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The once dominant and implicitly ecumenical philosophy of fusionism has been denounced by a chorus of right-wing critics as a “dead consensus.” Fusionism, some critics assert, was perhaps a necessary contrivance during the Cold War but is now irrelevant. And so a determined quest for yet another formulation of conservatism has begun.

The Fall of Zombie Fusionism

Is it the end? Even the marvelous historian of modern conservatism George N. Nash’s indispensable new essay almost desponds over the future of the philosophy that informed the creation of Reaganism and, indeed, of the entire modern American Right.

The once dominant and implicitly ecumenical philosophy of fusionism has been denounced by a chorus of right-wing critics as a “dead consensus,” afflicted with “Zombie Reaganism” and what they bluntly deride as “free market fundamentalism.” In some right-wing circles, free-market capitalism has even been portrayed as an enemy of the “common good.” Fusionism, some critics assert, was perhaps a necessary contrivance during the Cold War but is now irrelevant. And so a determined quest for yet another formulation of conservatism has begun.

Before the 1950s, there were pure traditionalists and libertarians who opposed the dominant progressive ideology, and there were centrist Republicans who were “do it slower than the Democrats” moderates. But the three considered the others as political enemies and represented no real challenge to dominant progressive power or its overwhelming intellectual dominance.

That is, there was none until National Review magazine came along in 1955, and its founding editor, William F. Buckley Jr. claimed to be both libertarian and traditionalist. His book urged moving Up From Liberalism to the principles of “freedom, individuality, the sense of community, the sanctity of the family, the supremacy of the conscience, the spiritual view of life,” all meaningful only “in proportion as political power is decentralized” and economics is organized by free markets.

At first the new doctrine was inchoate but grew from the interactions of its creative but divided intellectual staff, which needed some common ground from which to publish a coherent magazine. It became known as conservatism or “fusionist” conservatism, a synthesis of traditional Western values and the need for individual human freedom to achieve them.

The movement’s most recognizable and most popular leader, Ronald Reagan, was a longtime reader of that magazine and personal friend of the editors. As he assumed the pinnacle of power in 1981, President Reagan reminded a Washington audience of conservative allies of their roots. After listing “intellectual leaders like Russell Kirk, Friedrich Hayek, Henry Hazlitt, Milton Friedman, James Burnham, [and] Ludwig von Mises” as the ones who “shaped so much of our thoughts,” he discussed only one of these influences at length. That was National Review literary editor Frank Meyer who he said, “in his writing fashioned a vigorous new synthesis of traditional and libertarian thought—a synthesis that is today recognized by many as modern conservatism.”

It was Frank Meyer who reminded us that the robust individualism of the American experience was part of the deeper current of Western learning and culture. He pointed out that a respect for law, an appreciation for tradition, and regard for the social consensus that gives stability to our public and private institutions, these civilized ideas must still motivate us even as we seek a new economic prosperity based on reducing government interference in the marketplace.

The essence of this fusionist synthesis was “cutting the size and scope” of the national government and “returning power to the states and communities” to allow the traditional “social consensus,” “robust individualism,” and the free market to restore prosperity and civic vitality. In sum, the goal was to restore the limited government of the Constitution’s Tenth Amendment.

Even critics concede fusionism worked under Reagan. But by George W. Bush even Buckley himself conceded that fusionism has become “attenuated.” As Prof. Nash reported, today fusionism is attacked by both libertarian and traditionalist intellectuals as outdated at best and, more importantly, derided as never having had a serious philosophical legitimization in the first place, attempting against logic to synthesize both freedom and tradition as first principles.

What is Philosophical Fusionism?

The fundamental problem with fusionism is that it has been used in different senses and this has confused its philosophical understanding. It has been used politically as a “three-legged stool” of free marketers, social traditionalists, and pro-defense conservatives in coalition against the Progressive Left. But this was a political taxonomy, with no sense of a dynamic synthesis.

A second difficulty is that theorist Murray Rothbard claimed that fusionism was not a synthesis but was merely a disguised monist libertarianism since it set individual freedom as its supreme principle. But Meyer was clear in his essay “Western Civilization” that freedom did rank first politically, but as what he called a “criterion principle.” Yet he added, “the application of [this] principle to circumstances demands a prudential art” derived from “the intricate fibers of tradition and civilization, carried in the minds of men from generation to generation.”  “The compelling, if secondary, claims of other principles, though not decisive to judgment in the political sphere in the way that freedom is, do nevertheless bear upon every concrete political problem.”

So, practical action for the fusionist philosophy requires synthesizing both freedom and beliefs. Meyer is universally acknowledged as the intellectual who crafted fusionism as an explicit doctrine. He was a serous thinker with a master’s degree from Oxford, but he was also clear that he was greatly influenced by the great modern philosopher and Nobel Laurate F.A. Hayek, who had provided the epistemological (if not transcendent) basis for the fusionist synthesis.

As early as 1945, Hayek had distinguished between monistic rationalists of the “French and Continental” type, such as René Descartes and Voltaire, and pluralists like Locke, Adam Smith, Edmund Burke, and Tocqueville as providing very different bases for understanding reality.

In his 1964 essay “Kinds of Rationalism,” Hayek more comprehensively described the differ­ence between a “constructivist rationalism” that starts unambiguously from single monist essences and deduces all conclusions from them; and a “critical rationalism” that employs multiple reasoning methods—rationalism, empiricism, intuition, and traditional common sense. The philosopher of science Karl Popper, in “Towards a Rational Theory of Tradition,” even gave tradition the preeminent place in the process of understanding, identifying it as the first reality we can comprehend, from which all else is reasoned.

Hayek characterized “constructivist rationalism” as the assumption that the methods of pure reason and physical science can answer all social questions through abstraction, and “critical rationalism” as that which takes better account of complexity and unpredictability in the physical and social worlds through synthesizing different elements. As Hayek explained, critical rationalism “is a view of mind and society which provides an appropriate place for the role which tradi­tion and custom play” in the development of science and societies. It “makes us see much to which those brought up on the crude forms of rationalism are often blind.”

Constructionist rationalism particularly fails in relying upon analogies to physical science that vastly underestimates human complexity, pointing to the complexity of a single human brain, in which the number of interneuronic connec­tions in a few minutes might exceed the number of atoms in the solar system. Hayek was especially skeptical of the notion that rationalizing experts in central governments relying on inefficient bureau­cracies, imperfect understanding of the facts, and inherently limited scientific methods could somehow perfect human nature—calling this presumption a modern “superstition” that would mystify future generations.

Hayek considered both rationalist constructivism and empirical historicism too narrow alone but all information as possibly useful. He does not even totally reject revelation, concluding that “paradoxical as it might appear, it is probably true that a successful free society will always in a large measure be a tradition-bound society.” His The Fatal Conceit found simple constructivist utilitarianism “insuf­ficient.” Even if Western society’s beliefs are only symbolically true, he argued, those like himself who were “not prepared to accept the anthropomorphic conception of a personal divinity ought to admit that the premature loss of what we regard as nonfactual beliefs would have deprived mankind of a powerful support in the long development of the extended order we now enjoy, and that even now loss of these beliefs, whether true or false, creates great difficulties.”

Hayek identifies the narrower constructivist rationalists as Plato, Descartes, Hobbes, Bentham, Marx, Keynes, Rousseau, Hegel, and the positivists. His own critical rationalists included Aristotle, Cicero, St. Thomas, Locke, Montesquieu, Hume, Adam Smith, and Popper, who all give tradition a broad role in social life. Both Locke and Jefferson explicitly relied upon a Creator in their Declaration and Second Treatise to justify human freedom. In his The Reasonableness of Christianity, Locke even emphasized that the ancient philosophers attempted to base their ideals on rationalism alone; but their teachings of truth had little effect. “The philosophers showed the beauty of virtue” but they “left her unendowed,” so that “few were willing to espouse her” until an empirical “immortal weight of glory” that was the Incarnation made it real to many peoples.

The End of Fusionism?

In short, fusionism looks very broadly at many different levels and types of complexity and synthesizes them. Prof. Nash emphasizes that “in evaluating conservatism’s discontents and prospects, we must first remember one of the most important facts about modern American conservatism: It is not, and has never been, monolithic.” This is true but it has long had a center now called fusionism with deep roots in Western civilization. This center naturally reaches out to libertarians and traditionalists because its synthesis includes much of the elements of the others, which commonality easily leads into positions of leadership including that by Reagan himself.

In his sweeping histories, the great Lord Acton explained how that faction by valuing both freedom and tradition could reach out to both sides of that synthesis, especially to keep fragile freedom. “At all times sincere friends of freedom have been rare and its triumphs have been due to minorities that have prevailed by associating themselves with auxiliaries whose objects often differed from their own,” becoming the fusionist imperative for centuries.

Prof. Nash is in that tradition by perhaps turning from the term fusionism but by concluding that “if conservatives are to reclaim the culture and prosper again in the public square, they must retain a fusionist sensibility. That is to say: an ecumenical disposition, recognizing that the wisdom of conservatism comes from many sources and that sound-bite sloganeering will never suffice.”

Reagan himself personified that sensibility because he understood its philosophical roots in both freedom and tradition and built his actions upon them. As his post-election talk proved, its roots go to the origins of Western civilization, even back to Aristotle and St. Thomas and by whatever name has survived the fall of Rome, divine right Europe, two world wars, the Soviet Union and, at least so far, bureaucratized and woke America. Reagan often summarized the beliefs as in “God, family, freedom, neighborhood, work.” Conditions change but principles endure.

Ronald Reagan could claim some success in translating principles into action. Although he increased defense spending to contest the Cold War, he decreased nondefense discretionary government spending by 9.5 percent absolutely, the only modern president to achieve a net reduction over his terms of office. His 23 percent tax cut drove down total spending from a projected 23.8 percent of GDP to 19.3 percent, shifting more responsibilities to states, communities, and private institutions. Allowing a freed market to seek its level led to a two-decade prosperity, right up until the 2008 economic collapse. Fifty-five countries followed with tax and regulatory reductions of their own; trade was increased, and world income rose too.

Following the one modern success inspired by the greats of Western civilization even under today’s new but not unique circumstances might just be what is necessary to revive what may well be only a sleeping consensus. Even a zombie should be able to awake and understand.

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