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In American politics, fusionism is the philosophical and political combination or "fusion" of traditionalist and social conservatism with political and economic right-libertarianism. The philosophy is most closely associated with Frank Meyer.
The philosophy of "fusionism" was developed at National Review magazine during the 1950s under the editorship of William F. Buckley, Jr. and is most identified with his associate editor Frank Meyer. As Buckley recounted the founding he "brokered" between "an extraordinary mix" of libertarians, traditional conservatives, anti-communists and even an anarchist to produce the ideas and writings that produced modern conservatism. He identified Meyer's synthesis as the most likely best solution of defining conservatism.
In his most influential book, In Defense of Freedom, Meyer defined freedom in what Isaiah Berlin would label "negative" terms as the minimization of the use of coercion by the state in its essential role of preventing one person's freedom from intruding upon another's. The state should protect freedom but otherwise leave virtue to individuals. The state has only three legitimate functions – police, military and operating a legal system, all necessary to control coercion, which is immoral if not restricted. Virtue is critical for society and freedom must be balanced by responsibility but both are inherently individual in form. Coerced values cannot be virtuous. Freedom by itself has no goal, no intrinsic end. Freedom is not abstract or utopian as with the utilitarians, who also make freedom an end rather than a means. In a real society traditional order and freedom can only exist together. The solution is a philosophical synthesis of both freedom and tradition, the solution to the dilemma is "grasping it by both horns" and accepting the tension between the two.
Fusionism's most famous advocate was Ronald Reagan as an early admirer of National Review and associate of both editors. On assuming the presidency in 1981, he met with conservative leaders around the country in Washington and reminded them of their intellectual roots. After listing "intellectual leaders like Russell Kirk, Friedrich Hayek, Henry Hazlitt, Milton Friedman, James Burnham, [and] Ludwig von Mises" as the ones who "shaped so much of our thoughts," he discussed only one of these influences at length:
It's especially hard to believe that it was only a decade ago, on a cold April day on a small hill in upstate New York, that another of these great thinkers, Frank Meyer, was buried. He'd made the awful journey that so many others had: he pulled himself from the clutches of 'The [communist] God That Failed,' and then in his writing fashioned a vigorous new synthesis of traditional and libertarian thought – a synthesis that is today recognized by many as modern conservatism.
As he recalled him, the new president outlined the ideas Meyer synthesized as the principles for this new conservative movement.
It was Frank Meyer who reminded us that the robust individualism of the American experience was part of the deeper current of Western learning and culture. He pointed out that a respect for law, an appreciation for tradition, and regard for the social consensus that gives stability to our public and private institutions, these civilized ideas must still motivate us even as we seek a new economic prosperity based on reducing government interference in the marketplace. Our goals complement each other. We're not cutting the budget simply for the sake of sounder financial management. This is only a first step toward returning power to the states and communities, only a first step toward reordering the relationship between citizen and government.
We can make government again responsive to the people by cutting its size and scope and thereby ensuring that its legitimate functions are performed efficiently and justly. Because ours is a consistent philosophy of government, we can be very clear: We do not have a separate social agenda, separate economic agenda, and a separate foreign agenda. We have one agenda. Just as surely as we seek to put our financial house in order and rebuild our nation's defenses, so too we seek to protect the unborn, to end the manipulation of schoolchildren by utopian planners, and permit the acknowledgement of a Supreme Being in our classrooms just as we allow such acknowledgements in other public institutions.
Fusionism saw its height during the presidency of Ronald Reagan, who had brought together the divided factions after Gerald Ford's loss in the 1976 election. Rich Lowry has argued that Reagan maintained a fusionist 'sweet spot' of both ideological flexibility and respect for conservative principles. In the immediate aftermath of the Republican takeover of Congress in 1994, fusionism was also at its height. The social conservative element of the Republican Party was seen on the ascent (at least with respect to domestic politics) during the presidency of George W. Bush. Increased spending angered traditional conservatives, fiscal conservatives, and libertarians. In addition, the long-standing tensions between neoconservatives and paleoconservatives bubbled over in the wake of the Iraq War.
Wisconsin Congressman Paul Ryan said during a June 2009 Hudson Institute conference speech:
A "libertarian" who wants limited government should embrace the means to his freedom: thriving mediating institutions that create the moral preconditions for economic markets and choice. A "social issues" conservative with a zeal for righteousness should insist on a free market economy to supply the material needs for families, schools, and churches that inspire moral and spiritual life. In a nutshell, the notion of separating the social from the economic issues is a false choice. They stem from the same root.
While both these principles are traditionally conservative, the equal emphasis of traditional morality and free markets is a characteristic of fusionism.
Following the Republican Party's defeat in the 2006 midterm elections, some were calling for a new "fusionism" between libertarians and liberals in the Democratic Party to address what is seen as increasing governmental interference in private activity. The results of the 2008 elections and the financial crisis of 2007–2008 have brought renewed tension between the libertarians and the social conservatives with centrist economic views.
Fusionists tend to see the unpopularity of George W. Bush's "compassionate conservatism," such as in his new entitlement prescription drug program, and his party's following defeat by President Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012, as reasons requiring a fusionist renewal if conservatism was ever to regain the presidency.
In a polemic, the traditional conservative philosopher Russell Kirk, quoting T. S. Eliot's expression called libertarians "chirping sectaries". Adding that although conservatives and libertarians share opposition to collectivism, the totalist state and bureaucracy, have otherwise nothing in common. He called the libertarian movement "an ideological clique forever splitting into sects still smaller and odder, but rarely conjugating." Stating that a line of division exists between believers in "some sort of transcendent moral order" and "utilitarians admitting no transcendent sanctions for conduct." He included libertarians in the latter category. Kirk had questioned fusionism between libertarians and traditional conservatives that marked much of post-World War II conservatism in the United States.
Kirk also berated libertarians for holding up capitalism as an absolute good arguing that economic self-interest was inadequate to hold an economic system together, and even less adequate to preserve order. He believed that by glorifying the individual, the free market, and the dog-eat-dog struggle for material success, libertarianism weakened community, promoted materialism, and undermined appreciation of tradition, love, learning, and aesthetics. All of which he believed were essential components of true community.
Author Carl Bogus states that there were fundamental differences between libertarians and traditional conservatives, libertarians wanted the market to be unregulated as possible while traditional conservatives believed that big business, if unconstrained, could impoverish national life and threaten freedom. Libertarians also believed that a strong state would threaten freedom while traditional conservatives regarded a strong state, one which is properly constructed to ensure that not too much power accumulated in any one branch, was necessary to ensure freedom.