This post is intended to provide a history of the term “fusionism” rather than philosophical account of its validity or application to today’s world. If time permits, I will write another post on whether fusionism is an appropriate concept in today’s landscape.
Fusionism is a term for the combination of libertarianism and traditional conservatism. It applies both in terms of philosophical compatibility and as a practical alliance in the American political system. The phrase was first coined by National Review Editor Frank Meyer in the early 1960’s. It is in itself a philosophical view described by Meyer in his book In Defense of Freedom and his various articles and essays. But more than that, it is a product of its time, a synergy of forces that were coming together in the late 50’s and early 60’s in mutual opposition to the growth of government.
Fusionism evolved as a response to the post-war consensus view that the problems of capitalism had been solved through the New Deal. The 1950’s are often portrayed as a time of conformity, and this representation is true in regards to economic policy. The academic community, public opinion, and leaders of both political parties widely agreed on this view (Republican President Eisenhower supported the New Deal and even expanded it through projects like the Interstate Highway System). There was very little opposition to government management of the economy or a defense of free enterprise to be found.
The social issues of the day were also much different than today. This was an era prior to Roe v Wade and well before homosexuality was publicly discussed, let alone same-sex marriage seen as a feasible public policy option. While many drugs were illegal, and some groups complained, the federal government was not yet “at war” with them. Social issues as we see them today simply did not exist in the public lexicon.
The main topic of debate on government action was squarely focused on the threat of the Soviet Union and international communism. The question was not if we were going to fight this menace, but how. Americans lived under the constant threat of nuclear destruction and various proposals for more active military resistance were under consideration.
It is within this environment that the three major strands of the “conservative” movement came of age: anti-communism, traditionalism, and free-market libertarianism.
While almost all Americans were united in opposition to the Soviet Union, there was a divide as to what should be done about it. Strong anti-communists preferred a more active approach to stopping the forces of communism, not just internationally but domestically as well. Many feared that communists were not just spreading their ideology openly through Communist Parties and worker’s leagues, but by secretly invading our public institutions as well. Organizations like the John Birch Society were founded to fight this menace and unveil communist conspiracies. While most anti-communists were not as extreme as to discuss conspiracies, many advocated a much more active approach towards defeating the forces of communism as opposed to simply living in co-existence with it.
The traditionalist conservatives drew their inspiration from English political philosopher Edmund Burke and opposed rapid social change. They saw shades of the bloody French Revolution in the Progressive Era and New Deal reforms and feared a similar fate for America. Their intellectual champion was Russell Kirk, a professor at Michigan State University and author in 1953 of The Conservative Mind, the seminal work of American traditionalism. Deeply rooted in the writings of Burke, Kirk traced the growth of conservatism through history and argued for the pre-eminent value of traditions. He insisted that social change must be gradual and organic, based on the lessons of experience, and built upon previous institutions (not simply some idealistic utopia created by logic and imagination). The intellectual message of Russell Kirk was taken to the public by author and National Review founder William F. Buckley among others.
The free-market movement of the 1940’s and 1950’s was not so much a “movement” as a collection of writers and academics screaming into a vacuum. The term “libertarian” had yet to come into general use. Ludwig von Mises and FA Hayek of the Austrian Economics school had immigrated to the US but struggled to find teaching jobs. Their popularizers such as Murray Rothbard, Leonard Read (founder of the Foundation for Economic Education, the first free-market thing tank), and Henry Hazlitt were just getting their efforts off the ground. Ayn Rand had published The Fountainhead in 1943 and Atlas Shrugged in 1957 and was gaining many fans, yet they lacked any organization or practical goals.
Throughout the late 1950’s and into the early 60’s these different groups coalesced into what was seen from the outside as the early conservative movement (internal leaders had their own divergent views on the subject). They were united by an opposition to the growth of the state domestically and a hatred of communism internationally. More than anything, they united in opposition to the status-quo New Deal consensus. The traditionalist conservatives and anti-communists benefited from the intellectual firepower of economists like Mises and Hayek, and free-market libertarians benefited from the manpower and wider general appeal of the conservatives. However, these viewpoints faced significant philosophical divisions.
The term fusionism was first coined by Frank Meyer, a libertarian and co-founder of the National Review with Buckley. He argued for the philosophical cohesion and practical necessity of the alliance between conservatives and libertarians. In his view the freedom that libertarians sought and the virtue that conservatives cherished could not be achieved without each other. The pages of the National Review became a battleground for various movement leaders either in favor of or opposed to fusionism. Fusionists like Meyer argued that traditionalism and libertarianism shared philosophic roots and ends. That the organic institutional growth preferred by Burke and Kirk was akin and supported by Hayek’s theory of spontaneous order. In opposition to the alliance, Kirk regularly chided libertarians as being no better than the utopian modern liberals or the French revolutionaries who foolishly dreamed of creating a utopia out of scratch. Whittaker Chambers wrote a famous scathing book review of Atlas Shrugged in National Review in which he claims “From almost any page of Atlas Shrugged, a voice can be heard, from painful necessity, commanding: ‘To a gas chamber — go!’”. FA Hayek felt so strongly the need to distance himself from conservatism that he penned the essay Why I Am Not a Conservative.
While these debates raged in intellectual circles, the practical realities on the ground were making a strong case for fusionism. In 1960 Young Americans for Freedom was founded in Sharon, Connecticut at the estate of William F. Buckley himself. It was essentially a fusionist organization, bringing together conservatives, libertarians, traditionalists, objectivists, anti-communists, and general free-marketeers. The Sharon Statement, their founding document, was carefully crafted to address areas of agreement while avoiding fractious topics. YAF would go on to become the largest youth political organization in the country and a driving force in American politics (although many remember the new left Students for a Democratic Society, which was formed after YAF and likely had fewer members).
The YAFers found their rallying point in the person of Barry Goldwater, an essentially fusionist US Senator from Arizona. His 1964 presidential campaign united the conservatives and libertarians in a common cause. His book, The Conscience of a Conservative, applied free-market libertarian principles to a wide array policy issues and called for dramatic changes to the status quo. YAFers and other motivated young people campaigned hard for Goldwater against his Republican primary opponent, New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller who supported the New Deal and the growth of government generally. Goldwater’s primary election victory was hailed as a hallmark of the conservative/libertarian cause. It was during his nomination acceptance speech in 1964 that Goldwater delivered his famous line “extremism in defense of liberty is no vice.” Although he was soundly defeated by Lyndon B. Johnson in the general election, the movement that he had united and energized continued to grow.
The question of whether traditionalist conservatism and libertarianism were philosophically compatible was largely deemed irrelevant. On the ground success had shown that the fusionist alliance could be a force in American politics. The ramifications of this initial success are with us to this day. Conservative and libertarian leaders of YAF and Goldwater’s campaign went on to create free-market organizations, campaign for other candidates, train future activists, and become politicians themselves. It could be claimed that the election of Ronald Reagan, the Republican congressional victories of 1994, and even the first victory of George W. Bush were accomplishments of fusionism.
- Freedom & Virtue, the Conservative Libertarian Debate
- Frank Meyer – In Defense of Freedom
- Russell Krik – The Conservative Mind
- The Sharon Statement (Free Online)
- FA Hayek – Why I am Not a Conservative (Free Online)
- Barry Goldwater – The Conscience of a Conservative (Free Online)
- Lee Edwards - The Conservative Consensus Frank Meyer Barry Goldwater and the Politics of Fusionism (Free Online)
- Brian Doherty – Radicals for Capitalism
- Wayne Thorburn – A Generation Awakens (Video Free Online)