The divide between conservatism’s old elements may represent the “end” of the fusionism that built the “conservative movement” and, after a half-century, of the dominance of this thinking within one of America’s major political parties.

The intellectual battle between the factions claiming the brand “conservatism” has become “the fight over, well, everything” perceives even outsider Vox Senior Reporter Jane Coaston.[1]

“After decades of cordial friendship among different right-leaning factions” Libertarian Party Chair Nicholas Sarwark simply told her the “conservative-libertarian fusion is pretty much dead.” From the other end of the old partnership, she cites First Things’ Ben Sixsmith reminding us that the old social-libertarian fusion had been criticized by major traditionalist thinkers from the very beginning and that these have been “vindicated” today for warning against prioritizing the rights of individuals over the needs of society, which is why progressives won the culture war.[2]

To Ms. Coaston this divide between its old elements represents the “end” of the fusionism that built the “conservative movement” and, after a half-century, of the dominance of this thinking within one of America’s major political parties. She was by no means alone coming to this conclusion.

It is important for conservatives in the tradition of William F. Buckley Jr., Frank S. Meyer, Russell Kirk, and Ronald Reagan to appreciate this critique especially from this very fair-minded analyst. She begins with social conservatives now characterizing libertarians as understanding moral matters solely in economic terms, “letting the free market decide what’s good and what’s bad” rather than properly asking “what’s best for society?” She cites a speech from the social conservative side by Hillbilly Elegy author J.D. Vance against the “business wing” of the GOP.[3]

What I worry about is that we have outsourced, in the conservative movement, our economic and our domestic policy thinking to the libertarians . . . if we’re worried about the fact that in this country today, for maybe the first extended period in our country’s history, we’re not even having enough children to replace ourselves. If we’re worried about those problems, then we have to be willing to pursue a politics that actually wants to accomplish something besides just making government smaller.

Libertarians broke earlier as its separate political party demonstrates giving up on a fusion it claimed supported social conservative statism. But Ms. Coaston demonstrates its increased intensity by referencing Fox News host Tucker Carlson who once identified as a limited government conservative but now was “increasingly embracing populist economic rhetoric, arguing that the government can reshape culture to help nuclear families, and eschewing libertarian economic concepts and libertarianism itself.” In an interview he told her, “I was so blinded by this libertarian economic propaganda that I couldn’t get past my own assumptions about economics.”

Ms. Coaston was particularly focused upon a debate between First Things’ social conservative Sohrab Ahmari and National Review’s more libertarian David French. Dr. Ahmari argued, “There is no returning to the pre-Trump conservative consensus that collapsed in 2016.”[4] Any attempt “would be misguided and harmful.” He gave credit to the old conservatism for defeating Communism; “promoting prosperity at home and the expansion of a rules-based international order;” and for defending natural rights and even the “transcendent dignity of the human person, as the visible image of the invisible God.” But “this conservatism too often tracked the same lodestar liberalism did—namely, individual autonomy. The fetishizing of autonomy paradoxically yielded the very tyranny that consensus conservatives claim most to detest.”

He distinguished his position from Dr. French’s by insisting the only way forward is to tame individualism and limited government by seriously fighting

the culture war with the aim of defeating the enemy and enjoying the spoils in the form of a public square re-ordered to the common good and ultimately the Highest Good. French prefers a different Christian strategy, and his guileless public mien and strategic preferences bespeak a particular political theology (though he would never use that term), one with which I take issue. Thus, my complaint about his politeness wasn’t a wanton attack; it implicated deeper matters.

In another essay Dr. Ahmari added that “With a kind of animal instinct, Trump understood what was missing from mainstream (more or less French-ian) conservatism.”[5] President Trump’s “instinct has been to shift the cultural and political mix, ever so slightly, away from autonomy-above-all toward order, continuity, and social cohesion.” “Progressives understand that culture war means discrediting their opponents and weakening or destroying their institutions. Conservatives should approach the culture war with a similar realism.” “Civility and decency are secondary values.” To confront the left “is its own kind of moral duty.”

Dr. French countered that classical liberalism did not mean refusal to challenge the left.[6] The question was how? “If and when any of my political opponents seek to undermine our fundamental freedoms, I’ll be there to pick a legal, political, and cultural fight with them. I won’t yield. I won’t stop. I won’t be weak.” But, from his social conservative side he added, “I also won’t turn my back on the truths of scripture. I won’t stop seeking justice, loving mercy, and walking humbly.” There is no political “emergency” that justifies abandoning fusionist conservatism, and “there will never be a temporal emergency that justifies rejecting the eternal truth.”

Dr. French argued the old conservatism fused “two main components: zealous defense of the classical-liberal order (with a special emphasis on civil liberties) and zealous advocacy of fundamentally Christian and Burkean conservative principles. It’s not one or the other. It’s both. It’s the formulation that renders the government primarily responsible for safeguarding liberty, and the people primarily responsible for exercising that liberty for virtuous purposes. As John Adams said, ‘Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.’ ”

The American Conservative’s Rod Dreher challenged both, asking “the French side of this dispute” to present a “case for why the liberal order as it exists today — including the weak church and feeble familyist culture — is capable of turning back the rising tide of disorder. Seriously, I want to read that argument. Conversely, what I would like to hear from the Ahmari side — and what I need to work on doing myself — is an argument for how traditional Christians would fare in a postliberal order in a society in which we are a minority. Lose liberalism, we lose the First Amendment — and then where would we be?”

He noted that The New York Times’s Ross Douthat went further asking what good would a First Amendment be in a “future society that remains formally liberal but resembles Aldous Huxley’s ‘Brave New World’ — dominated by virtual reality and eugenics and mood-stabilizing drugs, post-familial and post-religious and functionally post-human. Would such a society deserve the political loyalty of (let us say) a traditional Christian or Muslim, just because it still affords them some First Amendment protections? It is reasonable to say that it might not.”

Ms. Coaston correctly concluded: “The debate over libertarianism and conservatism, and over Ahmari and French, isn’t just about what conservatives believe. It’s about what conservatism is.”

The most comprehensive challenge to the old fusionist balance was manifested at a recent conference in D.C. launching what its sponsors called “national conservatism.” Texas Tech University’s William Salter reported on it as separating itself from the old conservatism in three major ways.[7] It was “much more willing to question the efficacy and desirability of markets in allocating a nation’s resources;” it philosophically distanced itself from fusionism’s libertarian side; and it was comfortable using political power to combat “social and cultural decline.”

Dr. Salter especially emphasized the new leadership of Yoram Hazony, who he considered “the intellectual godfather of the movement.” Dr. Hazony directly announced that, “Today we declare independence from neoliberalism, from libertarianism, from what they call classical liberalism. From the set of ideas that sees the atomic individual, the free and equal individual, as the only thing that matters in politics.”[8]

Beyond Dr. Hazony, Dr. Salter found very wide support for industrial policy, for protective tariffs, immigration restrictions, and promotion of national identity, “all carried out with the assistance of a friendly national government.” While conceding that not all speakers were in agreement, “the conference consensus seems clear: it is time for conservatives to overcome their skepticism of the state and, in the words of attendee J.D. Vance, ‘actually be willing to use politics and political power to accomplish’ conservative goals.”

Like Dr. French, Dr. Salter noted that the left’s centralization of power had been opposed over the last century by conservatives who “favored federalism, a separation of powers, and strong Constitutional protection for individual rights” with “peace, easy taxes, and a tolerable administration of justice.” But the progressives generally prevailed politically. Conservatives even fought the “culture war,” but “balked at using the national government to do it. National conservatives appear ready to discard these qualms.” “No longer content to get the state back in the role of a referee, they want to make it a player on their team.” “Making peace with the power of the national government to achieve admittedly desirable social goals will sever this link.” “If national conservatives take up the weapons of their enemies to fight them, they will become that which they sought to destroy.”

But it actually was Mr. Sixsmith’s “The Fusionism That Failed” that put the whole argument in the proper context by refreshingly focusing upon the old fusionism’s intellectual forefather, Frank. S. Meyer by looking closely at what he actually wrote about the fusion, although missing Meyer’s most important essay and somewhat overstating much of the rest.

Meyer was broadly recognized as the thinker who best caught the essence of early modern conservatism, including by William F. Buckley and Ronald Reagan themselves.[9] But most of today’s debate has focused upon the possibility of political fusionism, about building voting coalitions between libertarians and traditionalists to achieve power, rather than upon the philosophical synthesis that Meyer made the core of the old fusionism.

Mr. Sixsmith understood the distinction and explained it this way:

Meyer’s fusionism appeared to bridge the gap by advocating a political commitment to libertarianism and a moral commitment to traditional values. One should preach virtue, in other words, but not prohibit sin. This would have been an interesting synthesis even had it been born of pure pragmatism, but Meyer was more idealistic than that. Virtue, for him, depended on the individual’s having a free choice between good and bad deeds. “Freedom can exist,” he wrote, “at no lesser price than the danger of damnation.” Freedom was “the essence of man’s being,” and so man “must be free to choose his worst as well as his best end.” Otherwise, he is not virtuous, but slavish.

Other than the exaggeration of never prohibiting sin—obviously Meyer would prohibit murder and other coercion and fraud—this gets the essence of his and fusionist thinking generally rather well, especially utilizing the key word, synthesis.

Even so, Mr. Sixsmith then immediately cites libertarian Murray Rothbard complaining that Meyer’s anti-communism limited his support for freedom, but also paraphrasing traditionalist L. Brent Bozell Jr. to protest that Meyer thought “Americans ought to maximize their virtue by maximizing their freedom.” That is what happens to those who synthesize. Both sides complain that the synthesizer synthesizes. But that is what synthesizers do in seeking to resolve dilemmas.

While Mr. Sixsmith reasoned that “virtue is necessary for freedom, not freedom for virtue,” Meyer, following synthesis philosopher F.A. Hayek, agreed virtue is essential for freedom but also believed that freedom is necessary for virtue.[10] The dilemma of supporting both principles rejects over-rationalized assumptions forcing necessary conclusions in a universe of fundamental complexity. It is the difference between ideology and philosophical synthesis.

Coming from the more traditionalist side, Mr. Sixsmith most fears freedom undermining virtue. Yet, it is in fact the social conservative part of the fusionist synthesis that faces the greater risk in making a pact with the centralized state, allowing it to become adjudicator of morality and religious matters. As sociologist Rodney Stark has so carefully documented, the state has been the historical repressor of religion and that even in its more moderate garb of protector has most often coopted religion as an instrument of its own secular and often immoral interests.[11] Indeed, the greatest accommodation to that protector role is to become an established state religion, the persisting resentment against which today explains much of the continuing hostility against Europe’s recognized churches and about the decline of the mainline sects in the U.S.

There is an even more fundamental reason for social conservatives, especially those identifying with Judeo-Christian traditions, to be cautious in abandoning an individualist libertarian emphasis, the essential one emphasized by Meyer in his generally overlooked essay, “Western Civilization: The Problem of Political Freedom.”[12] Here freedom rests upon its God-given origin. As the Declaration of Independence put it, the freedom many social critics denigrate was “endowed” to each individual “by their Creator” and ostensibly should not be taken away morally from them even by frustrated and well-meaning peoples on the right.

Consider that Genesis recorded an individual freedom granted even to disobey the Creator Himself, for the original transgression and ever since. How much simpler it would be if He had not. The goal is not what is “best for society” much less “enjoying the spoils” but for individuals to choose rightly. There may be a “danger of damnation” eventually but not here. Forget about the state: is even family the highest social value over individualism? Jesus made this remarkably un-societal statement about that premier social institution and individual choice. “Do you think I came to bring peace on earth? No I tell you but division. From now on there will be five in one family divided against one another, three against two and two against three” (Luke 12:49-53).

Machiavelli, Rousseau and most of the great critics indeed traced individualist freedom and its threat to state power to Christianity as the reason for the modern turn from ancient communal social order to autonomy and chaos. Rousseau’s The Social Contract was quite clear on this:

Jesus came to set up on earth a spiritual kingdom, which, by separating the theological from the political system, made the State no longer one and brought about the internal divisions that have never ceased to trouble Christian peoples. As the new idea of a kingdom of the other world could never have occurred to pagans, they always looked on the Christians as rebels who, while feigning to submit, were only waiting for the chance to make themselves independent and masters, and to usurp by guile the authority they pretended in their weakness to respect. This was the cause of the persecutions.[13]

But “what the pagans feared took place” and the Christians came to power and turned into authoritarians themselves but “this double power and conflict of jurisdictions” remained intrinsic and “made all good polity impossible in Christian States.”

This freedom and autonomy, separation and division of power, and rebellious individualism are still what frustrate the critics. These indeed have powerful intellectual progenitors but history has shown the state as the most powerful corrupter. There is a good reason Western civilization so surprised the world with its superior economic and social orders after adopting this strange idea of limiting power by dividing it rather than by increasing it. And as much as libertarians might avoid the fact, and Dr. Ahmari criticize it as too libertarian, the roots of this freedom in the U.S. go to religious roots too, but mostly to non-conformist dissidents like Roger Williams, William Penn, and Lord Baltimore who planted the seeds of religious and general tolerance with charters limiting state control over religion even well before American independence.

Mr. Sixsmith actually correctly concluded that “we need a new conservative fusion” since the old one was exhausted, a conclusion I reached six years earlier.[14] Unlike an ideology, any such synthesis based upon a tension between fundamental principles needs constant reevaluation. The 1960s solution certainly has “atrophied” as Buckley himself conceded soon before he passed away. And listening closely to today’s critics so alienated from the old fusion is an essential requirement for any such revival. But not at the cost of Creator-given freedom, not by giving more power to the princes of this world to define morality, but by dividing and decentralizing power so that the little platoons of the more virtuous are free to pursue responsible happiness.

The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.


[1] Coaston, Jane. “David French vs. Sohrab Ahmari and the battle dividing conservatives, explained.” Vox, June 5, 2019.

[2] Sixsmith, Ben. “The Fusionism That Failed.” First Things, June 2019.

[3] Vance, J.D. “Towards a Pro-Worker, Pro-Family Conservatism.” The American Conservative, May 29, 2019.

[4] Ahmari, Sohrab. “Against David French-ism.” First Things, May 29, 2019.

[5] Kimball, Roger. “Sohrab Ahmari and Our Existential Struggle.” American Greatness, June 1, 2019.

[6] French, David. “What Sohrab Ahmari Gets Wrong.” National Review, May 30, 2019.

[7] Salter, Alexander William. “National Conservatism and the Preference for State Control.” Quillette, July 31, 2019.

[8] Hazony, Yoram. “Why National Conservatism? – National Conservatism Conference.” National Conservatism. July 19, 2019. Video, 33:46.

[9] Devine, Donald. “The Enduring Tension That Is Modern Conservatism.” Law & Liberty, May 20, 2015.

[10] Hayek, F.A. “The Theory of Complex Phenomena.” In Readings in the Philosophy of Social Science, edited by Michael Martin and Lee C. McIntyre, 55-70. Cambridge: A Bradford Book, 1994.

[11] Stark, Rodney. How the West Won: The Elected Story of the Triumph of Modernity. Wilmington: Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2015.

[12] Meyer, Frank S. “Western Civilization: The Problem of Political Freedom.” Modern Age, (Spring 1968), 120-28.

[13] Rousseau, Jean-Jacques, The Social Contract and Discourses. London: J.M. Dent & Sons, 1923.

[14] Devine, Donald J. America’s Way Back: Reclaiming Freedom, Tradition, and Constitution. Wilmington: Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2013.

The featured image is “Argument Over A Card Game” by Jan Steen (1625-1679), courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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