May 22, 2005


The New Fusionism (Joseph Bottum, June/July 2005, First Things)

Social conservatives, fiscal conservatives, libertarians, agrarians, communitarians, foreign-policy hawks—who can figure them out? Neocons and theocons and paleocons, to say nothing of soccer-mom Republicans, country-club Republicans, and just plain, garden-variety Republicans: If you read much political commentary, it must seem as though there are more ways to sort conservatives in America than there are actual conservatives to be sorted.

And what about the issues for which these different conservatives care? Abortion, tax cuts, school vouchers, judicial overreach, the government’s bloated budget, bioethics, homosexual marriage, the creation of democracies in the Middle East, federalism, immigration, the restoration of religion in the public square—on and on. They bear no more than the vaguest family resemblance: second or third cousins, shirt-tail kin at best.

Back during the Cold War, conservatives could all be counted upon at least to share an opposition to communism, while various writers—from Friedrich Hayek and Ludwig von Mises to Russell Kirk and Michael Oakeshott—sought something resembling a unifying theory through the rich pages of Adam Smith’s economics and the deep prose of Edmund Burke’s traditionalism.

What now remains? Hardly a single concern is common to everyone labeled a conservative, and the chance of finding a meaningful pattern in the Right’s political muddle appears hopelessly remote. It’s true that nearly every conservative ended up voting for George Bush for president in 2004. Even the paleoconservatives opposed to intervention in Iraq finally seemed to admit, for the most part, that the alternative of an openly liberal administration under John Kerry was unendurable. But only in the fevered imaginings of the far Left—or in the speeches of Democratic party activists looking to score partisan jabs—does all this really cohere. Conservatism in America is neither a well-defined political party nor a well-formed political theory. It’s a crack-up waiting to happen.

Except perhaps for this curious fact: Those who believe the murderousness of abortion to be the fundamental moral issue of our times and those who see the forceful defeat of global, anti-Western Islamicism as the most pressing political concern we facepro-life social conservatives and the foreign-policy neoconservatives, in other words—seem to be increasingly voting together, meeting together, and thinking together. If you want to advance the pro-life cause, you will quickly find yourself seated beside those who support an activist, interventionist, and moralist foreign policy for the United States. And, conversely, if you are serious about the war on terror, you will soon discover that you are mingling with those fighting against abortion.

To say the American political scene need not have developed this way is more than an understatement. At any of the levels on which political analysis normally operates, the connection between abortion and terror seems weak, at best—and possibly a perversion that threatens the causes of both partners. How can opponents of abortion dare to allow a setback in the Middle East to ruin the chances of electing pro-life officials? Why would foreign-policy activists risk the loss of political support that a major turn against their social-conservative allies might entail? [...]

Down somewhere in the deepest understanding of what America is for—somewhere in the profound awareness of what it will take to reverse the nation’s long drift into social defeatism—there are reasons that one might link the rejection of abortion and the demand for an active and moral foreign policy. Things could have fallen into different patterns; our current liberal-conservative divisions are not the only imaginable ways to cut the political cake. But neither are they merely accidental.

The opponents of abortion and euthanasia insist there are truths about human life and dignity that must not be compromised in domestic politics. The opponents of Islamofascism and rule by terror insist there are truths about human life and dignity that must not be compromised in international politics. Why shouldn’t they grow toward each other? The desire to find intellectual and moral seriousness in one realm can breed the desire to find intellectual and moral seriousness in another.

There may be several ways to convince Americans to reject Roe v. Wade—but one of them is by remembering that the nation’s founding ideals are true and worth defending against the enemies of freedom around the world. There may be several ways to reawaken a sense of national purpose—but one of them is by summoning the will to undo our judicially ordered abortion regime. In the new fusionism, social conservatives and neoconservatives are not in any immediate contradiction. The wish to restore American patriotism, the struggle against abortion, annoyance at the dated elitism of an overweening judiciary, and the war in Iraq—these all seem to have become curiously interdependent issues.

One of the least edifying spectacles in American conservatism over the years has been the apparent determination, among later converts, to disparage earlier converts. For decades, the soft Left in America has had a bad conscience about its softness: The radicals always seemed to make the moderates feel a little guilty. On the Right, too, there have been bad consciences—but, oddly, these also have to do with Leftness. It seems necessary to nearly everyone on the Right to find a more Rightist group against which to set themselves. If “No Enemies on the Left” is more or less the motto of liberals in America, “Only Enemies to the Right” seems to be the motto of conservatives.

A few figures have tried to hold together the rag-tag collection of refugees. Ronald Reagan, with his “big-tent” Republican party, for instance. And Frank Meyer, who used the word “fusionism” to speak of the libertarian and traditionalist writers he helped work together while he was an editor at National Review in the 1950s and 1960s. And Robert Bartley, who opened to a range of conservatives the op-ed pages of the Wall Street Journal he edited through the 1990s.

But mostly, when American politicians and pundits have a conservative impulse, they feel compelled to begin by distinguishing themselves from the rest of conservatism. There was, for instance, a period in the 1980s in which nearly every article in the ostensibly liberal New Republic seemed to open with something like: “I’m not one of those horrible conservatives, and I’d never vote for a Republican, but, gosh, there actually seems to be some merit to the idea of welfare reform”—or a strengthened military, or a mistrust of the United Nations, or any of a dozen other conservative topics.

Thus, the neoconservatives explain what is despicable about libertarians, and the libertarians denounce the social conservatives—and round it goes. In a widely noticed 2003 article in National Review, David Frum declared that the isolationist paleoconservatives “have turned their backs on their country. Now we turn our backs on them.” In a later essay in the Public Interest, Adam Wolfson took much the same line, albeit more gently, in rejecting the conservative credentials of the paleoconservatives.

Some of this is clearly necessary. The handful of anti-Semites and neoconfederates on the fringes of the Right deserves dismissal, and the differences between the paleoconservative followers of Pat Buchanan and the neoconservative analysts at the Project for the New American Century cut to the heart of American policy. But even here you can see the lineaments of the new fusionism. The pro-life movement won’t read out of conservatism any foreign-policy activists, unless they repeatedly trumpet their support for abortion. And the neoconservatives won’t banish any social conservatives, unless they make a loud stink about their opposition to intervention in the Middle East.

One could perhaps make the same point by negative example: The widely cited homosexual activist and blog writer Andrew Sullivan started by being a strong supporter of a forceful American foreign policy after the attacks of September 11. By the 2004 presidential election, however, he had flipped into utter rejection of President Bush’s policies. And though he tried at times to relate his conversion to worries about fiscal matters, it was finally his inability to join any coalition with social conservatives that seems to have forced him into an anti-Iraq stance. It even buried what he once insisted was his pro-life stance, a topic he now seldom discusses.

But mostly one can see the new fusionism in its results. “Neoconservative” is a word whose meaning has undergone some changes over the years. It began life in the 1970s when the socialist Michael Harrington coined it to describe certain writers and public figures who found themselves moving from Left to Right on a variety of issues—often starting with the out-of-control crime rates of the time: “liberals mugged by reality,” in Irving Kristol’s well-known phrase.

By the late 1990s, however, the word “neoconservative” had mostly disappeared, except to describe a historical moment twenty years before when—as National Review’s Jonah Goldberg jokingly described it—“a bunch of citified Jews and intellectual Catholics . . . traded one ideology for another.” And then, suddenly after the attacks of September 11, 2001, the word was back in the vocabulary of the nation’s chattering classes, this time used to describe people (particularly anyone with the least connection to students of the University of Chicago political philosopher Leo Strauss) who pushed for the toppling of Saddam Hussein in Iraq.

But taking the word in both the old sense and the new, we should note at least one visible change: The people called neoconservative are much more opposed to abortion than they were even ten years ago. The shift has occurred across the spectrum. The ones who started out solidly pro-choice are now uneasy, the ones who started out uneasy are now more uneasy, and the ones who started out quietly anti-abortion are now strong pro-lifers.

Maybe it was all the time spent with Catholics, or maybe it was the rise of the worries about biotechnology that Leon Kass and others have brought to light, but—whatever group we use the word to encompass—the neoconservatives have generally grown in their alliance with the social conservatives to accept a central place for the pro-life position in any theory of conservatism.

Meanwhile, the social conservatives have grown up, too. When the Evangelicals burst on the political scene in the 1970s, they hardly knew what the words “foreign policy” meant. But now “one cannot understand international relations without them,” as Allen Hertzke observed in Freeing God’s Children, his 2004 report on American religious impact around the world. From the Virginia congressman Frank Wolfe to the Kansas senator Sam Brownback, the religious conservatives in Washington have led the fight against international sex trafficking and a host of other human-rights abuses.

They achieved real results in southern Sudan, and they are straining to find similar traction in the Darfur region of western Sudan. Far beyond their Democratic counterparts, they have demonstrated seriousness about human rights in North Korea and China. “Members of the Christian right, exemplified by Mr. Brownback,” the left-leaning columnist Nicholas Kristof reluctantly admitted in the New York Times this Christmas, “are the new internationalists, increasingly engaged in humanitarian causes abroad.”

And then there’s Israel. “No one outside the Jewish community has been more supportive of Israel than U.S. evangelical Christians,” the Jerusalem Post bluntly noted in 2002—but the phenomenon has been building for years. Perhaps it began with believers’ interest in apocalyptic biblical prophecy about the Holy Land and the Second Coming of Jesus Christ. But to imagine it stops there is to ignore the Religious Right’s record in recent years on human rights and support for democratic reforms. The success of Israel—the Middle East’s only full democracy before the intervention of the United States in Afghanistan and Iraq—is seen by social conservatives as a model that deserves copying.

“The remoralization of America at home ultimately requires the remoralization of American foreign policy, for both follow from Americans’ belief that the principles of the Declaration of Independence are not merely the choices of a particular culture but are universal, enduring, ‘self-evident’ truths,” William Kristol and Robert Kagan wrote in the journal Foreign Affairs back in 1996. “That has been, after all, the main point of the conservatives’ war against a relativistic multiculturalism. For conservatives to preach the importance of upholding the core elements of the Western tradition at home, but to profess indifference to the fate of American principles abroad, is an inconsistency that cannot help but gnaw at the heart of conservatism.”

One needn't look very far to figure out why it's so quintessentially American and conservative to cohere around this values:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. --That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, --That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security

Perhaps the least noticed part of this Foundational assertion is the "duty" it recognizes.

Posted by Orrin Judd at May 22, 2005 11:15 AM

"But mostly, when American politicians and pundits have a conservative impulse, they feel compelled to begin by distinguishing themselves from the rest of conservatism."

I would like to take this opportunity to make it abundantly clear that my idea of conservatism bears no relation to the extreme and reactionary views of Orrin Judd, David Cohen, Paul Jaminet, Glenn Dryfoos, Robert Schwartz, John Resnick....etc, etc.

Now, where are those witches? Lemme at 'em!

Posted by: Peter B at May 22, 2005 4:55 PM

Great essay! The guns--the writer left out the guns. The right to keep and bear arms is almost as central to what it is to be an American as the right to drive.

Seriously, it is not that we conservatives like taking the law into our own hands, it is rather that our hands, the hands of civil society, are the law.

Posted by: Lou Gots at May 22, 2005 8:11 PM

"There are none so blind as he who will not see."

Anti-abortion and pro-Iraq war are not in contradiction to one another. They BOTH have the same root principal. In both cases, it's the principal of pro-human. People should not be discarded before birth, nor treated as filler for mass graves. And, per Terry Saivo, treated like a broken toaster---unplugged and discarded.

Posted by: ray at May 22, 2005 8:55 PM


Perhaps it goes a little deeper then just competing values. For me, what distinguishes conservatives, especially evident in recent years, is that they believe in an objective right and wrong and are prepared to act on those beliefs by actively trying to prevent or sanction wrong. This is the thread that links Durban, 9/11, the intifada, the war on terror, abortion, Terri, etc. There is lots of room for difference and argument on all those issues (and conservatives certainly can wander into strange places when we get excited), but the willingness to judge and act at some point is key. Leftists, (who think Pontius Pilate was profound), can simply not bring themselves to condemn individual human behaviour and call anyone to account for it unless they fit into a pre-demonized collective. They prefer to spend their days condemning standards of behaviour rather than the behaviour itselfand they are very creative about it, having had years of practice. They think this is evidence of compassion and tolerance, but it really is evidence of objectification and, ultimately, contempt, which is why they can be so lethal and destructive in power.

Leftists believe they are brimming with a sense of righteousness and committed to myriad good causes, but those causes are usually remote, general and abstract, and quite unrelated to actual lives and certainly to choice, consequences and responsibility. Sometimes they latch onto genuine issues of justice and injustice (civil rights, capital punishment), but often they are impatient with actual humans, who bear little relation to their abstract ideal of what humans should be like. The combination of relativism, scientism and a "history as error" philosophy leaves them locked in a world where there are only good ants and bad ants. They sure can fume and foam about the plight of good ants, but who, in the end, really cares about ants, especially when there are always other ants to champion when the ones you thought you were fighting for turn out to look icky close-up.

But, boy, are they good at digressing. Have you noticed how much fuss has been made of late about African poverty? It's as if we just discovered Africa is poor and has a few problems. My theory is that the left knows full well at some level it is wrong or losing on the issues I mentioned above, so it has to find something dramatic to divert everyone's attention. I mean, how can you fascists waste time fighting abortion and terrorism when people are sick and hungry in Africa?

Posted by: Peter B at May 23, 2005 8:08 AM
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