Back to the Future: Fusionism
My op/ed in today’s Examiner
American conservatism is in disarray. Save for judicial appointments and tax cuts, George W. Bush’s compassionate conservatism has been a disaster for the Republican Party and the conservative movement. The Bush era fractured the old Reagan coalition of traditionalists and libertarians.
There is a way forward. However, it requires going back to first principles. No new synthesis for a governing coalition is required. The coalition is broken but still exists. To repair it, we need to return to the fusionist principles formulated by Frank Meyer and William F. Buckley Jr. in the pages of National Review.
Simply put, fusionism is libertarian means to achieve traditionalist ends. Before National Review there were no conservatives, only traditionalists and libertarians. Both reviled totalitarian communism abroad and creeping collectivism at home. However, they feuded over the proper balance between liberty and order. Meyer, a former communist turned libertarian, forged an intellectual consensus to bridge that gap. The result was fusionism, the idea that liberty and order must exist in a healthy tension and balance.
Meyer understood the importance of traditionalist emphasis on protecting the values and traditions, which constitute Western culture. He synthesized the libertarian principle of human freedom with the traditional end of preserving that which is worthy of preserving in our society. This consensus was, as he put it, “reason operating within tradition,” and that this ordered liberty fit squarely within the tradition of the American founding.
Fusionism was not merely a philosophy of cerebral academics. Barry Goldwater showed it could attract sufficient adherents, and Ronald Reagan proved it could form the basis of winning politics and successful governance. The genius of Reagan lay in his application of fusionist conservative principles to the problems of the day.
Unfortunately, Reagan’s successors abandoned fusionism, instead seeking to expand their power at the expense of advancing conservative ideas. The culmination of this dereliction is Bush and compassionate conservatism. Based on a right-wing vision of the Social Gospel, compassionate conservatism radically departs from the limited government mantra of fusionism, pursuing traditional ends through expanded and activist government. In short, compassionate conservatism is not conservatism at all.
What has compassionate conservatism wrought? Federal spending triple that under Bill Clinton; faith-based programs, which blur the line between state and private philanthropy; and the largest entitlement program since the Great Society. This right-wing progressivism tore asunder the conservative movement, returning it to a pre-fusionist state, once again separating libertarians and traditionalists. The result of this abandonment of first principles was the resounding Democratic victory in the 2006 elections.
One possible hope for repairing the coalition and reigniting fusionism may lie in the Ron Paul revolution. Of all the GOP presidential candidates, Paul best fits the fusionist mold of Goldwater and Reagan. Paul applies conservative principles to contemporary issues. He wants to cut government spending, create health savings accounts and education tax credits, and restore Second Amendment rights. Paul’s obvious weakness is foreign policy, and fusionists are right to be skeptical of his isolationism. However, that does not proscribe a future synthesis of Paul’s libertarian domestic policies with a more robust Reaganite foreign policy into a renewed, fusionist conservatism.
Like Goldwater in 1964, Paul has attracted a significant following of fervent young supporters. Though Goldwater lost in a landslide, his supporters in Young Americans for Freedom became the adult leadership for Ronald Reagan. Ron Paul, like Barry Goldwater, will not be president of the United States. But similar to the revolution Goldwater started, Paul’s own movement could provide the fertile ground to repair the Reagan coalition and restore fusionism, which made conservatism successful.