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The New Fusionism We Need

| May 05, 2020 | Politics

Almost 60 years ago, Frank Meyer formulated “fusionism.” He explained why 1950s anti-communists, free-market proponents, and social conservatives could unite in a coherent coalition. By his reckoning, all three were concerned to defend freedom. The anti-communists battled against Soviet tyranny. The followers of Hayek and Friedman were opposed to the dirigiste impulses of Keynesian economic planners, and social conservatives wanted to restore the American tradition of civic virtue and self-government.

It was a fitting and honorable configuration. But its day has past. Since 1989, the growing peril has been disintegration, not the postwar over-consolidation that made conservatives (justly) fearful for the future of liberty. Whether we’re speaking of economic globalization, mass migration, or transgenderism, boundaries are blurred. As Marx put is, “all that is solid melts into air.”

Our present difficulties arise from this disintegrating pattern, for it makes life more precarious. If a high-school-educated worker faces wage prospects that are lower than his father’s, the old fusion’s emphasis on freedom can seem a mockery rather than an inspiring ideal. Even the talented “winners” are often exhausted by the mad meritocratic scramble to climb the greasy pole of success. The old pattern of gainful employment, marriage, and raising kids is no longer the default norm, and here, too, the need to navigate choices can be daunting. Again, in the twenty-first century the singular motif of freedom seems part of the problem, not the solution.

If conservatism is to remain a powerful force in American politics, the old coalition needs to be sustained and renewed. That will require a new fusionism, one organized around the central motif of solidarity. It is not opposed to freedom, but it reflects different emphases and priorities in public affairs.

The old anti-communists were concerned to stymie the imperial ambitions of the USSR in order to protect America’s freedom as a nation and a people. This meant promoting a strong military. Today, many of us recognize that the ideology of globalization has coopted American military power, deploying it to protect the “rules-based international order” rather than American interests. We need to rethink our global commitments so that we can tell our fellow citizens that our military might serves to protect their freedom and prosperity–a solidarity claim.

The old free-market conservatives insisted that our American tradition of economic competition creates wide-spread prosperity for all Americans. That prosperity is not simply a matter of fat paychecks. A free economy creates jobs, and a working person enjoys the dignity of self-sufficiency. The new fusionism affirms the virtues of capitalism, but recognizes the need for national economic policies that shift market incentives and encourage allocations of capital that better serve the interests of the median American worker.

Our traditions differ from those in Germany. We are a more individualistic nation. But man is a social animal, and our individualism dovetails with a strong patriotic solidarity. We need economic policy that does justice to both aspects of our national character. That means eschewing free-market dogmas so that we can think politically, not just “economically,” about the great human drama of market-oriented investment, production, consumption, and exchange.

Social conservatives like me were always tough to fit into the freedom-oriented fusionism of the past. I believe in the essential and humanizing authority of tradition, especially moral and religious norms. A solidarity-oriented fusionism is more congenial.

In this new fusionism, social conservatives emphasize the stabilizing, place-making power of basic social norms such as the dignity of work, marriage, family, and community loyalties. Not everyone can go to a fancy university. Not everyone can be rich. But median Americans can do their jobs well. They can be faithful husbands and wives. They can provide for their children. They can coach Little League, be scoutmasters, serve on church boards, and do other honorable tasks that sustain the things that make life about more than making a living.

As a religious conservative, I believe vital religious communities instill in society an awareness of the transcendent. This affects even those who are not religious. Having a sense of the sacred thickens our view of things, making life less precarious and more stable. Our civil religion of patriotic ardor and divine mission dignifies the life of every American citizen.

We need a global vision re-anchored in national interest. We need a free economy oriented toward workers. We need a cultural consensus the honors the “ordinary” virtues and perfumes our civic life with the aroma of the sacred. Achieving these goals will require a new fusionism, on that recognizes the imperatives of solidarity, without which our cherished American tradition of freedom rings false.

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R. R. Reno

R. R. Reno is the editor of First Things. He is the author of Return of the Strong Gods.

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