Skip to content
Breaking News Alert Report: 'Three Counter-Snipers' Were In Building Trump Shooter Used, Took Photos Of Him

The Conservatarian Challenge: Fusionism And The Future


Today The Cato Institute is hosting a discussion of Charles C.W. Cooke’s book, “The Conservatarian Manifesto,” featuring Cooke, Cato’s Ilya Shapiro, Reason’s Katherine Mangu-Ward, and yours truly. I hope you will attend. I had the pleasure of reading Cooke’s book recently, and it is an interesting and at times provocative read. Longtime readers will know my sympathies for Cooke’s thesis about the future of the right, and I have a few admittedly disorganized thoughts about it I wanted to share.

Broadly speaking, Cooke is grappling with the big question facing the American right about the future of fusionism in an era when the elements essential to such ideological unification are no longer present. For roughly half a century, the American right succeeded by following the fusionist path of Frank Meyer, an intellectual ex-communist turned libertarian, who argued for an alliance of libertarians, conservatives, and anti-communists toward common aims in his influential 1962 book, In Defense of Freedom. He aimed to bridge the gap between the individualists and the communitarians, a path he believed was consistent with the Constitutional compromises of the Founders – writing that “Freedom can exist at no lesser price than the danger of damnation; and if freedom is indeed the essence of a man’s being, that which distinguishes him from the beasts, he must be free to choose his worst as well as his best end. Unless he can choose his worst, he cannot choose his best.” But also that “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 brings about conditions that pave the way for surrender to tyranny.”

Meyer’s approach led to a coalition which supported the rise of conservatives based on the concept of a three-legged stool: fiscal conservatism, traditional values, and a strong national defense. And for a time, it worked. As Leadership Institute founder Morton Blackwell summarized Meyer’s view, “if the conservative movement was going to succeed, adherents of both lines of thought, natural allies on most issues, must be fused together. Supporters of a conservative economic policy, he taught, couldn’t expect their policies to be enacted without the backing of social-issue conservatives. And it was equally true, he continued, that social-issue conservatives couldn’t expect their policies to be enacted unless they allied with economic conservatives. The presidential elections of 1980, 1984 and 1988, as well as the congressional elections of 1994 and 1996, were manifestations of the wisdom of Frank Meyer.”

The death of the old fusionist model is due both to the success of its approach during the Cold War and the inadequacy of its approach to the challenges of the 21st Century – both foreign and domestic. The 2004 election was likely the last hurrah of the old fusionism, with Islamic terrorism and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan filling the void left by communism, and the machinations of Karl Rove’s push for traditional marriage amendments in a ploy to increase the evangelical vote. The lack of a clearly supported approach to a common foe and the disaggregation of the domestic conservative coalition has led to distrust and division.

After the elections of 2008 and 2012, there is a healthy acceptance on the part of a significant number of influential intellectual and policy elites that the state of this fusionist model for conservatism is not strong, and that it requires reform – including a reordering of message and of policy. Any such reform – either pushing the American right toward a more communitarian message or toward or more individualist one – must deal with three factors that Cooke’s book largely leaves unaddressed: the major shifts in Partisanship, Policy, and Priorities.

Political Partisanship

The fusionist coalition ultimately succeeded electorally because it was not a monopartisan approach. The Reagan Democrats who crossed over to support Republican candidates and a conservative attitude toward the Soviet Union and other matters were working and middle class voters who rejected progressive policies and rhetoric. It was also an approach that led gradually to the breakup of the Democratic dominance of the South. As Sean Trende notes in this piece on the decline of the Southern Democrat, excepting Virginia and North Carolina, there are today just two statewide Democratic officeholders in the entire South. Democrats in the South became more regional and urban, and less representative of states as a whole.

The big sort that has taken place between the parties over the course of the past generation of political participation has effectively moved the soft Democrats who were open to the appeal of a fusionist message into the Republican coalition, while turning the Democratic coalition into a more secular and more progressive party. This week brought us Jim Webb, last of the Reagan Democrats, announcing that Warren-Sanders-Hillary leftism “not my Democratic Party.” He’s right – and the extinction of his line is not just the reason fusionism no longer has cross-partisan appeal, but is also the reason why Democrats can take such monopartisan stances against the Confederate flag and engage in the kind of racial politics they embrace today. Yes, Hillary Clinton has a white male voter problem – but she does not really need to win white males to succeed, does she? Perhaps not.

Public Policy

The fusionist approach to public policy was inherently based on a respect for the values of federalism. (Meyer had his own views on this subject – read Jonathan Adler’s essay “The Fusionist as Federalist” on this point.) It focused rhetorically on the need for localism and the unavoidable failures of a centralized government to manage the affairs of citizens as if governing an urban city instead of a country with people who pursue happiness in a wide variety of ways, and in communities large and small. But practically speaking, little in the way of federalist policies were put into place under the presidencies of Ronald Reagan or either Bush (one could argue that it was only the Gingrich-Clinton partnership that actually put federalism into practice, but that’s an argument for a different day).

In a true understanding of federalism, states having the ability to take risks, but then must bear the costs of those risks.

The problem is that public policy shifts have largely eliminated the ability of federalism to work in the way it was intended. This is particularly true on the fiscal side of the argument. In a true understanding of federalism, states having the ability to take risks, but then must bear the costs of those risks. Instead, those costs are increasingly borne by national taxpayers, as it does when Mike Pence, Chris Christie, and John Kasich can take tax dollars from the workers of other states to fund entitlements for able-bodied childless working class adults in their states. Romneycare itself, dependent as it was on billions of dollars from the federal government, amounts to taxation without representation in the classic sense. Federalism cannot work when the costs for bad policy decisions are nationalized.

Instead of restoring the balance of federalism as the fusionist coalition intended, what has instead occurred is a fulfillment of Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis’ intent of the original “laboratories of democracy” term – that states would experiment with policies that would then become nationalized, whether other states liked it or not. Republican politicians have embraced this concept unthinkingly and applied it repeatedly, and there are today precious few of them who even understand how disruptive a true restoration of federalism would be to state budgets. This is a heavy lift indeed.

Personal Priorities

How do we define a life well lived? What happens if what makes us happy, and the methods we use to pursue it, undergo dramatic change – in ways that fundamentally alter the nature of the nation’s longstanding political coalitions? What if the pursuit of happiness is redefined in a way that fundamentally perverts the definition of liberty? These are all questions the next iteration of fusionism must answer, because the most significant demographic shifts America is currently experiencing aren’t about race – they are about the rise of single America, the delay of family formation, and the shifting definition of the life well-lived.

The most significant demographic shifts America is currently experiencing aren’t about race—they are about the rise of single America, the delay of family formation, and the shifting definition of the life well-lived.

Together, these demographic trendlines reveal the rise of a more individualist approach to living that prioritizes career, sexual agency, and personal interests over marriage, childbirth, and religion. This shift toward singlehood and away from family formation is notable for several reasons. It is unique in the American historical experience – women and men are marrying later than any time in our history, and with that comes the attendant drop in childbirth – with trends that cannot be explained away by the recent economic downturn alone. This trend is primarily confined to the lower and middle earners, discouraging financial stability and causing stagnation in household budgets. But what may be most remarkable about this trend is how little those in the political sphere understand its potentially lasting significance in altering the nature of traditional electoral coalitions.

For much of the twentieth century, the definition of the American Dream was commonly held. It was a house, a patch of green, a white picket fence, a husband and wife, two kids, a dog, a nice car and a nice neighborhood with a good school and safe streets. Achieving that dream involved myriad paths, but the typical ones tended to make people gravitate toward a view which made them more conservative as they approached middle age. Buying a house made you care about property taxes. Balancing a family budget made you care about income taxes and gas and grocery prices. Owning a small business made you care about burdensome regulations. Having children made you care about what programming was on television, what dangers existed in the world, and typically sent you back to church. You started to care about the school board, and whether the teacher was actually teaching your children – perhaps causing the first negative thoughts about a union. And then you started to worry about debt and deficits and the rising costs of the state, mindful that you spent more and more time working not for yourself and your family, but for the government and its dependents.

The fusionist coalition thrived in winning over those Americans. While these interests might not have been enough to turn you into a Republican, the experiences lend themselves to a certain commonly held view of consistent cross-generational priorities and civic values. But today we see the traditional pathway toward the American Dream dissolving. Families are forming later if at all, and breaking up with an astonishing regularity for lower income Americans. In 2012, the American homeownership rate fell to its lowest level in 15 years, and homeownership seems out of reach for many of them. There’s an increasing disengagement from civil society and diminishing church attendance.

What’s going on here is bigger than government, but the state has undoubtedly fomented it; it’s bigger than economics, though perverse economic incentives have contributed; and it’s bigger than culture, though the culture has certainly been an accelerating agent. What we are witnessing is the death of the shared vision of the American Dream, something we are only noticing in its absence. As Daniel Patrick Moynihan understood, the common belief in the importance of strong families and neighborhoods as essential to the American Dream was the greatest hedge against expansive government.

The most significant ramification of this is a loss of a shared understanding of personal autonomy. It is nothing less than a revolutionary shift in our definition of liberty, but more in the sense of the French than the American. It has brought us to a point where writers can say, with a straight face, that “My belief that the government should provide free, on-demand birth control is deeply rooted in my belief that the primary role of any government is to protect and expand personal liberties.” When personal liberty equates to the ability to access whatever you like, and to require someone else to pay for it, it represents a major shift away from the long-held American understanding of what liberty and individualism means. Without the underlying philosophical consensus which has been at the heart of the American experience since its inception, there is no long-term basis for a common understanding of how we define rights and responsibilities. And without that consensus, things fall apart. It will require a coalition that achieves far more than Meyer’s original ambition in order to put things together again.