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FUSION

In a Post-Conservative World, Fusionism is An Anachronism

By Aaron M. Renn

 

Postwar conservatism emerged from three general strands of thought: libertarianism, traditionalism, and anti-communism, which formed the “three-legged stool” of conservatism. Political scientist and FUSION contributor George Hawley wrote in Right Wing Critics of American Conservatism, “Without knowing any context, there is no a priori reason one would infer that these three attributes are correlated with each other, or even that they are necessarily right wing.” As part of creating an at least somewhat unified conservative movement, emerging postwar conservatives had to both correlate and reconcile these strands with each other. Much of this reconciliation took place in the pages of the National Review.

The key to this reconciliation was to combine traditionalism, whose proponents tended to be hostile to classical liberal economics, with libertarianism. Frank Meyer’s “fusionism” was the solution to this problem. It said that a classically liberal economic system could not flourish without individual virtue and a stable moral order underpinning it (traditionalism). But that virtue had to be freely chosen and could only itself flourish in a free society (libertarianism). 

Fusionism was always something of an uneasy synthesis. According to George Nash’s The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America Since 1945, the traditionalists themselves were a diverse lot that didn’t agree on what tradition was to be conserved. There were those who promoted traditional Christianity (mostly Catholicism). Others, like Leo Strauss, preferred classical philosophy and the wisdom of the Greeks. There was also a strand promoting secular heroes such as Alexis de Tocqueville or Edmund Burke. Whereas libertarianism was arguably  a coherent point of view, early conservative traditionalism was something of a hodgepodge.

There was also a European quality to their positions—and sometimes to their personal backgrounds. Notably, the traditionalists did not come from the mainstream of American culture. As Nash put it, “The distance between many [traditionalists] and their milieu was evident in another way. One of the most remarkable features of this movement was that, in a country still substantially Protestant, its leadership was heavily Roman Catholic, Anglo-Catholic, or critical of Protestant Christianity.”

One would typically think of conservatism as a defense of an organic social order and incumbent elites. Or it might be a defense of the core ethnic or religious group of a country against outsiders. But postwar conservatism was something else. It was a conservatism arising from the social margins. In fact, it defined itself against the economic order established by the New Deal and the WASP establishment in culture. And it was created by people largely outside of the ethno-religious mainstream of America. This is a very odd place to look for traditionalism.

They were also not carrying on a  historically continuous intellectual tradition. As Lionel Trilling famously put it at the time, “In the United States at this time liberalism is not only the dominant but even the sole intellectual tradition.” The traditionalists were attempting to recover, or construct, a conservative intellectual heritage for the country. But they did not stand as part of any such tradition themselves. For example, today’s Straussians can trace their lineage back through a chain of masters and disciples, all the way to Leo Strauss. The same is true for many Marxists, who can follow their teachers and precursors back to Marx himself. This was not the case with the traditionalist founders of postwar conservatism. To the extent that they stood in a genuine tradition, it was Roman Catholicism, which was not the religious culture of the United States.

The traditionalist strand of conservatism also morphed over time. Some of the original conservatives like Richard Weaver were Southern traditionalists. But during the neoconservative takeover of the 1980s, specifically Southern views was expelled from the movement. Instead of “traditionalism,” people began to speak of “social conservatism” as the third leg of the conservative stool. Evangelical Protestant voters streamed into the Republican party and issues like abortion loomed large.

If the original traditionalism always was ill-fitted to libertarianism, contemporary social conservatism is much less so. We see this in how the business community in America has become a leading opponent of social conservatism, which is seen as bad for business. But social conservatism also seemed destined to fade in importance as society moved away from traditional morality, allowing the conservative movement to shift left on these issues, similar to how it had moved left on issues like the New Deal and civil rights.

By sometime in the 2000s, conservatism was waiting for social liberalization and the decline of religion. Social conservatism could then be expelled like Southern traditionalism and replaced with something like “bourgeois values” that are not promoted because they are moral or because they are traditional, but because they work. Since their rationale is purely functional, bourgeois values were a much better fit with libertarianism than either traditionalism or social conservatism. Notably, support for bourgeois values like having children within wedlock does not require supporting things like sexual abstinence or opposing abortion.

The institutions of Conservatism, Inc., the Republican party leadership in Washington, and the donor class were already much more socially liberal than conservative voters might have believed. It seemed like it was only a matter of time before they would be able to vote the social conservatives off the island.

But a strange thing happened. Social conservatives, and others in the GOP voting base whose preferences had long been ignored by movement conservatives and the Republican establishment, voted them off the island first. They realized first that the old moral rules no longer applied. Thus someone like Trump was very much electable.

While Trump did appoint the Supreme Court justices that overturned Roe v. Wade, Trump was not a social conservative. For example, he appeared at one of his 2016 campaign rallies holding a Pride flag. And the primary concerns of his voters were not religious or social conservative, but cultural. They wanted to protect the historic American people—which in their view would include Ellis Island-era immigrants—from being turned into a minority by large scale immigration. They did not want to be made second-class citizens in their own country through DEI. And they wanted to retain America’s heritage and politico-cultural traditions  in defiance of those who want to tear down the statues of the Founders and view the nation’s history though the lens of the 1619 Project.

Support this vision or oppose it, but there is no denying that it represents an authentically conservative vision of America rooted in the historic demographic and cultural mainstream of the country in a way that the original traditionalism was not. While a kind of “folk libertarianism” is part of this vision, it is not the ideological libertarianism of movement conservatism. It seems highly unlikely that there could be a fusionism of Trumpian cultural conservatism with that kind of libertarianism.

Unsurprisingly, much of the GOP and conservative establishment reacted with horror not only at just Trump himself, but at Trumpism in general. Parts of the conservative movement have even continued down the path that might have been trodden but for Trump, with National Review publishing articles like, “A Conservative Defense of Transgender Rights.”

In this domestic environment, something like fusionism is a dead letter. The international situation doesn’t make prospects for fusion any more promising. The collapse of communism that removed the glue that held the fusionist consensus together during the 20th century. Then the discrediting of aggressive democracy promotion in Iraq eliminated its proposed replacement.

Under these conditions, it’s worth wondering what conservatism will even mean in the future. Social conservatives face a tough near-term, since the public does not support their agenda, something they have not reconciled themselves to. Cultural conservatives, even if they capture the Republican party, can’t stave off demographic change. At this point, it is baked into the cake. And they face the combined opposition of nearly every major institution in the country. Neither group has any alternative vehicle but the Republican Party. But they aren’t likely to be enthused by fusionism, preferring protectionism to free trade and the protection of Social Security and Medicare to the risks of the market.

            Movement conservatives, establishment Republicans, and even would be conservative reformers don’t have a significant base of support among Republican voters. But they also have options beyond the Republican Party. Largely pro-big business, pro-globalization, and moderately socially liberal, they have a plausible home on the non-woke, technocratic left.

We already see some moves in this direction. The Niskanen Center has emerged as an essentially left-libertarian institution, with a number of conservative dissidents on staff as well as people like Matthew Yglesias and David Schleicher as fellows. Proverbial “chamber of commerce Republicans” in the suburbs have been shifting towards the Democrats in the last several elections.       

            The most interesting case is the probably the American Enterprise Institute, long seen as the flagship of conservatism. AEI resolutely rejected Trumpism. It also signaled its rejection of social conservatism and embrace of the new public morality when then-president Arthur Brooks put his personal seal of approval on one of their fellows coming out as transgender. AEI scholars advocate the bourgeois values like the “success sequence.” Since AEI’s move to DuPont Circle, two doors down from the center-left flagship Brookings Institution, the two think tanks have pursued many fruitful and ongoing collaborations. AEI also hired noted centrist Democrat intellectuals such as Ruy Teixeira, co-author of The Emerging Democratic Majority and formerly of the Center for American Progress.  

Current AEI president Robert Doar says AEI is still a conservative think tank, but it is trending in a post-conservative direction that’s more open to the center-left. That approach appears to be paying dividends. A friend of mine who works for a top financial institution says his firm now cites AEI research in a way they did not in the past.

            There’s nothing wrong with post-conservatism. Reformist outfits like American Affairs, American Compass, and Compact are all arguably post-conservative in their own ways. I might also describe myself as post-conservative, except that I will not abandon identifying with the people I grew up with in Southern Indiana or others who are seen as low status because they are conservatives.

            But whatever direction the various factions that make up the conservative moment and Republican Party goes, fusionism is an anachronism except in the vaguest sense that conservatives believe in some way in the marketplace and in some way in a public order. Best to leave such terms behind in the 20th Century and find a set of views relevant to today’s world.

 

Aaron M. Renn is a writer and consultant in Indianapolis, and Senior Fellow at American Reformer. His work can be found at https://www.aaronrenn.com/.

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