The current state of American politics is troubling for those who seek to defend the tradition of liberty. Progressivism relentlessly threatens human flourishing and free civilization. Self-proclaimed leaders of the conservative movement migrate to the center, so as to become nearly indistinguishable from the political left, or even further to the right, not even bothering to try to persuade others of the merits of American conservatism.
We are in the midst of a great battle of ideas. It is deeper than the political debates about Obamacare, over-criminalization, and a lack of respect for life, liberty, and property. The liberal-progressive idea that government is the primary means of binding mankind to one another inevitably leads down a dark path, and the twentieth century has clearly demonstrated that progressive ideas fail on nearly every measure. American conservatives should take advantage of this opportunity to offer a different vision for the future.
As Hayek warned many years ago, “If we are to succeed in the great struggle of ideas that is under way, we must first of all know what we believe.” Toward this end, a deeper understanding of fusionism provides a foundation upon which true conservatism may overcome its opponents. The common language of fusionism, which embraces the beneficial tension between virtue and freedom, will encourage greater cooperation between conservatives and libertarians and help them make a stronger case against the rise of progressivism. This positive vision of America will also help conservatives win elections.
Virtue and Freedom
American conservatism has long been rooted in both traditionalist and libertarian values. That is to say, while emphasizing virtue, value, and order, American conservatism also affirms human freedom and the integrity of the individual as a precondition of virtue. Frank Meyer argued that this combination of values constitutes “the highest expression of Western Civilization.” This unique understanding of American conservatism has the potential to be the solid foundation on which political and intellectual leaders can build an affirmative vision for America’s future. We must reject the idea that the conservative movement should become nothing more than progressive-lite.
Many conservatives view fusionism as old fashioned, as if it is a relic of the Cold War era not applicable to contemporary political discourse. There is something about even the term fusionism that leads students of man’s nature astray in their attempt to articulate or critique it. Frank Meyer himself, at the 1965 meeting of the Philadelphia Society, called “fusionism” an “inelegant and hideous name.” Yet the name has stuck.
But what is fusionism? Is it actually a philosophy distinct from conservatism and libertarianism?
Some critics of fusionism claim that the inability to perfectly reconcile Burkean traditionalism and libertarianism is proof that the two traditions can be little more than a working coalition. Daniel Larson of The American Conservative has argued that fusionism is an “artificial compromise,” which once had use in building coalitions but now is “mostly a fiction that movement conservatives perpetuate to maintain the appearance of continuity.” Larson is correct, to some extent. Proponents of fusionism risk sugar-coating philosophical differences between different types of conservatives. He is wrong, however, to assert that fusionism is merely a form of coalition building whose purpose is to blend nineteenth-century classical liberalism and traditional conservatism.
Jonah Goldberg, writing in National Review, has boldly defended fusionism and should be lauded for his efforts. His rhetoric, however, like Larson’s, mischaracterizes fusionism as an alloy, a blending of two distinctly different substances. This makes for great prose but bad philosophy. Fusionism never tried to make such grandiose claims as to blend nineteenth-century liberalism and conservatism. Rather, fusionists argue that American conservatism has circumvented both.
Fusionism is rooted in late eighteenth-century American constitutionalism. It firmly rejects the dehumanizing utilitarianism of nineteenth-century classical liberalism as well as the authoritarianism of nineteenth-century conservatism. It took, in Meyer’s words, “a tension, a balance between tradition and freedom, and raised it to the highest political forms.”
As Don Devine pointed out, the common language of fusionism—liberty and virtue rooted in constitutionalism—allowed various factions to unite under one banner in the Reagan era. This was not a forced capitulation of some sort, but an understanding that virtue is the rightful end of man’s efforts and that liberty is the means to achieve that end. The fusionism of American conservatism is rooted not in electoral strategy, data points, and polling, but in the Constitution itself.
Fusionism is not merely a means of building a coalition, though those who pursue it will certainly do so. It is a recognition of the shared intellectual heritage of American conservatism that steadfastly defends both virtue and freedom despite the tension between them.
Fusionism and Constitutionalism
Frank Meyer provided the basic elements of what he described as the American Conservative Position. These shared principles are:
1. Belief in objective moral order
2. Acknowledgment of the individual “as the necessary center of political and social thought”
3. Rejection of the use of the State to impose uniform ideology
4. Rejection of collectivism and central planning
5. Support for the Constitution, and by extension, the limitation of government power
6. Strong defense of Western civilization against Communism
Though these principles were often stated differently, Meyer accurately described these principles as a “consensus among divergence.” The divergences among those on the right are little more than differences in the emphasis placed on particular principles, according to Meyer.
On a practical level, present day conservatives and libertarians can stand united on these principles in most, if not all, political battles. Take the implementation of Obamacare as a primary example. Conservatives and libertarians both soundly reject the centralized planning of such a large portion of the economy. They both reject the unconstitutional and illegitimate outcome from National Federation of Independent Business v. Sibelius, which radically expanded the scope of congressional power. There is a unified opposition to the over-regulation of other aspects of daily life as well: the growing administrative state, unnecessary regulations on private business, state-level licensing schemes in a variety of professions, and unfair regulation enforcement by federal agencies such as the IRS and EPA.
Even the more complicated social issues garner broad support among conservatives and libertarians. The pro-life movement, for example, is rooted both in an understanding of an objective moral order and a preference for the preservation of life as a result of holding each life in the highest regard. Life is the foundational right on which all other rights, property, political, and so on, are based. These rights exist not because the state says they exist. Rather, they are rooted in something bigger than the political state.
Even the contentious marriage debate reveals that conservatives and libertarians have common ground. While there is some disagreement about redefining marriage to include same-sex relationships, conservatives and libertarians reject the role of the state in enforcing an ideology through federal governmental regulation and top-down judicial decisions over state legislative action. Cato Institute constitutional scholar Ilya Shapiro rightly argues that “neither the federal nor state governments have any business punishing or rewarding Americans based on their beliefs, and private individuals should not be forced to behave in a way that violates their constitutional rights.”
American conservatives and libertarians are most at odds with progressives and liberals in their affirmation of the Constitution and the rule of law. Adherence to the principles of limited government, the separation of powers, the rule of law, and an independent judiciary serve as the foundation of shared fusionist beliefs. While progressives unabashedly rewrite statutes to delay the implementation of Obamacare or Dodd-Frank, enact immigration regulations rejected by Congress, or even wage wars over the objections of Congress, American conservatism works to preserve the rule of law and respect for the Constitution.
Overcoming the Conservative Divide
Over the past several years, another false narrative has arisen. It demands that all conservatives align themselves either for or against “the establishment” of the Republican Party. Debates between the two camps often devolve into arguments over who can pick better candidates, as if pointing to the other side’s poor candidate choices somehow indicates which side’s arguments are more philosophically sound or more “conservative.”
But the real split among conservatives is not between establishment and tea party. Nor is it a fight between libertarians and traditional conservatives, or foreign policy hawks and isolationists. The real fight for the heart of American conservatism is between those who have a vision for the future and those who do not.
Fusionism provides both a common language for the broader conservative movement and a positive vision for the future of the country. Those who embrace it will be able to reject the cronyism that plagues corporate America while simultaneously telling a low-income single mother how conservative principles and leaders will allow her to provide for herself a better future. Those who understand the fusionist foundation of American conservatism not only will develop public policy that applies principle to politics, but they also will win public opinion—and elections. Ideas matter, and it is high time for American conservatism to reclaim its tradition of a vigorous defense of its heritage.
Conservatives must put forth a positive vision for conservative governance and defend our shared principles. American conservatives are beginning to fight, once again, to defend human freedom, virtue, and the rule of law. In doing so, they take on a noble obligation passed down to them from generations of Americans.