Home/Daniel Larison/How Many “New Fusionists” Does It Take To Screw In A Lightbulb?

How Many “New Fusionists” Does It Take To Screw In A Lightbulb?

Answer: Two.  One religious conservative/traditionalist to do all the work, and one “libertarian” to mock and belittle everything he does and occasionally call him a fanatical hypocrite.

This was occasioned by reading Jennifer Roback’s smart review of the new book by one Ryan Sager, The Elephant in the Room, according to which Sager proposes yet another corrupt bargain under the worn-out name of fusionism.  I am not a fan of any kind of fusionism.  Take it as a given that any philosophical construct that exists purely to justify a political alliance will be rather shabby and threadbare when inspected more closely.  It will likely make no sense, and it will almost certainly serve the interests of the faction within the coalition that created it.  In practice, the old fusionism meant the “libertarians” dictated on economic questions (hurray for corporations! hurray for markets!), anticommunists dictated foreign policy (hurray for internationalism! hurray for massive military spending!) and the traditionalists, like the unwanted stepchild, got to buttress both of these arguments by talking about how moral all of it was.  That corporations, the dissolving power of the market and a huge military were are detrimental to the traditional communities the traditionalist valued was one of those things best left unmentioned.  After the 1970s, the traditionalists and religious conservatives began to get more of their “own” issues, but these issues were mostly used to get them excited, keep them loyal and keep them out of the business of the other factions.    

Now Sager’s fusionism it’s not just any fusionism–it’s a “new Fusionism”!  Where have we heard this song and dance before?  But this new fusionism is perhaps even more obviously two-faced and cynical than Mr. Bottum’s dubious construct of pro-lifers and warmongers, er, I mean deeply moral foreign policy thinkers.  We all know the script: big, bad religious conservatives are just so powerful that they are messing everything up…and somehow causing government to grow at an accelerated rate.  One almost expects Mr. Sager to breathlessly cite Damon Linker’s indictment of theocons.  

The people who complain about this sort of thing tend to be more horrified at the religious stuff than they are about the fiscal disaster that is GOP rule, but often they combine the two concerns and project them onto the scary nemesis that is religious conservatism, or “theocons” or, in Sullivan’s asinine formulation, “Christianism.”  But this nonsense is, in its way, as old as the original, unfortunate idea of fusionism.  It is almost as old as the “movement” itself, and it has always, always been the people on the “libertarian” side of the line who complain about the overreaching traditionalists and Christians (these are “libertarians,” I would note, who typically have no problem with the national security state, but are absolutely horrified at people talking disparagingly of choice or the market–in this sense, the current NR crowd is faithfully carrying on a bad, old tradition).  It is always, always these “libertarians” from Frank Meyer to the critics of the crunchy cons to this Ryan Sager who are convinced that the traditionalists and religious conservatives are embarked upon some project to expand the state.  Like Fareed Zakaria, they are horrified when people use the word “community,” but instead of reaching for an oxygen mask they reach for their guns. 

The New Conservatives never could catch a break: for Meyer, they were too focused on community at the expense of the individual, and for Viereck they were too accommodating to the market to be real traditionalists!  According to this way of thinking, when the state expands–usually with the connivance or indifference of some other “libertarians” more than anyone else, especially when it is for “national security”–the “libertarians” will sometimes even attribute the expansion of government to religious conservatives, some of whom were probably more opposed to the expansion of the security state than the “libertarians” and who probably had next to nothing to do with the programs in question. 

Thus the myth of the Vast Power Of the Religious Right is perpetuated, even though there is nothing the last five years have shown us more than that the “Religious Right” has surprisingly limited influence in a party that owes its power in no small part to religious conservatives.  Sager’s new deal is not a promising one.  According to the review, he is telling religious conservatives to sit down and shut up, and buy into his program of simple fiscal conservatism:

The “new Fusionism” he proposes does not offer anything to social conservatives. He does not seem to take a single one of their issues seriously. He seems to say that the only way to win is for social conservatives to abandon the issues that matter to them, and become plain vanilla fiscal conservatives. I somehow doubt that they are going to do that. His proposal amounts to taking the religious Right for granted, since they won’t vote for the party of the pagan Left. 

But, of course, there has never been any fusionism that offered anything to social and religious conservatives.  Traditionalists are the ones who have to do all the nimble intellectual fancy footwork to stay in the good graces of the “libertarians,” constantly justifying their presence in the coalition on the terms set by the others.  These are the terms as set by the “libertarians” and their friends, more or less:

Okay, traditionalists, here are the rules.  If you stick with ’em, everybody wins and we can all go home happy.  If you don’t, well, it could get a bit ugly.  Here we go.  You can talk about God, but try to talk about how God has made men free–and not just in any “the truth shall set you free” sort of way, but actually politically free [this is a rather obnoxious idea about God that I explode in my forthcoming American Conservative article-DL].  If at all possible, could you come up with an elaborate way to trick your fellow traditionalists into thinking that the Enlightenment was One Giant Leap for Mankind?  I don’t know, you figure it out.  Just make sure that you keep talking about rights.  You can quote the Bible, but if at all possible skip to the part that talks about how the one who doesn’t labour will not eat.  We really like that one.  But, seriously, what’s with that Sermon on the Mount?  Very discouraging stuff.  Pray for our enemies?  I don’t know–that sound a bit left-wing to me!  Try not to pay too much attention to what it says about the riches of this world–it could create problems for our corporate donors.  Charity is very good, and if we can sell people on the idea that it will effectively replace social programs it will help us out a lot, but please stop interfering in our napalming of villages with all this talk about ius in bello.  Community is very nice; the golf courses are first rate.  Oh, you weren’t talking about a gated community?  Hm, this is unfortunate.  Maybe if you talked about a community of free and independent individuals who have no particular obligations to anyone except for those that they choose.  I think we could go along with that….What do you mean that’s not a real community?  Who died and made you king?  What’s that?  Tradition, you say?  Hey, hey, how about a “tradition of liberty”?  Nifty, eh?  Authority?  Well, I don’t know.  Sounds vaguely fascist to me.  And European, too.  Better dump that one.  Hierarchy?  Do I look Catholic to you?  Morality?  I know one thing about morality–you can’t legislate it! Ha ha!  Virtue?  What does that have to do with anything?  Let people make their own choices, I always say.  We don’t want to be a bunch of sticks-in-the-mud, now, do we?

Depending on the year, you can change up a few of the specifics, but this sums up the spirit of the rather dysfunctional marriage that was and still is fusionism.  Every new fusionism is premised on the same relationship: the secular and “libertarian” conservatives say, “Jump!” and the religious conservatives say, “How high?”  Like conservatives in general in their relationship with the GOP, the traditionalists and religous conservatives have always felt obliged to stay in the rocky marriage and take the garbage dealt out to them.  Sager represents just one part of a long line of tiresome lectures telling the traditionalists to keep in their place and stop interfering with everybody else’s good time.  One day, perhaps one day soon, the “libertarians” may find that they don’t have the traditionalists and religious conservatives to kick around any more, as the latter realise that they make up a considerable portion of the coalition and it is they who should actually be calling the shots.  It is one of the remarkable things about the “libertarian” habit of lamenting the intrusive nature and supposedly powerful influence of these conservatives: it is almost entirely fictitious and based in their own aversion to the emphasis these people put on religion, morality and community.  They would be frightened of or annoyed by these people no matter how powerful they were.  The “libertarians” have never ceased running the show in the party and the “movement” and occasionally must throw up the barricades against the mob of religious and traditional conservatives whom they routinely exploit for votes and then toss aside with the occasional rhetorical nod of talking about “the culture of life” or engaging in sensationalist grandstanding about Terri Schiavo while doing virtually nothing on anything else of interest to pro-lifers.  The frequency with which they sound alarms about the excessive influence of religious people in the coalition, they must know how shaky and feeble their control is.  Maybe someday the religious conservatives and traditionalists (who are, I do realise, not identical) will decide that it is time to take that control away.  Stranger things have happened.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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