Is There a Future for Fusionism?
There’s a well-worn tale about modern American conservatism: It says that the movement as we know it came into being during the mid–20th century as a “fusionist” coalition of economic libertarians and religious traditionalists. These groups, whose goals and priorities differed from the start, were held together mainly by two things: the sheer charisma of National Review founder William F. Buckley Jr., and the shared enemy of global communism.
As long as the Cold War endured, the story goes, each wing was willing to cede some ground to the other. In light of the threat posed by a rampaging Soviet Union—as militantly atheistic as it was militantly anti-capitalist—the differences between the libertarians and the traditionalists did not seem so great. Their interests, at least, were aligned.
But the fall of the USSR meant the collapse of the common foe that had sustained the fusionist partnership. It was able to trundle on for a while, powered by a reservoir of goodwill, but it has long been running on fumes. In the last few years, the alliance’s inherent tensions have come to a head. It’s increasingly common to hear that, whatever value there may have been in cooperation during the ’50s, ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s, the era of good conservative feelings is over.
For many libertarians, the Trump years revealed their traditionalist allies to be hypocrites and opportunists, all too willing to sell out the ideals of fusionism in service of an aspiring dictator. Conservatives have commenced a not-so-slow descent toward authoritarianism, some in this group suggest; if the philosophy of liberty is to have a future, it must involve building bridges to the left, not the right.
A number of traditionalists, meanwhile, have been tripping over each other in their rush to celebrate the end of fusionism. What the 21st century demands, they say, is a different, more “muscular” style of politics, practiced by a Republican Party that finally stops worrying and learns to love the state. By passing stronger laws, these “post-liberal” conservatives believe they can restore America’s lost Judeo-Christian character and save their country from itself.
This is quite a change from the Reagan Republicanism of a few decades ago. Back then, most folks on the right insisted that limited government and personal responsibility were the watchwords of conservatism. That consensus has now broken down.
From literature to philosophy to religion, it’s hard to think of a theme less original than the seductiveness of power. That, after all, is the story of Frodo and the ring; of Lord Acton and “absolute power corrupts absolutely”; of Satan and the third temptation of Christ. One of history’s great recurrent lessons is about the importance of keeping that desire in check, in our hearts and our governments alike. Which is why it’s exasperating to watch so many conservatives—self-proclaimed heirs to the axiom that “example is the school of mankind,” in Edmund Burke’s phrase—succumb in real time to the fantasy that they are the exception to this time-tested rule.
As far as the post-liberal conservatives are concerned, libertarianism’s preoccupation with protecting liberty has blinded it to the importance of promoting virtue (and a constellation of related values, including faith, family, community, and patriotism). The most moderate version of this argument suggests that libertarians have come to exercise too much influence over the right-of-center policy agenda and proposes a so-called rebalancing toward traditionalist concerns. A more radical version excoriates libertarianism as philosophically bankrupt and calls upon the keepers of the conservative flame to take a sledgehammer to the fusionist coalition once and for all.
Hillsdale College’s David Azerrad put the latter position starkly in a July 2020 essay for The American Conservative. “The common enemy that justified an alliance with the free market fundamentalists is long gone,” he wrote. “Today, libertarians actively side with our enemies: they promote open borders and empty prisons, and strengthen China’s hand through their consumer-focused economic policies. Ours is primarily a conservatism of countries and borders, citizens and families, none of which can take root in the barren libertarian soil of atomized individuals and global markets.”
The post-liberal agenda is typified by a desire for more government involvement in people’s lives. As The New York Times‘ Ross Douthat wrote in 2019, this group seeks “stronger state interventions in the economy on behalf of socially conservative ends.” Or, as Azerrad put it in his essay, “the right must be comfortable wielding the levers of state power.”
Economically, post-liberalism rejects the doctrine of “unfettered” free markets in favor of tariffs, an “industrial policy” intended to prop up American manufacturers in the face of competition from overseas, wage subsidies, and the like. On social issues, it supports everything from vice laws to a rollback of no-fault divorce to more robust speech restrictions on public morality grounds to (among a lively cohort of radical Catholics especially) the imposition of a confessional state and perhaps even a Christian monarch.
There’s little evidence that the post-liberals are speaking for the average Republican, let alone the average American. But the elite wind does seem to be at their backs.
Fox News host Tucker Carlson was once an avatar of fusionism who supported Ron Paul for president in both 1988 and 2008 and told Reason in 2010, “I despise l
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