There's a well-worn tale about modern American conservatism: It says that the movement as we know it came into being during the mid–20th century as a "fusionist" coalition of economic libertarians and religious traditionalists. These groups, whose goals and priorities differed from the start, were held together mainly by two things: the sheer charisma of National Review founder William F. Buckley Jr., and the shared enemy of global communism.
As long as the Cold War endured, the story goes, each wing was willing to cede some ground to the other. In light of the threat posed by a rampaging Soviet Union—as militantly atheistic as it was militantly anti-capitalist—the differences between the libertarians and the traditionalists did not seem so great. Their interests, at least, were aligned.
But the fall of the USSR meant the collapse of the common foe that had sustained the fusionist partnership. It was able to trundle on for a while, powered by a reservoir of goodwill, but it has long been running on fumes. In the last few years, the alliance's inherent tensions have come to a head. It's increasingly common to hear that, whatever value there may have been in cooperation during the '50s, '60s, '70s, and '80s, the era of good conservative feelings is over.
For many libertarians, the Trump years revealed their traditionalist allies to be hypocrites and opportunists, all too willing to sell out the ideals of fusionism in service of an aspiring dictator. Conservatives have commenced a not-so-slow descent toward authoritarianism, some in this group suggest; if the philosophy of liberty is to have a future, it must involve building bridges to the left, not the right.
A number of traditionalists, meanwhile, have been tripping over each other in their rush to celebrate the end of fusionism. What the 21st century demands, they say, is a different, more "muscular" style of politics, practiced by a Republican Party that finally stops worrying and learns to love the state. By passing stronger laws, these "post-liberal" conservatives believe they can restore America's lost Judeo-Christian character and save their country from itself.
This is quite a change from the Reagan Republicanism of a few decades ago. Back then, most folks on the right insisted that limited government and personal responsibility were the watchwords of conservatism. That consensus has now broken down.
From literature to philosophy to religion, it's hard to think of a theme less original than the seductiveness of power. That, after all, is the story of Frodo and the ring; of Lord Acton and "absolute power corrupts absolutely"; of Satan and the third temptation of Christ. One of history's great recurrent lessons is about the importance of keeping that desire in check, in our hearts and our governments alike. Which is why it's exasperating to watch so many conservatives—self-proclaimed heirs to the axiom that "example is the school of mankind," in Edmund Burke's phrase—succumb in real time to the fantasy that they are the exception to this time-tested rule.
As far as the post-liberal conservatives are concerned, libertarianism's preoccupation with protecting liberty has blinded it to the importance of promoting virtue (and a constellation of related values, including faith, family, community, and patriotism). The most moderate version of this argument suggests that libertarians have come to exercise too much influence over the right-of-center policy agenda and proposes a so-called rebalancing toward traditionalist concerns. A more radical version excoriates libertarianism as philosophically bankrupt and calls upon the keepers of the conservative flame to take a sledgehammer to the fusionist coalition once and for all.
Hillsdale College's David Azerrad put the latter position starkly in a July 2020 essay for The American Conservative. "The common enemy that justified an alliance with the free market fundamentalists is long gone," he wrote. "Today, libertarians actively side with our enemies: they promote open borders and empty prisons, and strengthen China's hand through their consumer-focused economic policies. Ours is primarily a conservatism of countries and borders, citizens and families, none of which can take root in the barren libertarian soil of atomized individuals and global markets."
The post-liberal agenda is typified by a desire for more government involvement in people's lives. As The New York Times' Ross Douthat wrote in 2019, this group seeks "stronger state interventions in the economy on behalf of socially conservative ends." Or, as Azerrad put it in his essay, "the right must be comfortable wielding the levers of state power."
Economically, post-liberalism rejects the doctrine of "unfettered" free markets in favor of tariffs, an "industrial policy" intended to prop up American manufacturers in the face of competition from overseas, wage subsidies, and the like. On social issues, it supports everything from vice laws to a rollback of no-fault divorce to more robust speech restrictions on public morality grounds to (among a lively cohort of radical Catholics especially) the imposition of a confessional state and perhaps even a Christian monarch.
There's little evidence that the post-liberals are speaking for the average Republican, let alone the average American. But the elite wind does seem to be at their backs.
Fox News host Tucker Carlson was once an avatar of fusionism who supported Ron Paul for president in both 1988 and 2008 and told Reason in 2010, "I despise laws that tell people that they can't do things for their own good." By January 2019, he was delivering a 15-minute on-air monologue decrying the failures of capitalism. "Does anyone still believe that cheaper iPhones or more Amazon deliveries of plastic garbage from China are going to make us happy?" Carlson asked. "Libertarians tell us that's how markets work: consenting adults making voluntary decisions about how to live their lives," he continued, referring specifically to payday lenders. "OK. But it's also disgusting."
Two months later, the Christian journal First Things published a manifesto, signed by 15 conservative intellectuals, inveighing against a "dead consensus" that favors "individual autonomy" at the expense of "permanent truths, family stability, communal solidarity, and much else." Four months after that, the political theorist Yoram Hazony organized an impressively attended conference promoting conservative nationalism. He took the opportunity on behalf of those present to "declare independence" from neoliberalism, classical liberalism, and libertarianism.
In November 2019, Sen. Marco Rubio (R–Fla.) raised more than a few eyebrows when he gave an address at Washington, D.C.'s Catholic University rejecting "the notion that, left unguided, the market will solve our problems." He called instead for a system of "common-good capitalism" capable of restoring the "balance between the obligations and rights of the private sector and working Americans."
This, Rubio argued, can be accomplished only through some measure of state direction. "Promoting the common good will require public policies that drive investments in key industries," he said, "because pure market principles and our national interest are not aligned." Fortunately for us all, the senior senator from the Sunshine State came equipped with plans for, among other things, "a national co-operative that guarantees investment" in the rare-earth mineral sector.
Rubio's fervor for a conservatism that has made its peace with a bigger, more powerful central government has been matched and exceeded by some of his colleagues. First-term Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri, for example—until recently the Republican Party's brightest young thing—seems not to have found a meddlesome technology regulation or "pro-family" policy he does not like. "We must put aside the tired orthodoxies of years past," he said in a May 2019 Senate speech. "We need not just a bigger economy but a better society."
In spring 2020, a new think tank called American Compass came online—"an organization dedicated to helping American conservatism recover from its chronic case of market fundamentalism," as founder Oren Cass put it in an announcement published by National Review. Among the group's favored policies are subsidies for American manufacturers, reducing "toward zero" the number of visas granted to Chinese college students, and legally requiring corporations to put the common good ahead of profit seeking—perhaps by ordering them to include labor representatives on their boards of directors, thus "short-circuiting the default assumptions of shareholder primacy by including workers among those to whom management is accountable."
That last suggestion is striking in its similarity to a 2018 bill introduced by progressive Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D–Mass.), which would require U.S. companies "to consider the interests of all corporate stakeholders," including by giving workers the right to fill 40 percent of board seats. Warren has been a public enemy of the political right for nigh on a decade. Yet the conservative media have heaped acclaim on Cass' efforts and held him out as the future of the movement.
This sentiment culminated last August in a lengthy essay by New York Times columnist David Brooks that contained glowing mini-profiles of Hawley and Rubio and that extensively quoted Cass. "Over the long term," Brooks concluded, "some version of Working-Class Republicanism will redefine the G.O.P."
In 2018, Samuel Hammond, a researcher at the centrist Niskanen Center, persuasively argued that Warren's proposal represented a "corporate catastrophe" in the making. Today, he is a contributor to the American Compass blog, where not long ago he urged readers to stand up and insist: "Conservatives believe in supporting families directly. And if that involves a pinch of redistribution, so be it!"
Is there a contradiction there? Hammond doesn't think so. "I really urge you to separate Warren's specific proposal," he says, "from the broader investigation" that Cass is leading into how to help the working class. In the end, "the right will have to take on an orientation that's more skeptical of trade, more skeptical of big business, and more curious about pro-labor, pro-family policies."
The post-liberal conservative movement is a twisted artifact of the now-conventional view of fusionism as a partnership of convenience between two groups that have divergent and even contradictory belief systems: libertarians, who prioritize individual freedom above all else, and traditionalists, who know better.
This understanding is subtly—but crucially—mistaken. Fusionism, properly understood, is not a marriage of two groups. It's a marriage of two value sets. A fusionist is someone who sees both liberty (in the classical sense of freedom from aggression, coercion, and fraud) and virtue (in the Judeo-Christian sense of submission to God's commands) as important. Fusionism is therefore a distinct philosophical orientation unto itself. What's more, it has historically been the dominant orientation on the American right.
Conservatives going back at least to the country's founding have believed that virtue and liberty were mutually reinforcing—and that neither could survive long without the other. A free society depends on a virtuous populace. ("Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people," wrote John Adams. "It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.") But the reverse is also true: Virtue, to be virtuous, must be freely chosen. As the late National Review literary editor Frank Meyer, usually identified as the godfather of fusionism, eloquently put it: "Truth withers when freedom dies, however righteous the authority that kills it; and free individualism uninformed by moral value rots at its core and soon surrenders to tyranny."
Post-liberals tend to see liberty and virtue as fatally at odds. To be a good person necessarily requires accepting some limits on one's choices, after all. Mustn't one of the two fusionist pillars ultimately trump the other?
There's no denying that the demands of morality, traditionally understood, pull against a theoretical ideal of freedom from all constraint. Fusionism reconciles this tension by insisting that the state protect people's fundamental rights to be secure in person and property—thus leaving individuals, and the various associations they come together to form, with as much space as possible in which to pursue the higher things. Within the governmental sphere, liberty is indeed the ultimate end. But within the infinitely broader sphere outside of government, it's just the beginning: A life well-lived consists in using one's freedom to do what's right. The clear recognition that these are separate spheres, with separate roles to play for the common good, is the genius of the fusionist project.
Today's post-liberal conservatives appear to think they're distinguished by the belief that virtue matters. They behave as if their core disagreement with fusionists is about whether human beings have moral obligations that go beyond leaving others alone to do as they please. This could hardly be more wrong. Anyone who holds to the Judeo-Christian tradition—as fusionists by definition do—accepts that we have manifold duties to one another. The disagreement is about whether it's the state's job to enforce those moral obligations.
For a fusionist, the answer to that question must be no, for pragmatic as well as deeply moral reasons.
The weight of evidence through history is that concentrated government power in the best case leads to incompetence and waste, while in the worst case it degenerates quickly into tyranny. Whether your main concern is material enrichment or the protection of human rights, limited government has been shown on the proving grounds of experience to be the best available means to that end.
Arguably even more important is the Judeo-Christian doctrine of human beings' equal inherent dignity. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church puts it, "God created man a rational being, conferring on him the dignity of a person who can initiate and control his own actions." And later: "Every human person, created in the image of God, has the natural right to be recognized as a free and responsible being. All owe to each other this duty of respect." That is why state power is such a grave matter, fraught with danger not just to society but to the souls of those who wield it. Only when absolutely necessary—say, to stop one person from initiating violence against another—is it morally justifiable to overrule someone's right to live his life as he chooses.
Understanding what fusionism is—and what it is not—is more important than it may seem. An arrangement in which traditionalists and libertarians are merely allies can easily become a game of tug of war in which each side jockeys to ensure that, on balance, its own priorities predominate. If one side finds itself too often on the losing end of that jockeying, it might reasonably move to dissolve the alliance altogether.
But if fusionism is a discrete philosophical worldview—and a pervasive one at that, with a pedigree that runs through the American founding and with roots in the Hebrew Bible—then post-liberalism looks infinitely more radical. Remember: The new conservatives don't just call for a collective recommitment to the pursuit of virtue in the private sphere; they explicitly insist that power be exercised in the government sphere, with a goal of forcibly reorienting society to the common good.
Such a shift amounts to a rejection of one of the two pillars of fusionism—which is to say it's a rejection of fusionism itself. How supremely ironic that the people who flatter themselves defenders of tradition have abandoned the hard-won philosophical inheritance of the American political right.
All this leaves unanswered a serious question: If a free society requires a moral populace, what is a committed fusionist in an unvirtuous age to do?
Traditionalists have plenty of evidence that we're living in such an age. American religiosity is in decline, with significantly fewer people attending weekly services (even before the coronavirus pandemic) than at any time in the last century. Addiction and suicide are through the roof, likely driven by a sense of alienation. Traditional teachings about sexual morality seem laughably antiquated against the backdrop of modernity. The divorce rate is down, but so is the marriage rate, and hundreds of thousands of abortions are performed each year.
Some libertarians are less bothered by these concerns. Many prefer to focus on the ways market-driven technological advances have vastly improved our quality of life. Others go further, arguing that widespread acceptance of a greater range of lifestyle choices make this the best time ever to be alive. Virtue is overrated, this cohort might say, or at least misunderstood—and if you're reading this magazine, you may be inclined to agree. If people are using more drugs (see, for instance, the cover of this month's issue) while having fewer children, that's fine and dandy so long as it's their choice.
These libertarians are not fusionists, though they can and do happily work with their fusionist brethren when it comes to protecting rights and liberties in the government sphere. At the same time, many libertarians are uneasy about secularism and community breakdown. As a churchgoing Roman Catholic, I certainly fall into this category—grieving the scourge of abortion, suffering under a culture that feels overly sexualized and excessively consumerist, and fretting that modern man has grown unwilling to sacrifice on behalf of something bigger than himself. I'm not the most stereotypical libertarian, but even within the liberty movement I'm not alone. And on the wider political right, such fears are omnipresent.
Faced with problems like these, the allure of desperate measures is perhaps understandable. One common justification for the post-liberal turn is that culture and institutions, once broken, cannot be expected to repair themselves. External help is needed. The state can provide it, through laws that constrain behavior but also teach the populace to value the correct things: faith and family, community and country.
Alas, the lessons of history do not cease to be true just because they're inconvenient. You cannot impose virtue on people by force, and a coercive legal regime is no more likely in practice to instill good values than it is to make the underlying problems worse.
For one thing, there's no guarantee that the people actually in power—now or in the future—will agree with you about what the correct values are (or about how much power is required to enforce them). But beyond that, public policies always come with unintended consequences. Even assuming a legal code that perfectly aligns with the true demands of virtue, we can't know in advance what the effects will be. Perhaps citizens will absorb a better sense of right and wrong. Or perhaps, freed from the need to make weighty decisions for themselves, their moral muscles will atrophy, rendering them less capable of pursuing the higher things in life.
Before you guess which result is more likely, consider the impact that decades of well-intentioned welfare policy have had on poor communities. As the financial incentives for entrepreneurship and family formation evaporated, recipients of aid learned to see themselves as lacking agency. Neighborly ingenuity, manifested through private charitable efforts and mutual aid societies, was crowded out by top-down government "solutions" that solve very little. Despite ever-increasing state and federal spending, the official poverty rate has hardly budged, and small towns and rural counties increasingly join impoverished inner cities as economic disaster areas. All of which suggests that our best efforts have failed to address the causes of the problem and may have exacerbated them.
The central insight of fusionism is that the common good is best achieved when the state stays focused on protecting rights and liberties, leaving individuals and voluntary associations to do the rest. To be clear, there is nothing easy about that answer.
The post-liberal temptation is to believe that government power can be a substitute for the hard labor of institution building and cultural change. It isn't. The solution must begin at home—on the front porch, around the kitchen table, and in the mirror. The law is not a magic wand. There are no magic wands, and there is no shortcut to the good society.