the unpopularity of our views.

All of this is to say that the Religious Right — the so-called “values voters” — really don’t exist anymore as a discrete nationwide force. The two issues that have defined us politically — abortion and sexuality — don’t have the salience that they used to. We lost the sexuality argument, and continue to lose it. Though abortion continues to be a potent issue, and one in which we are not losing ground, I have my doubts as to how many people decide their votes based on it alone. I mean, I know personally lots of people who do, and I’d guess that a fair number of this blog’s readers do, but my sense is that it is not the make-or-break issue that it has been for most of my adult life. It’s not that abortion isn’t an important issue to conservative voters, but rather my sense that its power has declined relative to other issues. I still believe it would be hard to mount a successful GOP presidential primary campaign as a pro-choice Republican, but I think it would be a lot easier today than it once was. Trump proves that, not because he’s pro-choice (he says he is pro-life, and whether or not he means it, he’s going to govern that way), but because he has shown how little GOP post-Reagan orthodoxies matter.

That’s a lot of verbiage to explain why I think it’s accurate for Scotto to have excluded the Religious Right from his list above. Go back and read the entire Scotto post. His core contention is that this taxonomy ultimately doesn’t matter in the real political world:

But we should return to our original point: these ideological objections to Trump and spins on conservatism are not what will move voters; what will move voters will be the ability of candidates to demonstrate affinities with voters and respect for their priorities. The policies they proffer must fit into that context; those that push policies that do not meet those minimal thresholds will be punished. Our debates are important to set the stage, but they are the equivalent of an athlete doing strength training in the offseason. The game itself–the political arena–requires a connection to the voters, the ones that generally don’t care much about ideology.

Scotto says that the future of the Right belongs not to the person who can cobble together the most appealing ideological package, but rather to the person who can best identify the things actual voters care about, and articulate a compelling vision that speaks to those concerns. Trump is not really that person, says Scotto, because of his enduring unpopularity. But Trump has shown how little ideology matters now, even when standing for and defending certain ideological principles may truly be important.

“This is tragic, but it is mass democracy in an era of limited civic engagement and civic responsibility,” he writes. “We reap what we sow.”

How many conservative voters really care about religious liberty? I think protecting it ought to be a top priority, even for conservatives who favor gay marriage. It’s a fundamental First Amendment issue. But it isn’t. Look at this Pew polling data on issues that were most important to 2016 voters. Abortion and LGBT issues are way down the list (but LGBT is a lot more important to Millennials, note well). Religious liberty was not on the list, apparently, but a subsequent Pew poll focusing on religious liberty shows that half or more of Americans believe that nondiscrimination is more important that religious liberty. Take a look too at these other Pew numbers showing that even among self-described Republicans, majorities of Gen Xers and Millennials favor same-sex marriage. There is no reason to believe that these numbers will improve for religious liberty defenders. For them to improve would require conservatives (and others) to be able to accept that religious liberty is such an important right that it ought to be defended even when it defends what one considers to be bigotry. Politically, that’s an impossible thing to sell in America.

Now, from a purely political point of view, it makes sense for what’s left of the Religious Right to align itself with the Nationalist Right. Given its priorities, the Nationalist Right is the faction most likely to advance our interests, or at least protect us. If you think Institutionalist and Fusionist Republicans are going to stand by religious conservatives against Big Business, you should have left your naivety behind in Indiana two years ago. But from the point of view of theological integrity and credible witness, aligning closely with the Nationalist Right is likely to be a disaster.





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