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The End of Republican 'Fusionism'?

By Robert Tracinski

Conservative intellectual William F. Buckley, Jr., the founder of National Reivew, died Wednesday morning at the age of 82. The editors of National Review are hardly an impartial source, but they are nevertheless largely correct when they write that "he created modern conservatism as an intellectual and then a political movement."

Buckley's central contribution was to forge an alliance between religious traditionalists, pro-free-marketers, and foreign policy hawks. National Review describes this task as convincing "anti-Communists, traditionalists, constitutionalists, and enthusiasts for free markets" to "all...take shelter under the same tent."

The idea that was supposed to hold up this conservative "big tent" was the theory of "fusionism." Buckley didn't originate fusionism (it was articulated by Frank Meyer), but the idea was vigorously promoted by National Review. Fusionism was the idea that the three wings of conservatism could not only find common cause but could cobble themselves together into a semi-integrated ideology. The theory was that the religionists would defend traditional American values, which would provide cultural support for the ideals of limited government and American patriotism.

This ideological coalition first found expression with the 1964 presidential campaign of Barry Goldwater, which failed to win the presidency but succeeded in launching a political movement. And the long-term legacy of that movement was the presidency of Ronald Reagan, who succeeded not only in winning two terms in office, but in braking America's descent into socialism and precipitating the collapse of the Soviet Union.

So it would be churlish to say that the fusionist agenda was a political failure or that the conservative coalition was only "temporary"; something that shapes American politics for nearly half a century is hardly temporary. Fusionism lasted because it tapped into a much longer American tradition going back to Alexis de Tocqueville in the early 19th century and arguably all the way back to the Founding Fathers, though they would not have embraced it in Buckley's traditionalist form: the idea of a connection between religious belief and the advocacy of liberty.

But fusionism is ultimately untenable, and there is an irony in the fact that Buckley died at the conclusion of the 2008 Republican primary--a contest which offers a profound warning of the inherent instability of the fusionist coalition.

Consider the past year's Republican political line-up. If you are a pro-free-marketer, you could be drawn to Rudy Giuliani, who proposed the biggest tax cut in American history. But you couldn't trust Mitt Romney (who passed a big-government health-care scheme when he was governor of Massachusetts), Mike Huckabee denounced you as a member of the "Club for Greed," and the eventual nominee, John McCain, is a promoter of the global warming hysteria--and it's hard to campaign as a pro-free-marketer when you propose to ban the incandescent light bulb, force everyone into hybrid cars, and put a legislative cap on the nation's energy production.

If you're a hawk, you could count on Giuliani and McCain, and Romney said many of the right things--but Huckabee sounded too much like Jimmy Carter.

Hard-core religious conservatives were thrilled with Huckabee, but they were suspicious of McCain (who dismissed some leaders of the religious right as "agents of intolerance" during his previous run in 2000), they didn't trust Romney (too many flip-flops on abortion), and Giuliani was at best barely tolerable.

This was hardly an example of "fusion." There was certainly some intersection between the hawks and the pro-free-marketers--but there was little to join these factions to the religionists.

This is not an accident. There was no such intersection in this year's Republican primary because the secular and religious concerns of the right are, in fact, incompatible.

Fusionism is unstable because its basic premise--that the moral foundation of free markets and Americanism can be left to the religious traditionalists--is false. For five decades, under Buckley's influence, conservatives have ceded to the religious right the job of providing the moral fire to sustain their movement. But they are discovering that the religionists do not have a strong moral commitment to free markets. In fact, the religious right seems to be working on its own version of "fusion"--with the religious left.

Wednesday's Washington Post provided the latest example: a column by former Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson on the shift to the left among evangelical Christians, who "respond to a message of social justice and community values, not only to a message of rugged individualism and unrestricted markets." Gerson insists that "Christianity indicts oppressive government--but also the soul-destroying excesses that sometimes come in free markets and consumerism." So much for traditional religious values serving as the basis for advocacy of capitalism.

The reason for this shift toward the religious left is that religion cannot support the real basis for capitalism and a strong American national defense: a morality of rational self-interest. Christianity is too deeply committed to a philosophy of self-abnegation, a destructive morality that urges men to renounce any interest in worldly goods and to turn the other check in the face of aggression. The early Christian saints, for example, abandoned all material comforts and lived in caves--which is to say that their closest contemporary disciples are the radical environmentalists. As for foreign policy, St. Augustine spent a fair bit of his massive apologia for Christianity, The City of God, explaining to the Romans that being sacked by barbarians was good for them because it taught them the virtue of humility and cured them of their attachment to material wealth.

We live at the end of two centuries of evidence for the superiority of capitalism. From the dawn of the Industrial Revolution in England, to the rise of the "Asian Tigers," to the impact of global capitalism in India and China--everywhere capitalism has spread, human life has been radically transformed for the better. And of course we live at the end of a century that amply demonstrated the catastrophic failure of socialism.

The left has never learned the moral lessons of this history--but neither has the right.

Tricked by Buckley and his fusionists into outsourcing moral questions to the guardians of religious tradition, the right has never been able to properly develop the moral case for rational self-interest--which means that they never developed the moral case for the profit motive, property rights, and the free market. Many on the right are implicitly sympathetic to capitalism; they sense its virtues, but thanks to "fusionism," they are unable to articulate them. And this means that they have never been able to turn the defense of free markets into a moral crusade.

Even worse, the "fusionists" turned away the one intellectual who could have helped them do so. In the 1950s and 60s, Buckley's National Review made a special (and scurrilously dishonest) effort to purge the right of Ayn Rand and her intellectual movement, because her atheism threatened the fusionist agenda--even though she was the most powerful advocate for the morality of capitalism.

The result of this failure is that we're entering a presidential election that is likely to revolve around three main issues: the War on Terrorism, socialized medicine, and massive new global warming regulations. Yet rather than rallying around a candidate who will effectively oppose the left on all of these issues, the Republicans have settled on a candidate who displays fierce resolve on the subject of the war, but who will "me-too" the Democrats on environmentalism and the welfare state.

The lesson of the 2008 primary is that intellectuals on the right need to liberate themselves from William F. Buckley's legacy. They need to devote much more time and attention to the secular moral case for liberty and capitalism--which would finally allow them to stand on their own two feet ideologically, without feeling the need to be "fused" to a religious movement that has shown itself incapable of offering a foundation for these ideals.

Robert Tracinski writes daily commentary at TIADaily.com. He is the editor of The Intellectual Activist and TIADaily.com.

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