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A Conservative Civil War Solves Nothing


Picture the following scenario. You’re a reporter who gets a call from a deep-voiced source, who asks you to meet him in an underground parking garage. He says he’s got a tip about something you’ll definitely want to see.

Arriving at the garage, you meet a tall man of medium build who hands you a smartphone. A video is queued up. You press “play.” The video shows Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton doing shots together, while she dares him to start an insurgent movement that will wreck the Republican Party.

What would you think? Would it be, “Come on, this is obviously a hoax”? Or would some part of you be thinking, “Well, that explains a lot”? Trump cheerfully bragged that he paid Clinton to come to his wedding. They’ve both got egos the size of the former USSR. Are we certain this whole thing didn’t start with The Donald and Hillary dividing up America over an $8,000 bottle of Scotch?

The fact that this theory has even a modicum of surface plausibility, concerning the Republican front-runner, is absolutely insane.

Party Name Aside, We Need Conservatism

Is it bad if the Republican Party falls apart? It’s a hot question these days. The chic answer is “Not necessarily.” The right answer is “Yes.”

If we rip it apart, we’re unlikely to forge anything better, particularly in this hour of madness.

The Republican Party has a major liability: it is a political party, and thus a magnet for politicians. From this major failing, others follow. Nevertheless, American conservatism has been a force for good in the United States, keeping our country freer, safer, and more prosperous than most other Western countries in an age of bloated, progressive government.

Conservatism has accomplished this by forging a significant connection with the Republican Party, and by staying roughly grounded on the foundation of fusionism, the philosophy forged by Frank Meyer, William Buckley, and their set of groundbreaking twentieth-century conservatives. It’s a good foundation. If we rip it apart, we’re unlikely to forge anything better, particularly in this hour of madness.

Fusionism joins a small-government-seeking, free-market conservatism with a natural-law-oriented social conservatism. We might think of these as the Hayekian and Aristotelian camps of conservatism. Their alliance is messy at times, because the two have overlapping, but not identical, areas of concern.

Fusionism Is Still the Way to Go

Aristotelians can be a bit reckless about approving governmental expansion as long as the desired ends appear to be good. Hayekians, for their part, have trouble appreciating that even in the age of Leviathan, governing is still properly a human activity, which must be done in view of the common good.

It’s a time for shoring up the alliance that has been so intellectually and politically fruitful.

At its best, though, fusionism can yield an approach to government that is substantive but not bloated. It disciplines governmental action while keeping sight of real human ends. The fusionist alliance motivates a balanced approach to politics that is suited to our modern age. At the moment, it is in real danger of being trampled by crusading populists.

Some see this as cause for celebration, which is understandable. Over the last few decades, both Hayekians and Aristotelians have at times pressed their advantage more than was quite fair. In the George W. Bush era, social conservatives jumped at the chance to use tax dollars to fund their favorite charities. Libertarians largely ignored social conservative pleas that same-sex marriage would be a gateway to religious persecution, and only some were apologetic when that turned out to be true. More indiscretions could be found, on one side or the other, if we cared to keep score.

Now isn’t the time for airing our grievances, however. It’s a time for shoring up the alliance that has been so intellectually and politically fruitful. If the fusionist alliance comes apart, it’s entirely possible that our political process will simply be consumed by warring identity groups, as both halves of the conservative brain trust become sorely marginalized.

Why Fusionism Works

Fusionism isn’t just an alliance of convenience, although there is an element of that. Neither principled small-government supporters nor tradition-loving social conservatives are numerous enough to build a coalition all their own. Together, they have since the Reagan era been able to piece together a viable party.

Both camps have principled reasons for pulling in different directions.

On a deeper level, fusionism also makes sense. Government overreach is, in our time, an ever-looming threat to natural community and family. The Hayekians thus help to protect social conservatives’ concerns in ways they themselves sometimes fail to appreciate.

At the same time, healthy family and community life are a necessary foundation for a free and productive society. Free-market conservatives, with their relentless focus on shrinking government, can sometimes be a little negligent of certain fundamental truths about human nature, which are foundational to the free and flourishing societies that we both want.

We know where the fault lines lie. Marriage. Drugs. Prostitution. Ideologically loaded benefits like child tax credits, which to one camp are just another entitlement, and to the other a salutary acknowledgement that childrearing and entrepreneurship should both count as “productive activity.” On these subjects, both camps have principled reasons for pulling in different directions.

Is Identity Politics All that’s Left?

Despite these disagreements, both Hayekians and Aristotelians still want substantially similar ends. Importantly, we both believe that the conservatism we fight for is good for America as a whole, not just a particular sub-set of protected classes whose votes we want to preserve.

The question on the table right now seems to be: is it still possible, in the modern age, to have a common-good conversation?

The question on the table right now seems to be: is it still possible, in the modern age, to have a common-good conversation? Or is a never-ending war over resources and cultural space (in which each sub-group picks its champion and hopes, “Hunger Games” style, for the biggest share it can get) now the whole of our political life?

Conservatism’s allergy to victimhood and class politics has left us with some electoral weaknesses Trump has skillfully exploited over these past few months. Some of our voters want to be “championed” in the same way they see Democratic constituencies championed. In a way this is understandable, because it’s fairly obvious that political patronage has been efficacious for some of these groups, securing them goods, benefits, and protections Trump’s supporters would like for themselves.

In a cynical age, it can be hard to look beyond that squabble over resources. I recommend David Frum’s much-discussed essay on the future of conservatism for anyone who wants a good, hard look at the world through the eyes of a conservative who has evidently succumbed to a “Hunger Games” view of politics.

Over the past two decades, Frum has passed through both paleoconservatism and neoconservatism, bitterly rejecting both in very public fashion. Now he appears to be tired of thinking about the common good. In an analysis more reminiscent of a liberal Marxist, he looks at the future and sees endless class warfare, and a never-ending zero-sum negotiation over goods and privileges. Is this dystopian vision really our future? It could be, if the fusionist alliance cannot now be saved.

Looking For A Way Forward

Hopefully, we are not yet at that point. A conservatism founded on fusionism has thus far been able to spare American society from descending into a nationwide game of “Survivor” (in which we all squabble over who gets to appropriate whose stuff through taxation, until the barbarians invade).

With our entitlement structure crumbling, labor markets shifting, and geopolitical position weak, now is a perilous time to choose the ‘Hunger Games’ arena.

With our entitlement structure crumbling, labor markets shifting, and geopolitical position weak, now is a perilous time to choose the “Hunger Games” arena over a common-good conversation. Other countries have been able to make this descent with comparatively little chaos, precisely because we were around to provide some stability in the world order. There is no one available to do that same favor for us.

If we can prevent stampeding populists from trampling the fusionist foundation into irrelevance, this perilous moment may serve as a salutary lesson. Clearly, we must work harder to listen to voters’ concerns, and to articulate why a free trade- and natural-law-based society is good for them, their children, and their grandchildren. This is never an easy task, particularly in the face of an opposition that is clearly willing to take the low road, winning voters by promising them electoral treats.

That just means that we need to be bigger, more broad-minded, more genuinely magnanimous and clearer than our opponents. We need to offer the American public a vision that is simultaneously believable and hopeful.

Right now, though, the task is to save our fusionist alliance. If it comes apart, we cannot be certain it will ever go back together again in a way that remains politically relevant and fruitful. A glance across the ocean should be enough to remind us there really is no guarantee that either goodness or common sense will find a home in our post-Trump-and-Bernie-Sanders political landscape.

A few decades from now, when our society has unraveled and the barbarians are literally at the gates, will we remember this as the turning point, at which we decided not to be a great nation anymore? It remains to be seen.