I was lucky enough to see the beginnings of modern American conservatism in New York after a visit to my university by the new movement’s prime mover William F. Buckley Jr. — and a bit later by becoming mesmerized by his National Review literary editor Frank S. Meyer, who became the principal promoter of what came to be called the philosophy of conservative fusionism.
That philosophy rose from 1940s obscurity to overwhelming 1980s success under President Ronald Reagan. Reagan even appointed this acolyte to head the federal civil service during his first term to help implement some of the goals of that revived conservative philosophy by cutting and limiting Washington’s out-of-control, centralized government bureaucracy.
While Reagan’s fusionist philosophy inspired prosperity for a generation in the U.S and worldwide, it began to be mitigated politically as early as Bush I’s “kinder and gentler” pragmatism, shortly revived by Newt Gingrich under Bill Clinton, and then directly opposed by Bush II’s “compassionate conservatism,” whose entitlement, social, military, and educational spending led to 2008’s Great Recession and the end of Reagan’s fusionist prosperity.
A recent Google search returns a million responses for the phrase “fusionism is dead.” On the other hand, the surprise today is that there has been more written about fusionism over the past five years or so than in the previous 30.
The term fusionism has been muddled from the very beginning, with people regularly confusing fusionism for a rightist political coalition of libertarian and traditionalist partisans when it is a philosophical term. Coalitions expire, sound philosophy endures.
What was this idea of fusionism that rebuilt a formerly moribund American conservatism and prepared the way for its later political successes? In launching a new conservative intellectual organization in 1965, Meyer began the discussion over the name, calling the term fusionism “inelegant and hideous,” devised by a critic — as Marx had for the term “capitalism,” and St. Paul’s critics did for “Christianity.” But hideous or not, the term stuck — as it did for those others. It is the philosophy that matters, not the name.
Reason magazine managing editor Stephanie Slade recently defined fusionism as a philosophy just about perfectly:
Fusionism, properly understood, is not a marriage of two groups. It’s a marriage of two value sets. A fusionist is someone who sees both liberty (in the classical sense of freedom from aggression, coercion, and fraud) and virtue (in the Judeo-Christian sense of submission to God’s commands) as important. Fusionism is therefore a distinct philosophical orientation unto itself. What’s more, it has historically been the dominant orientation on the American right.
She contended that “Conservatives going back at least to the country’s founding have believed that virtue and liberty were mutually reinforcing—and that neither could survive long without the other.” She quoted John Adams that “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people.” She continued that “the reverse is also true: Virtue, to be virtuous, must be freely chosen.” Meyer, who she called “the godfather of fusionism,” summarized it as: “Truth withers when freedom dies, however righteous the authority that kills it; and free individualism uninformed by moral value rots at its core and soon surrenders to tyranny.”
Meyer’s ’60s article summarized fusionism as simply the American contribution to the Western tradition, a “blending of two lines of thought” observable in its practice from the beginning. That philosophy blended tradition’s sense of virtue on the one hand and “the primacy of freedom on the other.” America’s inheritance was neither 19th-century European liberalism nor conservativism. Rather, it avoided that split by going “behind both” to the “deeper Western tradition at its best: a tension, a balance between tradition and freedom,” a tension inherent in Judeo-Christian culture. This blended essence reached back to pre-19th century ideals and traditions dividing power like Magna Carta and achieved its high point in the U.S. Constitution.
Back in 1965, Meyer was concerned that after the revival following World War II of this sense of limited government tensions that promoted freedom and morality — mainly under the inspiration of philosopher F.A. Hayek — we have now “failed to develop the discussion further.” He found that the emphasis on politics back then was “exhibiting a lamentable intellectual thinness” that was simply chanting “neat slogans” and “sneering” at opponents rather than “deepening our understanding.” Sound familiar? With libertarian Milton Friedman and traditionalist Stanley Parry, he proposed becoming serious again by creating a (Philadelphia Society) organization that would go beyond pragmatic politics to promote a much deeper philosophical understanding.
This intellectual reorientation eventually refined fusionism philosophically, inspiring a large number of right-leaning intellectuals to join Ronald Regan (who read more serious books than his pseudo-intellectual critics) and thousands of others to create an intellectual leadership that refined popular understanding of limited government as dividing power by decentralizing and privatizing it, leading to political and moral success for a generation.
The year 1965 had followed a disastrous presidential loss by conservative Barry Goldwater that left Democrats with two-thirds of Congress, the presidency, and a solidly progressive court that allowed the political left to recover from the congressional restraint imposed domestically since 1938 by a coalition of Southern Democrats and Republicans. The 1964 Republican defeat broke that stalemate, allowing a revived left to pass a wide-ranging War on Poverty as a culmination of the New Deal and basically turning the U.S. into a democratic-socialist welfare state.
Meyer’s ’60s may seem long ago, but the interesting thing is that today’s inflection points hold many similarities. Indeed, 2024 is beginning to look like a possible 1964, but the other way. Virginia’s and other off-year elections may be harbingers. With trust in government at historic lows, Republicans might just win large majorities in both houses of Congress, the presidency, and the courts as the Democrats did back then — enabling them to unleash more effective local and private mediating institutions from inefficient centralized government controls.
But it is plain that conservatives, including fusionists, are not ready with agreed-upon fundamental solutions. While some reformists now trace today’s problems back to Reagan’s fusionism, policy critic Rachel Bovard finds Reagan’s policies “right for his time.” She said, “National conservatives don’t have to repudiate or transcend traditional conservative principles. We simply have to reorder them” since values “are necessarily in tension with each other.” Indeed, “Reprioritizing principles to meet changing times is what conservatism is.” Still, since progressive elites have now fractured both popular moral culture and distorted business markets so fundamentally, past fusionist restrictions on government powers now seem too limiting.
Bovard offers a list of more aggressive government regulatory initiatives than would traditional fusionism, desiring an aggressive Congress to control government bureaucracy and private monopoly power. But she has also said that any reforms would need to be self-executing to be effective. Yet laws can only be self-executing if a bureaucracy cannot issue more specific implementing regulations or set enforcement priorities. Otherwise, centralized bureaucracies will frustrate legislative intent by manipulating their “regulatory dark matter” that legislatures often do not even see. Meyer’s fusionist solution insists that defunding central government institutions or de-federalizing them are the only real ways for laws to be self-executing.
Meyer titled his fusionist manifesto “A New Stage in Conservative Thought” which is precisely what we need today. As he emphasized, shallow slogans and sound bites cannot win the day, but fundamental reforms based on serious thought and discussion might. To do so, we may even have to recover the creativity of 1960s New York, where everyone then seemed to be reading deep books like Hayek’s Constitution of Liberty (perhaps today reading something more recent), and anxious to talk through the differences that remained.
With broad and thoughtful discussion and forbearance, it could just end with a real Constitutional government based on those same enduring Western tradition principles.
Donald Devine is senior scholar at the Fund for American Studies. He is the author of The Enduring Tension: Capitalism and the Moral Order, new from Encounter Books, America’s Way Back: Reclaiming Freedom, Tradition, and Constitution, and Political Management of the Bureaucracy. He served as President Reagan’s director of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management during his first term and can be followed on Twitter @donalddevineco1.