Republicans gathered last week for their election pitch, but the convention did not settle a rancorous debate among activists and thinkers about what it means to be conservatives and where they fit in the political world today.
From the 1960s to the election of Donald Trump, the American right was largely defined by “fusionism” — a complementary mix of morality (pushed by traditionalists) and political freedom (supported by individualists, or libertarians). But Mr. Trump’s victory changed that. A growing number of religious conservatives (like Patrick Deneen) and economic nationalists (like Oren Cass) argue that libertarian influences should be expunged.
Their criticisms are not entirely unjustified. After the Cold War, a version of 1980s conservatism was endlessly abstracted into a set of empty repeated slogans — often called “Zombie Reaganism” — that applied 1980s solutions to 21st-century problems.
Yet fusionism is much more than an outdated policy checklist. It’s an approach to politics that avoids authoritarianism and pessimism. It needs to be adapted to meet 21st-century challenges, but conservatives should not dismiss one of our best resources.
Today’s arguments between nationalist-religious conservatives and libertarians echo those of the 1950s. Then, traditionalists and individualists (later libertarians) feuded about which element should dominate. The innovation of fusionism, developed by the National Review editor Frank S. Meyer, was that it was not only possible but necessary to promote both at the same time.
He characterized the relation between these principles not as a seamless unity but as a productive tension — a balancing act perfected by Ronald Reagan.
Now, according to religious conservatives, as stated in a manifesto published in the journal First Things, 20th-century “conservatism too often tracked the same lodestar liberalism did — namely, individual autonomy.” As an alternative, the authors propose a conception of the common good based on Catholic social teaching — an option favored by only a tiny minority, even among dissident conservatives.
Economic nationalists have also challenged it. As Matthew J. Peterson of the Claremont Institute pointed out, “circumstantial policy preferences” have ossified into dogmas like trade agreements that undercut domestic manufacturing and tax cuts for high earners. These policies, one originally a Cold War strategy and the other a response to inflation-driven “bracket creep,” remained articles of faith while their benefits became ever less clear.
But fusionism has been blamed because it is misunderstood. In fact, Meyer avoided the term, because it suggested a seamless union. Rather, the idea is that freedom and virtue stand in a dialectical relationship.
People need constraint to develop moral habits, but also freedom to make mistakes, change their ways and assume responsibility for both failures and achievements. Conceived this way, fusionism is not just a product of midcentury America. It is a running argument extending all the way back to ancient Greek philosophers like Aristotle.
It offers the best way to respond to today’s challenges. First, fusionism recognizes that political movements are always coalitions. They succeed by drawing in new supporters rather than expelling the ones they have. Some conservatives propose a sweeping industrial policy. But rather than swinging from dogmatic laissez-faire to aggressive statism as they’re suggesting, it makes more sense to emphasize areas on which many traditionalists, libertarians and populists could agree — like antimonopoly enforcement in tech and finance, industries in which the concentration of wealth threatens both traditional morality and economic competition.
The response to violence and looting in Chicago, Kenosha, Wis., and other cities is another area where fusionism can help guide conservatives. Libertarians have promoted criminal justice reforms. At the same time, most acknowledge public order and private property as the bedrock of civilization, equally necessary to the poor and the rich. Even if we disagree about how to deal with, say, drug abuse, conservatives can be unanimous in opposing calls to “abolish” the police.
On racial issues, fusionists can focus on removing artificial obstacles to integration and economic mobility, such as restrictive education policies, exclusionary zoning and occupational licensing.
Finally, contemporary fusionists like William Ruger have been leaders in developing a more restrained foreign policy that focuses on protecting our national interests and rejects the grandiose nation-building of the George W. Bush era. These ideas also appeal to younger Americans whose experience of foreign affairs has been dominated by endless wars and idealism run amok.
And it goes beyond policy. We need to revive fusionism because jettisoning liberty as a core political value encourages rejection of conservatism and America itself. Over half a century ago, Meyer’s critic L. Brent Bozell moved his family to Spain — led by Francisco Franco, the dictator who “by the grace of God” ruled the country for 36 years — in search of an authentically Christian society. Today, some “national conservatives” fawn over Prime Minister Viktor Orban of Hungary, who promises to deploy “illiberal democracy” in defense of religious and cultural homogeneity.
No single current figure embodies fusionism the way Reagan once did. Senator Rand Paul’s criticism of overseas military deployments, Senator Mike Lee’s efforts to promote family formation and Senator Tim Scott’s honest but optimistic approaches to police reform reflect fusionist instincts. This diffusion of efforts should be seen as an advantage. Political movements need leaders, but deference to a single icon can turn them into cults of personality. In that respect, Reaganism was a victim of its own success.
Fusionists acknowledge that reconciling liberty with genuine goods of community and morality is agonizingly difficult. But we know that this challenge lies at the heart of the American political tradition, in which freedoms of conscience, speech and association play key roles. More often than not, fusionism works.
The task for conservatives is not to pursue unity of principles or interests but to recognize the paradoxes and dilemmas of a free society as sources of vitality. If we won’t do that, what are we conserving?
Samuel Goldman, an associate professor of political science at George Washington University and literary editor of Modern Age: A Conservative Quarterly, is the writer of the forthcoming book “After Nationalism.”