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What Does “Fusionism” Really Mean?

“Fusionism,” the label that stuck to Frank Meyer’s conservative philosophy, is widely misunderstood. Poor Meyer has suffered the same fate as Richard Weaver, whose Ideas Have Consequences gets invoked all the time by people who haven’t read it to promote ideas Weaver would have found trivial or worse. What Weaver actually meant might have been clearer if he’d called the book Metaphysics Has Consequences, but even the University of Chicago Press didn’t want to market a title like that. (In fact, the publisher rejected Weaver’s preferred title, The Fearful Descent.)

Meyer’s In Defense of Freedom is if anything even less read than Weaver’s book. But that doesn’t stop “fusionism” from being used to describe GOP coalition-building and being likened, in Jonah Goldberg’s term, to an “alloy” of two distinct metals—libertarianism and “social conservatism.” The latter term is anachronistic: traditionalists like Russell Kirk and Brent Bozell Jr. were socially conservative, certainly, but quite philosophically different from today’s populist and primarily evangelical social cons. Kirk and Bozell emphatically rejected American exceptionalism, for example, for reasons central to their worldview.

The bigger problem with Goldberg’s description, however, is the idea—which he’s not alone in holding—that Meyer was trying to forge an alloy. That’s exactly what Meyer was not trying to do: rather, he believed that both libertarianism and traditionalism had a common source in the Western tradition. They were not distinct materials; they were the same thing in different shapes, with different emphases. The last essay in the Liberty Fund edition of In Defense of Freedom, “Western Civilization: The Problem of Political Freedom,” is Meyer’s deepest exploration of this idea.

Murray Rothbard once argued that at heart Meyer was just a libertarian, but I was struck the last time I read In Defense of Freedom by how much more strongly Meyer draws on Eric Voegelin than on Locke or John Stuart Mill. I’m tempted to say that at heart Meyer was a traditionalist, but one who saw the individual conscience as the supreme metaphysical tradition of the West. Meyer perceived this most of all in the Incarnation. Needless to say, this is a world away from some cheap handbook for coalition politics. It wasn’t even a rhetorical effort to bring clashing right-wing pundits together. It was an attempt at a philosophy of history and politics. There’s very little discussion of “issues” in In Defense of Freedom.

Meyer was not merely arguing that traditionalists and libertarians should tolerate one another and cooperate against a common enemy. His contention was that while they could differ in their emphases, a traditionalist had to be libertarian and a libertarian had to be traditionalist, or else each would be abandoning his own foundations. Meyer disliked the “fusionism” label precisely because it misrepresented his project as hammering together two different materials.

Here’s the source of the confusion: conservative politics since the 1950s always has been coalition-based. It always has included people who care most about free-market economics or personal liberty alongside people who care most about religious tradition and values. Meyer’s project superficially had the same pattern as a movement itself—a pattern of contrast and combination alike—so it was easy to mistake Meyer’s philosophy for a “rationale” to underpin the coalition. But it was more than that.

The conservative movement had an operational coalition before Meyer set to work—he was already in a functional coalition with the thinkers he contended against, fellow early National Review contributors like Kirk, Bozell, and Whittaker Chambers. Anti-Communism was the coalition’s glue. Ideological anti-Communists were the coalition’s core; non-ideological anti-Communists were on its periphery; and philosophical conservatives or libertarians who came close to rejecting the Cold War outright—anti-anti-Communists, in other words—were not part of the coalition at all.

Anti-Communism and anti-liberalism, rather than philosophical fusionism, continued to be the coalition’s rationale from Meyer’s time until today. Meyer’s book goes unread because movement conservatives think they already know what is says and already have the coalition it prescribes. Meyer did a great deal to build the conservative movement, and he might very well still embrace that movement today—though most of the long-time fusionists I know are disgusted by the movement’s present state—but he was aiming higher than party politics. He’s worth reading for that reason.

about the author

Daniel McCarthy is the editor of Modern Age: A Conservative Review, and Editor-at-Large of The American Conservative. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, USA Today, The Spectator, The National Interest, Reason, and many other publications. Outside of journalism he has worked as internet communications coordinator for the Ron Paul 2008 presidential campaign and as senior editor of ISI Books. He is a graduate of Washington University in St. Louis, where he studied classics. Follow him on Twitter.

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