by John M. Howting
In the early days of National Review, William F. Buckley and Frank Meyer coined the term “fusionism” to describe their political philosophy. The goal was to wed classical liberalism (democracy and capitalism) with a kind of generic Judeo-Christian traditionalism. Some of today’s most prominent fusionists include David French, Yuval Levin, and Ben Shapiro. Fusionism has been the prevailing ideology of conservatism for a long time, but some brave anti-fusionists, such as Tucker Carlson and Sohrab Ahmari, are now questioning it.
To better understand this debate, some historical context is needed.
In medieval Europe, most governments existed to preserve a hierarchy (monarch, barons, princes, landed aristocrats, serfs, priests, soldiers, etc.). Each citizen had a place within the hierarchy. The state existed to preserve not the “rights of men,” but the duties of men and the rights of authority. This idea of governance grew out of an Aristotelian tradition which maintained the purpose of every community was to aim at some good, and that the purpose of the highest community (the state) was to make people achieve the highest good, which is virtue. Therefore, the purpose of politics was to make people virtuous. As an ideal, this is not far off from anti-fusionist Sohrab Ahmari’s goal:
…to fight the culture war with the aim of defeating the enemy and enjoying the spoils in the form of a public square re-ordered to the common good and ultimately the Highest Good.
The American tradition is different. In the American tradition, each person is endowed by the creator with certain rights. We are all equal, meaning the creator did not give more or fewer rights to anyone. These rights cannot be made alien to us. And, the purpose of the state is to safeguard these rights. In other words, the purpose of the state is to safeguard individual autonomy. The state is not supposed to have any other purpose. America is not a community that aspires to a higher good but enables all individuals to aspire to their own higher goods (“rugged individualism”).
These are very broad generalizations, but they are helpful for understanding this contrast between the old and new world.
A child born in medieval Europe knew what he was going to do with his life. He was not told at an early age that any boy could grow up to be King. Society understood that not all men were born to be King. Contrast this with today where every little boy is told he can grow up to be President. And in many public schools, every little boy is told he can grow up to be a woman. That is liberalism.
Fusionists defend the liberal principles on which America was founded, against all attacks. They regard these principles as our best defense against the modern Left. To anti-fusionists, classical liberalism is what got us here. Fusionism is a carriage drawn by two horses: liberalism and some generic Judeo-Christian traditionalism. What Fusionists do not realize is that the former has an insatiable appetite and is devouring the later. Soon, there will be little left of their precious Judeo-Christian-Islamo-Pagan-Tradition … lest the patriots of Concord Bridge died in vain.
For the more radical elements on both sides, this is a matter of religion. More extreme fusionists maintain that the liberal principles espoused in our founding documents are divinely inspired. Although more moderate fusionists do not go as far, they hold that our founding principles are trans-historical (applying to all ages with the same veracity). By contrast, anti-fusionists are more likely to consider America’s founding documents to be historical (written by a certain people at a certain time to further their own interests). Longtime National Review columnist James Burnham, for instance, claimed that the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution contained “ideology” intended to promote the interests of a capitalist class, while masquerading as universal, eternal truths. And, Russell Kirk asserted that the Declaration of Independence was drafted with the intent of garnering sympathy from the French. But Burnham and Kirk wrote such things a long time ago.
In more recent years, such suggestions would be beyond the pale within mainstream conservatism which is dominated by fusionists. For the fusionist, America is a “proposition nation.” If one accepts the proposition, one becomes an American. Ironically, fusionism also teaches that Americans can worship, believe, and speak as they please. Americans are both required to believe certain things and yet allowed to believe whatever they please. Fusionism holds that America has two natures: united and not-united. In defiance of logic, this is one of the mysteries of fusionism. Either way, the question looms: what happens if one rejects the proposition? Few have wanted to find out, but that number seems to be growing.
Traditional, orthodox Christianity is, by its nature, hierarchical. Many (small ‘o’) orthodox Christians are finding their faith butting up against the liberal principles on which America was founded (Adrian Vermuele and Patrick Deneen for instance). Such men are openly questioning the principles of the American founding. This is sure to make for a fascinating debate.