Keeping track of the Jacksonians, Reformicons, Paleos, and Post-liberals.
I like to start my classes on conservative intellectual history by distinguishing between three groups. There is the Republican party, with its millions of adherents and spectrum of opinion from very conservative, somewhat conservative, moderate, and yes, liberal. There is the conservative movement, the constellation of single-issue nonprofits that sprung up in the 1970s —
- gun rights,
- right to work
— and continue to influence elected officials. Finally, there is the conservative intellectual movement: writers, scholars, and wonks whose journalistic and political work deals mainly with ideas and, if we’re lucky, their translation into public policy.
Fusionism was an idea championed most forcefully by Frank Meyer, the longtime literary editor of National Review. He argued that libertarianism — then often called “individualism” — and traditionalism are the twin pillars of conservatism and, more broadly, of a just and free society. The chief obligation of the state is to protect individual liberty, but the chief obligation of the individual is to live virtuously. Coerced virtue is tyrannical: Virtue not freely chosen is not virtuous.
.. But as both a philosophical and a prudential matter, we understand — just as Meyer did to some extent — that freedom is a concept with limits, that each principle must be circumscribed at the extremes by other important principles. A society where literally everything is permitted isn’t free except according to some quasi-Hobbesian or fully Rousseauian or Randian theory about the freedom inherent in a state of nature or an anarcho-capitalist utopia. Some forms of authority must be morally permissible, even to the lover of liberty.
.. Decisions made by others can profoundly affect the ease or difficulty of one’s pursuit of virtue or salvation. If I tell my daughter that her mother and I will not punish her if she uses drugs or ignores her responsibilities, I’m making it harder for her to live a decent, virtuous life. She will have the ultimate choice, but as an authority over her, I can make some choices easier or more difficult.
.. Here’s how I think about it: When presented with a political or philosophical challenge, the conservative, particularly the conservative of the Buckleyan variety, asks two important questions: Does the challenge threaten freedom? Does it hinder the practice of virtue? And he asks the same questions about the proposed response to the challenge.
.. Rothbardians, Randians, and other hyper-individualists are often inmates of their single idea, refusing to temper it with others. “An individualist,” Ayn Rand wrote, “is a man who says: ‘I’ll not run anyone’s life — nor let anyone run mine. I will not rule nor be ruled. I will not be a master nor a slave. I will not sacrifice myself to anyone — nor sacrifice anyone to myself.’” When thoughts are presented in such stark light, all nuance is lost in shadow. It is fine and good to say one will be neither master nor slave, but what about brother or sister, father or son? What about neighbor, friend, or simply fellow citizen? Social solidarity, whether at the intimate level of the family or the broad level of the nation, requires a vastly complex ecosystem of obligations and dependencies that fall to the cutting-room floor when we apply the razor of hyper-individualism.
.. The American tradition, as Tocqueville most famously chronicled, is a stew of both extreme individualism and remarkable associationism. Visitors such as Tocqueville have an easier time seeing this than do native-born Americans themselves. When you grow up in a tradition, that tradition becomes, if not entirely invisible, then certainly recessed into your background assumptions about how the world works.
.. Meyer understood that the strongest metal is an alloy. Steel is stronger than iron because of its blended nature. The Western tradition from antiquity onward was a conversation between two imperatives,
- freedom and order,
- liberty and virtue.
Prior to the Enlightenment, these imperatives were less of a tension and more of a process. Virtue was the way in which one achieved liberty, rightly understood. This conversation, Meyer wrote, was a “dialectic between doctrines which emphasize opposite sides of the same truth.”
.. When intellectuals such as Bozell and Rothbard emphasize one side of the coin, each side appears as a negation of the other. But, in reality, “on neither side is there a purposeful, philosophically founded rejection of the ends the other side proclaims,” Meyer wrote. “Rather, each side emphasizes so strongly the aspect of the great tradition of the West which it sees as decisive that distortion sets in.
.. The place of its goals in the total tradition of the West is lost sight of, and the complementary interdependence of freedom and virtue, of the individual person and political order, is forgotten.”
.. In short, tradition is not a philosophy but the arena in which competing philosophies shape the civilization around them. Libertarians and conservatives, despite all of their disagreements, can find common ground because they share some assumptions that Marxists, Randians, and others do not.
.. The libertarian individualists of the 1960s were more virtue-oriented than they appreciated. The traditionalists of the period were more concerned with freedom than they often let on. And many of the arguments about fusionism amounted to the sorts of squabbles we associate with the faculty lounge; they were so vicious because the stakes were so low.
Meanwhile, the more relevant debate was between populists and elitists. I say “elitists,” not “elites,” because this debate was also fought almost entirely among elites as well.
.. Kendall was an unapologetic majoritarian who believed that the masses were the virtuous citizens of “We the People.” He described himself as an “Appalachians-to-the-Rockies patriot.”
.. Conservatism, and America generally, got through the McCarthy period all right, in large part because elite institutions continued to play their role in constraining and channeling popular uprisings — though, as the 1960s demonstrated, there were also considerable failures. On the right, the competing elite factions disagreed about the extent to which populism should drive conservative political projects, but it was always assumed — if not always stated — that elites in the form of statesmen, intellectuals, etc. would still play an important role in channeling popular passions toward productive ends.
.. That system has largely broken down. The Internet and cable television deserve generous portions of blame, as do our educational system and the media generally. America is not immune to the tendency toward populism when high levels of immigration meet low or nonexistent levels of assimilation. The market itself is part of the problem, too. Division and anger are easily monetized, while moderation and prudence struggle to find a customer base.
.. Talk radio, cable news channels, and various PACs and interest groups have replaced the parties as the main educators of voters and drivers of turnout, and they have done so by stoking partisan anger, often collecting a tidy profit in the process. Much of the conservative movement has become a de facto consultant class for the Republican party, and any effort to provide intellectual correction from a critical distance is deemed an act of betrayal or heresy. What was once a healthy tension has become a kind of co-dependence, and in some instances little more than a racket.
.. Simply put, we live in a populist moment when many of the gatekeepers have either abandoned their posts to join the mob or stand lonely vigil at gates that are no longer needed because the walls are crumbling.