What Does Being Conservative Actually Mean These Days?

Reagan
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For many decades, the conservative movement was a fusion of three main constituencies: libertarians, social conservatives, and Cold Warriors. The political culmination of this fusion was President Ronald Reagan, who successfully represented this old coalition by winning the Cold War, reviving the American economy, and preserving Americans’ constitutional freedoms. As Nathanael Blake remarks in his defense of the “Old Right,” it “had its failures, but it also conserved quite a lot.” 

However, as younger generations of Americans come of age and men like Donald Trump are elected to the presidency, an update to the old fusionism is definitely in order. Gone are the days of confronting the Soviet Union, preaching free markets and globalism, and taking a laissez-faire attitude toward culture wars. Now, conservatives must face the challenges of a rising China, a corporatist oligarchy hollowing out the American economy, and ubiquitous woke propaganda.

So, what is this new fusionism? This was the question taken up by conservative writers Helen Andrews and Michael Brendan Dougherty at a recent event that I attended in Dallas. 

Although the two writers come from opposing perspectives—Andrews is the editor at The American Conservative, while Dougherty is an editor at National Review—there was much more agreement than one might expect. As with the old fusionism, the new fusionism will be defined by its circumstance not really by its ideologues. Like everyone else, they must adapt or die. 

This is especially true for the libertarian wing of the conservative movement that, as Andrews mentioned, proved weak and hypocritical in the face of the totalitarian Covid regime of the last two years. Rather than object and push back against the abundant violations of people’s civil rights, many of their writers joined in the derision and mockery of traditionalists who questioned what was clearly unscientific hysteria. To his credit, Dougherty conceded as much and even mentioned a similar instance in the eugenics debate of the early 20th century.

Furthermore, libertarian conservatives were directly complicit in empowering the Chinese Communist Party for decades, largely at the cost of hollowing out middle America. The prevailing view was that more economic opportunity and foreign investment in China would liberalize the country. In reality, it has mainly enriched a totalitarian state that regularly violates their people’s human rights, sponsors evil dictatorships like that of North Korea, poses serious threats to global security in general, and likely exported Covid along with its many other products. 

Once again, Dougherty acknowledged this problem, though in his defense, few conservatives, libertarian or otherwise, believed China would grow in the manner that it did. The same can be said for Big Tech monopolies dominating public discourse in which ’90’s-style liberal entrepreneurs grew massive companies and began imposing what they thought were open platforms bringing people together. 

Beyond these points, curiously little was mentioned about conservatives who favor foreign intervention and maintaining America’s role as the world’s police—a group that has often been called the neoconservatives. This was probably because the neocons have dwindled to a vanishingly small minority that used up all their political capital in the War on Terror a decade earlier. They are no longer really conservative, and neither the libertarian or traditionalists would support their agenda in any meaningful way. 

Although the speakers never really came to a clear definition of the new fusionism (which, to be fair, is difficult to do in a one-hour dialogue), they laid the groundwork for one, which I’ll venture to make. Factoring in the ongoing changes in politics and the world in general, I believe the new fusionism will be a coalition of traditional populists and classical liberals.

At first, these two sides may look irreconcilable, with each deriding the other as hopelessly out of touch and hypocritical, but these differences are mostly superficial. The classical liberal emphasis on freedom and limited government complements the traditional populist focus on family, faith, and fairness. In a recent discussion on this topic at The Spectator, Stephanie Slade observes of old fusionist Frank Meyer: “he said that both Judeo-Christian virtue and freedom from coercion (whether carried out by a bandit or by an agent of the state) are goods to be cherished and protected.” 

In other words, the new conservative fusionism, like the old, looks more like the friendly dialogue between Helen Andrews and Michael Brendan Dougherty and less like the heated debate between David French and Sohrab Ahmari. It is made between two people of good faith who want to see all Americans not only enjoy better lives but enjoy them together as a community.

Already, most conservative publications reflect these two sides (including The American Conservative and National Review), acknowledging that most conservative readers and voters are somewhere in the middle. What they agree on is that they are tired of the old fusionist establishment and desire arguments and leadership that is more effective at fighting the Left. This means learning from past fusionists, like William F. Buckley and Ronald Reagan, but finally letting them go and forging a new conservative movement for a new generation. 

By

Auguste Meyrat is an English teacher and department chair in north Texas. He has a BA in Arts and Humanities from University of Texas at Dallas and an MA in Humanities from the University of Dallas.

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