Fusionism Re-examined

Mark Newgent’s excellent piece in the Baltimore Examiner has much to recommend it. However, my friend and Red Maryland colleague misses one leg from the current conservative stool.

Newgent references the fusionism concept pioneered by Frank Meyer when he was with William Buckley’s National Review. At the time Meyer formulated his notion of fusionism, there were basically three disparate groups in the then nascent conservative movement – libertarians, traditionalists, and anti-communists.

Meyer’s concept was basically one of pragmatism. The three groups had much in common. By emphasizing commonalities and agreeing to disagree – civilly – on other issues, the three groups stood a much greater chance of policy and electoral success than if they remained three separate and quaint intellectual groups. (For a better understanding of this history I recommend the well researched and highly readable “Upstream: The Ascendance of American Conservatism” by Al Regnery or the excellent, if somewhat dry, “The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America Since 1945” by George Nash)

During Meyer’s time there were no “social conservatives”. First of all, the hot-button issues that rile today’s social conservatives did not even exist. Roe v Wade was years away; birth control was still illegal in states like Connecticut. No one discussed being gay, much less allowing homosexuals to marry. If there was a discussion of a “right to die” it was carried on at home, certainly not in the public square. To a certain extent, “Traditionalists” were the “social conservatives” of their day. However, the issues were different and today we call those same people “paleo-conservatives”.

Since 1976, a social conservative movement has grown. From Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority to Pat Robertson’s presidential campaign in 1988 (which led to the Christian Coalition) to today we have a broad coalition of evangelicals, Catholics and conservative Jews that form the core of what we now call social conservatism.

More Re-examination below the fold

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Unfortunately, Meyer’s fusionism will not necessarily bridge this gap. The vast majority of “social conservatives” are not conservatives in the same sense that Barry Goldwater or Ronald Reagan were. Neither Goldwater nor Reagan would ever support federal law attempting to outlaw gay marriage. Goldwater was not “pro-life” yet he did not support Roe v. Wade. Regan was pro-life, but did not support the federalization of abortion short of a constitutional amendment. Why? Read the U.S. Constitution. These are not federal issues.

The problem with fusing social conservatism with a Reagan / Goldwater philosophy is that too many of the issues of concern to social conservatives should not be federal issues. Roe v Wade should be overturned. That doesn’t mean that abortion will de facto become illegal. While marriage may be a sacrament, it is also a civil contract (get married in church, without a license, and see if the state recognizes your marriage). What about the contracts clause? A contract valid in Massachusetts should still be legal in Maryland.

Admittedly, I have a tough time with many of these issues. I don’t buy any of that “I’m personally pro-life but …” foolishness so popular among Democrats. I’m PRO-LIFE – period. I am also an American conservative. I recognize religious liberty. I won’t live in a theocracy either of the left or the right. Abortion is a matter for the several states to decide, unless we can rally the votes for a constitutional amendment.

The same should apply to assisted suicide laws. I may be opposed. I don’t live in Oregon. Therefore, why is the federal government enforcing my point of view on the citizens of Oregon?

To me, we are faced with a fairly simple choice. Do we want to live in a republic with all the protections afforded by our constitution OR do we wish to live in a theocracy? I choose a republic. Many of my brethren choose their own version of fusionism. They want a republic to prevent the government from imposing its will on them, but they want the government to impose their will on others. This is nothing more than American liberalism under a different name – and with a different agenda.

Many of these issues, along with some other important trends in what I will call the “demise of Reaganism”, are intelligently discussed in Mickey Edwards’s landmark work Reclaiming Conservatism. Edwards lays out the problem well. He reminds us (American conservatives) of what we truly believe. The only place that Reclaiming Conservatism falls short is in presenting an effective strategy for converting our socially conservative brethren (in all fairness to Edwards, that wasn’t his purpose for writing the book); not necessarily to a different point of view, but to the realization that federalizing these fundamental issues is as dangerous to our nation as the leftist prescriptions that have preceded them.

Sadly, I can’t claim to have the answer. Too many of our politicians have taken advantage of all parties by co-opting the names of Reagan and Goldwater when it suits and pandering to various groups within our once great movement. What saddens me the most is that if either Reagan or Goldwater came back today and ran for office, many of the same people who claim their mantle today, would attack their views as liberal.

Perhaps that’s the beginning of an answer. We need to start having genuine discussions with our friends and colleagues that emphasizes that American conservatism is a broad tent open to many, but that it is not a punch line.

I for one plan on giving copies of Goldwater’s Conscience of a Conservative and Edwards’ Reclaiming Conservatism as Christmas presents this year. Oddly enough, if you take Goldwater’s last chapter on the Soviet Union and substitute Islamist or Jihadist for communist or Soviet Union every word is as true today as it was in 1960.

cross posted at Delmarva Dealings

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