Michael J. Lee is Associate Professor in the Department of Communication at the College of Charleston. His book, Creating Conservatism: Postwar Words that Made an American Movement, was published this summer by Michigan State University Press. In it, he traces the evolution of American conservatism across the middle of the 20th century, analyzing the notable books and authors that ushered the movement to national prominence and political power.
ECM: Your book tells the story of movement conservatism as an internal struggle between two opposed factions—traditionalists and libertarians. The first faction values religious belief and social order, while the second is primarily concerned with individual freedom. Over a few decades of antagonism, the two became fused. How do you evaluate the state of the movement currently? Is the struggle ongoing?
MJL: In my judgment, the history of the American conservative movement suggests its adaptability and flexibility. It is certainly possible that one faction or the other could take hold of conservatism and drive out the rest, but, in the main, conservatives, both historically and in our present political circumstances, have accepted a fusion of Christian morality and free market economics as their bedrock beliefs.
There is a great deal of room to maneuver between these poles, which allows conservative campaigners to emphasize a more socially conservative platform or a more libertarian conservative platform depending on the circumstances. I don’t mean to suggest that conservatives’ adaptability sets them up to win in 2014 or even 2016, but I do take issue with those pundits, and there are many, who have argued that conservatism is a “dead” ideology.
ECM: You identify “fusionism” as a concerted strategy to unite the factions into a viable coalition. It seems to me that, lately, conservative arguments themselves have become fused. The prevalence of “religious liberty” complaints, for instance, seems to cast traditionalist commitment in libertarian language. Do you buy that interpretation?
MJL: That’s an astute point. “Religious liberty” is a perfect example of fusionist rhetoric and fusionist ideology. After Reagan succeeded so dramatically with a fusionist “God and markets” message, there have only been a few non-fusionist conservatives to gain much national traction. Pat Buchanan’s 90s-era culture warriors are one example; although, by my reading, it remains to be seen whether Rand Paul’s ideological adjustments will bring him closer to standard fusionism. His father’s more stridently libertarian message, which rankled the feathers of social conservatives, is another. There are certainly more, but these are exceptions to the fusionist rule.
“Religious liberty” is an illustrative phrase for another reason as well: the threat of fracture. Hardline libertarians of Ludwig von Mises’ or Ayn Rand’s ilk found phrases like religious liberty revolting because they urged the freedom to practice a religion that itself denies individual freedom. In fact, I’ve been consistently amazed at how well fusionists have done in managing what I see is the inherent tension between a morality chiefly based on individual freedom and market processes, and one grounded in Judeo-Christian values.
Fusionists like Frank Meyer insisted that people who saw these as contradictory were wrong, that market-based values and religion-based values actually required one another for legitimacy. That is, freedom required religion’s ethical guidance, and religion required a defense of freedom to avoid theocracy.
Fusionism’s success was, however, more due to its ability to fashion resonant appeals to lots of constituencies than to its uncomplicated synthesis of mutually dependent ideologies. After all, I have never seen an effective answer to the question hardline traditionalist Brent Bozell posed to early fusionists in the 1960s: freedom or virtue? Is it more important to exercise freedom of choice regardless of the moral outcome, or is it more important that an individual’s choices align with traditional moral dictates?
Read the whole thing at Religion Dispatches.