TCS Daily

The Fusionist Path

By Kenneth Silber - August 18, 2004 12:00 AM

Like the man who's surprised to learn he's been speaking prose all his life, the fusionist is a political category whose members may operate without much awareness of their label. Fusionism is the idea, named and developed decades ago by Frank Meyer of National Review, that conservatism and libertarianism share a common agenda. Thus, the fusionist believes that conservatives and libertarians ought to be allies -- and indeed that their respective philosophies are largely or essentially combinable into a coherent body of thought.

Fusionism, whether going by that name or not, has long had both adherents and detractors on the rightward side of the American political spectrum. Columnist William Safire has frequently called himself a libertarian conservative (or even, with a linguist's flair, a "libcon"). Columnist George F. Will once wrote that people calling themselves libertarian conservatives have embraced "a label a bit like 'promiscuous celibates.'"

Despite such tensions, fusionism remained a vital tendency of the American right over three decades, shaping politics and policy from Barry Goldwater's 1964 presidential campaign through Ronald Reagan's presidency and into the "Republican revolution" following the 1994 elections. Yet the mid-1990s, in retrospect, seem like a cresting of the fusionist wave. Before long, congressional Republicans, buffeted by political backlash, were retreating from plans to scale back, or even limit the growth of, government. (The backlash included criticism having little to do with the merits, such as a grotesque conflation of limited government with the Oklahoma City bombing.)

Fusionism has had a difficult time of it, politically and intellectually, in recent years. Libertarian and conservative magazines routinely run articles denouncing each other. Divisions are rife on a long list of issues: government spending, faith-based programs, gay marriage, abortion, the Patriot Act, the Iraq War, and more. The Cold War, a unifying cause for conservatives and libertarians, is long over. Celebrants of Reagan's legacy include mutually antagonistic factions that once were part of his coalition.

Does fusionism have a future? I believe it does. For one thing, the publication you are now reading has a distinctly fusionist coloration. Moreover, "libertarian conservative" (unlike "promiscuous celibate") is in fact coherent. It describes someone who thinks libertarian institutions are worth conserving (and that a country embracing such institutions is worth defending). It implies a consistency in advocating both social and economic freedoms, and a recognition that both types of freedoms require responsibility and virtue.

There are, I believe, opportunities for creative, fusionist coalition-building, not only within the right but bridging right and center. In keeping with such objectives, I offer the following observations for conservatives, libertarians and right-leaning centrists:

The extremes cannot hold. Both conservatism and libertarianism have manifestations that are -- deservedly -- at the margins of American political life. A libertarian extreme is "anarchocapitalism," which seeks to eliminate all government on the evidence-free theory that a peaceful, market-based society would result. Conservative extremism at present tends toward the theocratic; in the past, racists and paranoid anti-Communists hovered more visibly on conservatism's fringes. National Review played a crucial role in separating extremist groups such as the John Birch Society from respectable conservatism. Exclusion, as well as inclusion, is a necessary element of fusionism.

The center has changed. Moderate Republicanism was once characterized by the fiscal profligacy of New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller. Today, it is exemplified more by the budget-cutting of California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. Among the Democrats, opposition to budget deficits and support for welfare reform were the Clinton-era hallmarks of moderation. Centrist politics gradually has become more amenable to limited-government ideas. This raises the possibility of using center-right coalitions to enact policies compatible with fusionism.

Liberalism has become more authoritarian. The traditional liberal emphasis on civil liberties and social permissiveness increasingly has been overshadowed by impulses toward safety, sensitivity or stasis. Campus speech codes and anti-pornography measures are now considered liberal causes. Liberal advocacy of stem-cell research coexists uneasily with liberal fears about genetic engineering. Political movements are often defined, in substantial part, by what they are against; and thus fusionism is likely to gain momentum as it combats liberalism's tendencies toward authoritarianism.


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