In my previous essay about the intellectual legacy of Edmund Burke and Russell Kirk, I discussed the tenets of classical conservatism also known as Burkean or traditional conservatism. I also mentioned that the modern conservative movement in America is divided in thirds between classical liberals like Rand Paul, more traditionalist-minded leaders like Ted Cruz, and populists like Donald Trump. In this essay I intend to further examine the first two branches as they make up the vast majority of the American conservative movement (and have since the days of the Reagan presidency). A natural question to ask is why the division in the movement exists in the first place. The answer lies in the nature of the fusionist philosophy that has been the backbone of modern American conservatism and the Republican platform since Ronald Reagan.
Back in the 1950s two major cultural events were occurring in the world. In the U.S, the culture started to become more liberal. The government reflected this by continuing the FDR trend of expanding the bureaucracy and regulations on the market. In Europe, the Soviet Union was openly challenging long standing Western institutions and religious notions such as Christianity, nationalism, the traditional family, respect for individual rights, and the free market system. This triggered a response from American right wingers who supported small government, free market principles, and individual rights.
Other than responding to the communist threat, however, there was no sense of agreement among the American Right. On one side were classical conservatives like Russell Kirk who believed that the government should promote the common good by protecting traditional Christian and Western values and institutions. On the other side were classical liberals such as F.A. Hayek who had a more individualistic and enlightenment-based view of society. This led to massive infighting that almost tore apart the right. In an effort to save it, William F. Buckley formed The National Review and brought in several right wingers from both camps in hopes of unifying them under a common cause.
One of these writers was ex-communist Frank S. Meyer. In the 1960s, Meyer attempted to synthesize classical conservatism and classical liberalism into a unified philosophy through his writing. Since this philosophy was a mesh of these two philosophies, it would become known to many as fusionism. Just like classical conservatism, fusionism put a strong emphasis on the Christian religion as the moral fabric of civilization. In his book In Defense of Freedom, Meyer wrote, “the Christian understanding of the nature and destiny of man, which is the foundation of Western Civilization, is always and everywhere what conservatives strive to conserve.”
In addition to adhering to the Christian understanding of human nature and morality, Meyer also saw religion as essential to the development of individual freedom in the West. In his article “Western Civilization: The Problem of Political Freedom," he argued that in early human civilizations, there was no distinction between individuals but rather distinction based off of social class. These social orders to these societies were divinely ordained and the beliefs regarding one's class would define them forever regardless of their individual capabilities or beliefs. While societies such as Greece and the Jews challenged this view in favor of judging an individual based off their virtue, they both fell to Rome. It wasn’t until the ministry of Christ and the spread of his teachings throughout the Roman Empire that this view of humanity took charge. As a result of this change in view, the Western world overtime came to believe that by one's own capabilities one could choose the life they wanted to live. One's character was not determined by their social standing but by their free will to choose good or evil.
In regards to culture, funionism agrees with classical conservatism regarding the importance of upholding the traditions and customs that have long upheld Western Civilization. In discussing the philosophical differences between traditional conservatism and libertarianism in his essay “Freedom, Tradition, Conservatism," Meyer argued that both ideologies have their foundations in different aspects of the traditions of Western Civilization. He says that traditional conservatives put an emphasis on the Western values of morality, virtue, and order while libertarians put an emphasis on the Western values of individual rights both politically and economically.
Meyer then argued that the reason there is such division among them is that there are extremists among both groups who present a danger to society. Meyer claimed that if the conservative extreme were taken, the resulting government would risk losing sight of individual liberty and might become authoritarian. If the libertarian extreme were taken, then the sole focus of society might become individual liberty with no regard to morality and the result would pave the way for future tyranny. In further discussing what order conservatives seek to preserve in society, he wrote
“ For what the conservative is committed to conserve is not simply whatever happens to be the established conditions of a few years or a few decades, but the consensus of his civilization, of his country, as that consensus over the centuries have I reflected truth derived from the very constitution of being.”
In essence, Meyer's fusionism seeks to preserve the morals, values, traditions, and institutions that are integral to the well being of society.
Where fusionism disagrees with classical conservatism is the function of government in relation to individual rights. While Meyer agrees with classical conservatives that rights are limited by morals and values as a means of promoting virtue, he disagrees with the notion that government’s purpose is to protect the common good by promoting morality and virtue. As referenced earlier his main argument against it was that in the event that a corrupted individual were to take power, he could use the power meant to promote morality and virtue for tyrannical authoritarian purposes. In addition to this, he argued in his 1962 National Review article “The Twisted Tree of Liberty” that government policy cannot make someone be moral or practice virtue. Instead it should be taught and promoted by institutions like the church, the school and the family and that it is up to the individual to choose to accept morality and be virtuous. In describing the functions of government in his book In Defense of Freedom:A Conservative Credo, Meyer argued that the sole purpose of government is to defend freedom by executing the following functions: defense from foreign threats, a justice system to resolve disputes, and defense from domestic threats. In essence, Meyer's believed that morality and virtue were important, but they could not be coerced by government and must be an individual choice learned from churches, schools, and families rather than the government itself.
Meyer's philosophy would go on to influence both Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan. President Reagan himself acknowledged Meyer’s influence on him in a 1981 speech in which he said,
“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. Our goals complement each other. We're not cutting the budget simply for the sake of sounder financial management. This is only a first step toward returning power to the states and communities, only a first step toward reordering the relationship between citizen and government."
Reagan would go own to become a legend and heavy influence upon the GOP causing fusionism to play a heavy influence on the modern Republican Party platform.
So why is there such an apparent division among American conservatives, namely between traditionalist thinkers and those who lean classically liberal? The answer lies in the philosophical legacy of fusionism and its combination of those two philosophies. On one side, you have people like Ted Cruz who are more supportive of morally-based government policy and on the other you have people like Rand Paul who put more emphasis on free markets and civil liberty. The division therefore has to do with the fact modern American conservatism is actually a fusion of two political theories -- with some people within the movement putting more emphasis on one philosophy rather than the other.