The Future of Fusionism

One question that we’ve all danced around a bit is whether the old “fusionist” project, wedding cultural conservatives to libertarians, makes sense any more. As a social conservative weary of unfulfilled and unfulfillable boasts about how we’re going to “drown the federal government in the bathtub,” I’m occasionally inclined to say no—as are a lot of people these days, from the crunchy-con critics of capitalism to the lifestyle-libertarian opponents of the religious right.

Ultimately, though, I think the marriage still makes too much political sense to be broken up. Libertarians—at least libertarians who care more about the size of the federal leviathan than about, say, gay marriage—can’t ditch social conservatives, because without social conservatives (and particularly evangelical Christians) there wouldn’t be any significant constituency for small government reform in America. By and large, the Americans most interested in, say, school choice or social security privatization, or what-have-you are also the people lining up to oppose abortion and gay marriage. The upper-middle-class voters the GOP has been losing to the Democrats over social issues aren’t natural libertarians; if they voted for Reagan, they did so because he promised to cut their taxes, not because they had any interest in hacking away at entitlement spending. The notion—advanced by Andrew Sullivan, among others—of a socially liberal, budget-cutting, hawkish third way is pretty much just a fantasy.

At the same time, small-government libertarians can’t ditch social conservatives because it’s precisely their emphasis on values, churches, and families—however authoritarian it can sometimes seem—that make libertarianism possible at all. Boaz writes that “the limited-government agenda has to include a greater insistence on individual responsibility”—and where is this going to come from if not from social conservatives? By the same token, social conservatives can’t ditch libertarians because of the lesson of Europe—which is that if you set out to create a socially-conservative big government, you’ll destroy the very incentives that make faith and family thrive in the first place. (Also, libertarians are “wicked smaht”—much smarter than your average social-con—and useful to have around in an intellectual knife fight.)

All of which is to say that the underlying realities that Frum limned in Dead Right, over a decade ago, haven’t changed that much. These are tough times for the conservative alliance, and it’s to be expected that social-cons would blame libertarians for the Right’s difficulties, and vice versa. But like it or not, we’re stuck with each other.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • In this month’s provocative lead essay, bestselling author and former Bush speechwriter David Frum considers whether the time has come and gone for the small government heirs of Goldwater, Reagan, and Gingrich. His answer: “the day in which we could look to the GOP to have an affirmative small-government vision of its own has I think definitively passed.” Government slashing types have never been more than an active minority in the GOP, Frum argues, and there is little chance that Republicans going forward will repudiate the spirit of the big-government Bush agenda. The small-government conservative’s best hope is that, like the defunct Whigs and Progressives, elements of their ideas and ideals will survive as a part of the political consensus.

Response Essays

  • Bruce Bartlett, author of Impostor: How George W. Bush Bankrupted America and Betrayed the Reagan Legacy, agrees with Frum’s gloomy assessment of the prospects for small government and argues that conservatives and libertarians often compound the problem by failing to understand the magnitude and political intractability of the government’s non-discretionary entitlement programs. Slashing government is not “as easy as waving a magic wand.” Bartlett warns of the danger of resigning in frustration and calls for “a serious debate among libertarians and small government-types on a realistic political strategy for achieving their goals.”

  • Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam argue that although a renewed push for smaller government isn’t in the cards, Republicans can realistically hope to win reforms that promote “freedom, self-reliance, and individual initiative”–values at the core of the small-government movement. In the current climate, Douthat and Salam write, “simply calling for the rollback of government appeals only to those already in the winner’s circle of American life…” So, they argue, Republicans “need to accept that government will remain large in the short run … while pursuing long-range strategies that will produce a more opportunity-friendly, less statist America.”

  • Cato executive vice president David Boaz argues that the Republicans have failed Reagan’s vision, offering their own brand of meddlesome statism as an alternative to the Democrats’. Although there is in the U.S. a constituency for limited government, Boaz argues, it needs a leader. The task for “advocates of liberty and limited government” is to “make ready the ideas, the platform, the networks that could serve a political leader who wanted to take on the task of clearing away the late 20th century’s accumulated burden of bureaucratic systems, unfunded liabilities, overextended military commitments, and usurpations of the responsibilities of free citizens.”