The Corner

Politics & Policy

Misremembering Fusionism

Michael Knowles has written an assessment for the American Mind of what he thinks the modern conservative coalition looks like. He considers it primarily defined, and united, not by what it stands for, but by what it stands against: i.e., the Left. He further argues that this is not unusual, as, in his view, such an oppositional status largely animated post-war American conservatism of the William F. Buckley “fusionist” variety: 

The fusionist philosophy that defined conservatism from the ’50s through the ’90s united three disparate factions in their opposition to the Soviet Union: economic libertarians, social traditionalists, and foreign policy hawks. The three groups have little in common, and their reasons for opposing Soviet communism differed. Libertarians opposed the Soviet Union’s economic collectivism. Social traditionalists objected to its atheism and disdain for the past. Foreign policy hawks feared its imperial ambitions. The “three-legged stool” of the postwar conservative movement, as Reagan described it, had just one common goal: defeat communism. Despite not “being for” all that much other than destroying the Evil Empire, the fusionist coalition accomplished its goal. The Berlin Wall fell, and then the coalition that toppled it began to fracture under the pressure of its own inconsistency.

This is a problematic simplification, for many reasons. Yes, the post-war coalition was fractious. But is Knowles intending to imply that social traditionalists did not mind Soviet collectivism? That libertarians were fine with Soviet expansion? That would be news to many of them. The idea of a three-legged stool never meant that its components were completely mutually exclusive. There was always a great deal of crossover. This is part of the reason they were willing and able to collaborate in the first place.

The rest of Knowles’s assessment concerns the present and possible future of the Right. But it would help his analysis if he presented a fuller understanding of the history from which he is drawing.