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Reagan’s Philosophical Fusionism

Conservatism's political power is derived from its ideas, not the other way around.

Everyone on the right these days claims Ronald Reagan. Neoconservatives, libertarians, social conservatives, moderates, and the rest each have a favorite quote. He was a complex man with complex thoughts, allowing every ideologue to pick out-of-context phrases. Even many of those claiming a multifaceted Reagan transcending a single ideology simplify him through his concept of an ideal city uniting the contending ideologies through politics and power.

A prominent conservative leader just told the largest annual gathering of the faithful that their mission was to rebuild Reagan’s city upon a hill, to make Jonathan Edwards’ idealistic dream vibrant once again—to change the world as they did earlier under the former president. The speaker urged paleoconservatives pushing “a more restrained foreign policy,” neoconservatives wanting a more active foreign policy, libertarians demanding “homosexual rights,” and “everyone else” (social conservatives were not addressed) who supported “reduced federal spending” to unite in applying their “basic values and principles to our fast-changing world.”

Reagan’s image of a three-legged stool was urged by the speaker as:

a graphic way of describing the successful effort of Frank Meyer and William F. Buckley, Jr. to turn a movement from a sort of philosophical debating club into a political force. They thought that people who differed on some important policies or emphasized very different issues could be persuaded to work together. Meyer called it “fusionism” and argued successfully that these factions shared basic values—freedom, free markets, and traditional values—and the same enemies … equally threatened domestically by a growing and intrusive government … and internationally by the world communist movement.

Notice that these different ideologies were called factions that needed to be convinced to work together. But they also supposedly shared basic values. Which is it? Traditionalism was mentioned in the quote but it was not given content and otherwise was ignored in discussing policies or preferences. There was talk of “values and principles” but none about community or family. Communism was mentioned as the glue that held the three-legged stool together, but now conservatives are divided on national defense too. The only value cited that they did agree upon was: “It worked—fractious as ever, conservatives began to come together and actually elect people to public office.” That is what conservatives were to fuse upon once again. The city on the hill needs public officials and the job of the conservative movement is to elect them.

That exhortation had little to do with principles. Beneath some rhetoric, it was about power, force, elections. Conservatism was specifically distinguished from a debating club on philosophy and was congratulated for moving beyond one to become a political force. Here conservatism was not about an ideal city, which was a hoped-for result, but about creating a political coalition. Coalitions do not require principles at all. In fact, the idea of a natural coalition between libertarian-individualists and traditionalist-conservatives was developed by the great political scientist Aaron Wildavsky, who was a Democrat. He argued there were four types of political cultures and the liberal-egalitarians and nationalistic-fatalists were naturally in coalition against libertarians and traditionalists, although circumstance and practice could divide the types differently. As the conservative spokesman noted, libertarians, traditionalists, and others can be persuaded to work together, if only to defeat enemies both consider worse. It is valid to label this fusing a conservative coalition, but a coalition that is based on power rather than principles, on votes rather than values. Philosophical principles and values are something entirely different.

How did Meyer, Buckley, and Reagan think about fusionism? Fusionism to them was a philosophical concept. It was a philosophy that considered the principles of freedom and tradition as naturally interrelated in a tension whose resulting moral force created Western civilization and its American offshoot. Tension (the term Meyer preferred to fusion) was a force that could hold traditionalism and freedom together, which made both part of one potential whole. It was not the unitary logic of an ideology from a single principle deducing necessary conclusions, but a synthesis, a synthesis that Reagan said described modern conservatism. Yes, he conceived a city on a hill, but one always fighting to uphold both principles; for he also argued “freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction.”

The idea that both principles were required was lost when progressivism insisted that tension, balance of power, duality, pluralism, and decentralization could all be unified under a single science of administration. By mid-20th century, the triumph of progressivism was complete. Both freedom and tradition would be subject to science. What Meyer et al.—explicitly following F.A. Hayek—did was to give the old ideal of synthesis new life. In fact, it did take a “debating club” at Buckley’s old National Review to draw out its conclusions. The freshly stated fusionist synthesis inspired a generation on the right and did become successful enough that some of its principles did have a brief life under Reagan’s administration. Once he left, however, political leaders only interested in the coalition as a step to power lost the sense of interrelatedness between the two principles and became confused and then exhausted. That is the problem today.

Even under Reagan there were factions that only viewed their own single ideology as the whole. There was always a coalitional aspect to “fusionism,” but those leading the coalition at the beginning understood the necessity of both freedom and tradition. They also understood that while communism was the preeminent threat, it was—as the founding conservative document, the Sharon Statement, put it—only “at present” the greatest threat. Anti-communism was not a principle but one aspect of a tradition that justified self-defense, a pragmatic necessity to preserve freedom and tradition. Likewise, libertarianism by itself had no rooted value structure even to minimize theft under the guise of reducing inequality. Traditionalism alone could become authoritarian and rigid but, as libertarian Hayek noted, free societies require customs and traditions to sustain them.

While factions will always exist, leaders of such single ideological perspectives necessarily will be viewed as partisans of that faction and will not be accepted as movement-wide leaders. Only one who internalizes the necessity of both liberty and tradition can make it work. That was Reagan’s secret to success and the only path forward. He was not a carpenter of stools but a synthesizer of Western wisdom, recognized as such by a sufficient number to be granted power. What the conservative movement needs most today is more philosophical debating clubs and less talk about power. If it gets the former right, the latter will follow.

Donald Devine is senior scholar at the Fund for American Studies, the author of America’s Way Back: Reconciling Freedom, Tradition and Constitution, and was Ronald Reagan’s director of the Office of Personnel Management during his first term.



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