At last month’s National Conservatism Conference in Orlando, Florida, I used my speech to criticize “fusionism,” the postwar conservative movement’s default political alliance built upon an attendant “fusionist” political philosophy, and instead argue on behalf of an alternative path forward. Fusionism, as formulated and popularized by the midcentury theorist Frank Meyer, “fused” together economic laissez-faire dogma with privately held social and cultural conservatism. Fusionism remains today the philosophical lodestar for many of the leading institutions of Conservatism, Inc., such as National Review and the Heritage Foundation.
In the speech, I criticized fusionism as “effete, limp and unmasculine” because the political philosophy, which relies on liberalism’s purported beneficence to safeguard private institutions’ intergenerational passing down of virtue, “removes from the political arena . . . the very value judgments and critical questions that most affect our humanity and our civilization.”
Some of fusionism’s defenders, among them paradigmatic right-liberal David French, have taken umbrage. Writing earlier this week in The Atlantic, French accuses me of helping to foster a “culture that idolizes a twisted version of ‘toughness’ as the highest ideal.”
True to form, French spectacularly misses the point of the critique.
The “national conservative” criticism of the reigning fusionist, right-liberal orthodoxy as “unmasculine” is not predominantly one of mere attitude or disposition. True, it is a small component of our broader condemnation of the institutional right as unduly complacent in the face of an ascendant and deeply toxic woke ideology. As former New York Post op-ed editor Sohrab Ahmari wrote in his (uniquely germane here) 2019 First Things cri de coeur, “Against David French-ism,” “civility and decency are secondary values.” The problem we now confront, as Rabbi Dr. Ari Lamm argued in a 2020 op-ed for Newsweek, where I am opinion editor, is “not that we’re no longer nice and polite, but that we are increasingly losing faith in our deepest, truest values.”
And there lies the rub.
The overarching issue is that the fusionism of Conservatism, Inc., as a structural matter and due to the very nature of the liberal order on which it is necessarily dependent, is incapable of resisting the left’s “long march through the institutions,” let alone positing its own substantive vision of a good society and the good life. And it is incapable of doing so because it improperly relies upon the illusion of a values-neutral liberal order—a values-neutral free market, a values-neutral town square and a values-neutral U.S. Constitution—to secure its “private” culture at the same time that the progressive left champs at the bit to remold the nation in its dystopian image and subjugate us “deplorables” into second-class citizens.
History has shown that a values-neutral liberal order amounts to a one-way cultural ratchet. The wokesters are all too happy to fill the ever-larger void left behind by a “naked” public square. Indeed, the wokesters are abetted by fusionist right-liberals who refuse to inject any sense of overt value or morality into the national fabric as a matter of high-minded principle and who instead prefer the relative governing safety of slashing taxes and regulations and calling it a day. In a nutshell, the left knows precisely which (immoral) values it stands for, and it aggressively seeks to advance and disseminate those values. Against such an unrestrained adversary, Fusionism’s plea for liberal procedural neutrality rings hollow.
The predictable result has been the unprecedented metastasis of the woke ideology through more and more of the nation’s leading institutions, from elementary school classrooms to Fortune 500 boardrooms. Against this terrifying new threat, the fusionist playbook that reached its zenith during Ronald Reagan’s presidency is largely impotent. It makes no sense whatsoever to spout platitudes about corporate tax cuts and slashing unnecessary red tape when the new threats look more like critical race theory indoctrination in the classroom and forcing Christian bakers to bend the knee and “bake the damn cake” for a same-sex wedding. The issues confronting us have fundamentally changed. Any conservatism worthy of the name in 2021 must, to use a phrase associated with the “very online” right, “know what time it is.”
A conservatism that “knows what time it is” is one that robustly asserts and fights for its values in the public square, and that refuses to cabin itself to appeals to “live and let live” liberal bromides. The conservatism demanded by the moment is one that fights the culture war with the aim not of “neutrality” but of outright victory. In that structural sense, it is “muscular” and “masculine.”
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