The Great Conservative Divorce
This article appears in the July/August 2022 edition of Quadrant. Please note it is 4500 words in length.
No, I do not mean the post-election suggestion of Simon Birmingham’s that the Liberals and the Nationals go their separate ways, now that the ghastly election is over. No, even finding a conservative among the ranks of either Coalition party these days is up there with Where’s Wally. Extremely difficult, unless you look very carefully indeed.
Instead, I refer to the end of the great American conservative “fusion” of classical liberals and conservatives which prospered from the 1950s to the 1980s, and has since struggled on under growing contradictions. But, it seems, it is now on its last legs. Perhaps it was, as soon as Donald J Trump emerged on an escalator in 2015 to announce his assault on the Republican Party and the conservative establishment. The right-of-centre “never Trumpers” certainly sought to save both the Republican party and the conservative establishment – and fusionism – from the Trump revolt, during and since his tenure, and there seemed a chance the stitched-together coalition might survive in some form. It will not.
So, what was “fusionism”, back in the day? And what animated it? A little history might be in order, to throw light on the present.
The fusionist project was formulated by WF Buckley Jr and colleagues such as the former communist Frank Meyer at the National Review magazine (which Buckley founded in the 1950s) in order to win the battle of ideas that underlay the Cold War, and to assist in winning the war itself. The parties “fused” were largely anti-communists (sometimes ex-communists), die-hard supporters of capitalism, post-war liberals, the so-called “religious right”, traditionalist conservatives (often termed paleo-conservatives) and individualist libertarians. Quite a coalition, then, of the (mostly) willing. A motley crew, it might be suggested, upon reflection. There were plenty of memorable fights over the nature and purposes of conservatism at National Review (a topic for another day). Fusionism first took political form in the failed 1964 Presidential candidacy of Barry Goldwater and reached its zenith in the presidency of Ronald Reagan. Its essence was the attempted philosophical (and not just the strategic and political) marriage of freedom and order (or virtue) and its most formal presentation was in Meyer’s book, In Defense of Freedom (1962). In the end, it was a political rather than a philosophical fusion, with essentially political purposes. That didn’t stop some (like Meyer) from trying to forge a unity of ideas, but it was always a coalition and not a unity, and this became clearer over time, as the sources of philosophical, then political, division within the coalition broadened and deepened. Events played a critical part in the beginnings of the divorce.
The Cold War, the inspiration for the fusion, pretty much ended in 1989, and lingered a couple more years until the dissolution of the Soviet Union. After the Berlin Wall came down, “movement” conservatives of the Reaganite fusion party pretty much started wandering around wondering what on earth they would do next, and who they would oppose.
George Bush the First certainly gave this impression, to the extent that his tenure was marked by any philosophical thinking. Bush 41 did, chillingly, start talking about a “new world order”. While the fusionist cause persisted in America, it was often maintained by the activity of bagging Democrats and distracted by the perception of an end of history and the victory of liberal democracy. Practical conservative politics reverted in many ways to an establishment activity. George Bush was a figure of the establishment, with nary a philosophical link to the conservative movement. He sought a “kinder and gentler” America, post-Reagan, whatever that meant. Yes, we had the Newt Gingrich Contract with America and its fiscal conservatism for at time. Can anyone even remember what animated the thinking of the 1996 Republican contender, or even remember who that was? (It was Bob Dole and no, he had no animating philosophy). The philosophical heft came from a losing candidate, the paleocon (traditionalist conservative) Pat Buchanan.
The next ruling conservative party, alas, turned out to be the neoconservatives, animated by 9-11 and the creation of the next great global enemy, viz Islamic fundamentalist terrorism, which could only be defeated, they claimed, by endless foreign wars in which they would wholeheartedly participate. Like communism, terrorism never quite goes away, but it can remain as a legacy raison-d’etre for its former conservative enemies. Well, after the ignominious exit from Afghanistan in 2021, and whatever one thinks of the nature and timing of that exit or of the man who engineered it, the last vestiges of credibility for the neoconservative world view vanished, at least for a significant number of conservatives.
Which brings us to the current debates and to the conservative crisis, in the context of a bleak, dangerous, unstable and morally impoverished world. “The ruins of a dead consensus”, as the New Catallaxy blog describes the right’s current predicament, where now hatreds reign in place of the former marital bliss. There are a number of strands to the new resistance to the former liberal-conservative alliance to be unpacked.
There are several clear markers of the now almost inevitable conservative divorce, and the end of the great fusion, apart from the obvious one – the same Donald Trump. It was not simply that Trump was and is a threat to established fusionist conservatism, which most certainly was the case. It is also the case that much of the conservative movement embraced Trump, both in style and in policy substance.
The first is the emergence of the learned Israeli intellectual, Yoram Hazony, his self-styled national conservatism, and his two books, The Virtue of Nationalism (2018) and Conservatism: A Rediscovery (2022). Hazony is a champion of traditional values and of the Judeo-Christian foundations of the American project. He argues for “conservative democracy” as a replacement for the fragility and decay of what he sees as the old liberal-conservative settlement. He and his peers want to rescue conservatism from the perceived libertarian and neoconservative ascendancy of the last thirty years, and to give the conservative movement a fresh vision. But it is also an old vision, as Hazony acknowledged in his address at the first National Conservatism (NatCon) Conference in 2019. The young Hazony had been a firm disciple of Ronald Reagan and of his own mentor, Irving Kristol, known to many as the “godfather” of the original neocon movement. A movement which, Hazony noted, bears little resemblance to its later iterations. He quoted the three pillars of Kristol’s approach – religion, nationalism and economic growth, with priority given to the first of these. These remain the core conservative values for Hazony, who saw the start of the decay of the conservative movement as the end of Soviet and Eastern European communism, the fall of Thatcher and her aversion to the EU project, the exit of Reagan and what he claimed to be absurd claims about the “end of history” and its fantasy, utopian thinking. (For Kristol the Elder, a neocon was a liberal mugged by reality, not a crusading foreign policy hawk. As for libertarianism, Kristol famously only ever gave two cheers for capitalism).
Gerard Baker of the Wall Street Journal podcasts described Hazony’s project as “the conservative revisionist movement”. It is a movement, then, and not just the crusading of one man. One sympathetic reviewer had this to say of the new book:
There was a time, however, when politics was understood not simply as the maneuverings of special interest groups seeking power, but as a way of talking about the best ways for human beings to live together in the world. Yoram Hazony’s new book, Conservatism: A Rediscovery, is firmly situated in this older understanding of politics. It is also a brilliant, moving, and compelling account of what it means to be a conservative in today’s world.
Ben Dunson headed his review, “to move forward, we must turn back”. This suggests that Hazony belongs to the paleocon branch of the conservative movement, but he adds much to what has been said before by Pat Buchanan and others. Dunson also notes that Hazony sees much in common between fusionists and (American style) liberals.
Echoing the argument of Patrick Deneen in Why Liberalism Failed (2018), Hazony believes that the roots of the current cultural and political crisis lie in enlightenment rationalism. Deneen, Hazony and other prominent thinkers on the right have argued that liberalism’s own inherent contradictions will inevitably produce authoritarianism. They are big on the fact that there is no “neutral” public square in the minimal state, as the libertarian – well, for a time – Harvard philosopher Robert Nozick argued in the 1970s in his storied Anarchy, State and Utopia. Another current writer who advocates this line is Rod Dreher, author most famously of The Benedict Option (2017), whose advice for Christians in a “post-Christian world” is to flee the joint. What Nozick didn’t bargain for was the soft, cultural, non-coercive power of the then emerging cultural elites whose diabolical influence has prospered alongside, if not a minimal state, then certainly a state that refuses to safeguard the core interests and beliefs of minorities and dissidents from the zeitgeist under siege from the new cultural bullies, whether they be teachers, academics, corporate HR departments, bureaucrats, police, even (alas) churches. Nozick’s assumption that, in his utopian vision, different groups would just “get along” proved to be fanciful. (To be fair, his work was one of political philosophy, not of predictive political science or of history, and a much smaller state as favoured by Nozick might well do much better in defending freedom than one the size we have now).
Hazony’s national conservatism conferences have gone from strength to strength. It is now, as Sohrab Ahmari notes, a trans-Atlantic movement. And there is now an online magazine to go with the NatCon movement, titled Compact and featuring writers such as the Iranian émigré, Ahmari (well known for his battle of ideas with the establishment conservative and arch Never Trumper David French) and the excellent Christopher Caldwell. The older American Conservative magazine founded by Patrick Buchanan (see below) is an ally in the fight for the soul of the new right. Rod Dreher is a senior member of the editorial team, and Ahmari a regular contributor.
Second, there is the Fox News host Tucker Carlson’s war on establishment, corporatist Republicanism, witnessed nightly on his popular cable show and in lines like “big business hates your family” and in a range of derogatory remarks about libertarianism at, for example, Hazony’s 2019 National Conservatism conference. Sharply, as always, Carlson has underscored the fact that the some of the great threats to our freedom these days come from corporations, acting either in cahoots with, or independently of, the state. The deeply worrying administrative state run by the expert class (the new clerisy, as Joel Kotkin has termed them), anticipated by James Burnham’s The Managerial Revolution (1943) and recently unpacked by John Marini (Unmasking the Administrative State, 2019) is very much a threat to freedom. It is just that, for Carlson and many others, it isn’t the only one and perhaps it isn’t the scariest. When armed with the weapons of modern, intrusive technology, as described by Shoshana Zuboff in her chilling book The Age of Surveillance Capitalism (2019; ironically, an Obama pick, no less!), it is private sector-led technocracy we should be fearing most. Tucker Carlson would have us looking towards Silicon Valley, Seattle, Brussels and Davos rather than to Washington or, indeed, Moscow to identify the greatest threats we face.
Dunson, again speaking about Hazony’s new book, refers to “liberal paradigm blindness”. Dunson notes:
Conservatism sets forth a fresh and compelling vision for a conservative approach to government situated within an argument for a conservative way of life in general. As a part of that vision Hazony also critiques the tradition of classical liberal political philosophy stemming from the European Enlightenment, based as it is on a constellation of ideas such as social contract theory, claims about state of nature, consent as the moral foundation for legitimate government, and the like. This is an important facet of Hazony’s book, but I would like to focus on only one specific aspect of his critique, what he calls “liberal paradigm blindness.”
… liberalism obscures the real power dynamics in a society, insisting that only the state in an authoritarian regime can be oppressive, thus hiding the many ways in which non-state actors (businesses, media outfits, etc.) can gain power and harm others. Liberalism simply does not have the conceptual categories for such things. Because liberalism misdiagnoses problems in a given state, it will inevitably misdiagnose the necessary solutions, often with catastrophic results.
This last point is precisely the Tucker Carlson position. Big business hates your family.
Third, there is the recent emergence of JD Vance as the Republican Senate candidate for Ohio. Vance isn’t just another in a line of Trump-supported candidates for office. He is also the author of the 2016 best-selling Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and a Culture in Crisis (over three million copies sold), a personal memoir of his own life and of the miserable lives of others in the opioid-ravaged back county of the Appalachians. Fertile ground for a Trumpist offensive against the massive globalist outsourcing by American companies that was seen to contribute to the loss of American jobs in such regions as Vance’s. Vance also attacked libertarianism, or liberal conservatism, at the 2019 NatCon conference, and argued for political interventionism in addressing social problems of the kind described in his book. He is a friend of the working class, like Paul Embery is in the United Kingdom. And JD Vance isn’t just motivated, as so many Republicans and their media urgers are, with building a new electoral coalition (dare one say, another fusion) to attain and hold power, but rather to re-imagine the conservative project itself. Ben Dunson says, referring to Hazony, that “government isn’t the problem, but bad government”. This applies in spades to JD Vance.
Fourth, there is the eclipse of neoconservatism and the American nation’s proclivity for “exporting democracy” and “nation building”, to put it euphemistically. As Senator Josh Hawley put it in Compact recently:
Not so long ago, Republicans said they had sworn off nation-building. Following the failure of the neoconservative project in Iraq and Afghanistan, GOP leaders seemed to have learned their lesson. But apparently not. Now nation-building is back with force, with a massive aid package to Ukraine that makes that country a US client state. Up next: a debate over expanding NATO. Many Republicans in Congress have already lined up to support both, almost reflexively. Why? Perhaps because they have forgotten their foreign-policy heritage. They have traded the nationalism of Theodore Roosevelt for the globalism of Woodrow Wilson. That’s a mistake. What America needs is not nation-building, but nationalism. (emphasis added)
Hawley reminds us that the contrasting currents of American foreign policy existed long ago. The Ukraine War merely provides a current platform for the anti-neocons to voice their concerns over an American foreign policy driven by a peculiar alignment of the neocons in the Republican party (see under Lindsey Graham), the rabid Democrat hawks, and the long-retired cold warriors who sense a whiff of anti-Soviet nostalgia to warm their hearts. Call the last “Buck Turgidson syndrome”, for fans of a certain age of Dr Strangelove, perhaps the defining film of the Cold War’s “mutual assured destruction”. It is a very worrying alliance, driven by massive media propaganda and an apparent aversion to thinking about the dire consequences of a nuclear confrontation with Russia, which oversees more thermonuclear devices than the USA does. Certainly, it has far more than hawkish Britain does. And it isn’t helped by having a US President who, as the marvellous British cartoonist Bob Moran depicted, as confusing the “nuclear war” and “change my diaper” buttons on the arm of his comfy chair. And who has taken to talking up America’s likely war-like reaction to a hypothetical invasion of Taiwan by China.
Yes, the reaction against the neocons is a huge impetus for the divorce proceedings.
Lastly, we should not leave out pushback against the Covid State as a driver of the conservative parting of the ways. The emergence of Covid dissidents, mainly on the right, in Western nations has been a feature of the politics of the past two years. While above the radar debate in Australia over the Covid State has been woefully lacking, the American experience has been very different, especially since Trump’s departure. Trump was, after all, the unfortunate champion of Operation Warp Speed, which guaranteed Big Pharma a big payday. Ground zero for anti-Covid State pushback has been Florida and the rapidly emerging Republican Party leader Governor Ron DeSantis, who has not only refused to implement vaccine and other mandates, but has made them illegal. His anti-wokeness is also standout behaviour when compared to that of his allegedly conservative peers, both in America and elsewhere. He has become something of a hero to under-the-radar Covid dissidents and sceptics the world over. While the States of the USA largely divided in their Covid responses on party lines, many Republicans swallowed Fauci’s Kool-Aid and kept to the medical tyranny script. It could be argued that Trump did, too. Those who protected Big Pharma from prosecution over adverse reactions to the vax, who mandated useless masks, imposed lockdowns with the best of them, and refused to call out Big Tech censorship, have earned the undying loathing and scorn of conservatives who value freedom and rights. Equally, these conservatives revile those in the broad conservative church, especially in the establishment, who regarded Covid tyranny as just another political issue to be swept under the carpet. Covid compliant conservatives in office will never be forgiven for this episode, and it is the emerging champions of the new right to whom one should look for future hope. Not to the old fusionists.
Pulling all the various threads together, then, there are three broad grounds for the great divorce, the shifting of tectonic plates on the right. One is foreign policy and the new, “mainstreet” conservatives’ aversion to senseless, expensive, morally bankrupt and dangerous entanglements in foreign wars. Of which NATO’s calculated strangling of Russia is merely the latest. The second ground is the rejection of the secular State’s attempted destruction of religion and of the Christian underpinnings of the former liberal democratic political system. The third is the “new right’s” defence of the working class – not just the white working class – and of nationalism, against globalism.
In essence, the new right’s objection to the old fusionism is that much of the establishment right has either failed to defend traditionalist values, or, worse, it has embraced much of the new left’s secularist, anti-working class agenda. Typically, with relish.
This might be thought of as the new fusionism. The embrace by economic liberals of social liberalism (and of green politics and of globalism) has been one of the defining, indeed seismic, political shifts of the past thirty years or so. It is as if Hayek met Habermas, and formed a new union. Call it “neoliberalism”, as some have. When you think of it, postmodernism – where anything goes, as David Stove might have said – has much to commend it to economic libertarians and turns out to be quite a close relative. A much closer relative than social conservatism is, in fact. Libertarians do believe that “anything goes”, apart from coercion by the state and between individuals. That the only matters to be considered in political debate are the individual and the state, absent any consideration of Burke’s little platoons or de Tocqueville’s mediating institutions. For libertarians, liberty never has to be constrained by order and tradition. And many social liberals appear to have made their peace with the cultural revolution.
You only have to look at the NSW Liberal Party to see a living, breathing example of the new fusionism. Or the embrace by most National Party members of parliament of the anti-life (pro-abortion, pro-euthanasia), homosexualist agenda. Or just look at the ruthless dispatch of the Victorian Bernie Finn from the parliamentary Liberal Party for his “rabid” pro-life positions.
Or, more broadly, look at the arrival of Davos Man as a thing. The leftist Peter Goodman has written an excellent book of the same name, sub-titled, “How the Billionaires Devoured the World”. As usual for leftists, he focused on the wealth and the profit-taking, and not sufficiently on the soft-power destruction of individual rights and the sinister PPPs (public-private partnerships) involved. PPPs are the currency of the World Economic Forum, the Bilderberg Group, the Trilateral Commission and all the other supra-national institutions that have cleverly eaten the world while we all sat by. Samuel P Huntington saw this coming, much sooner in the early 2000s, when he chronicled the emergence of globalist thought and behaviour in his famous essay in The National Interest, “Dead Souls: The Denationalization of the American Elite”.
Or look at woke ideology, so eagerly embraced by global corporations.
First Things editor RR Reno called the libertarian tendency “all freedom, all the time”. Not freedom and order, freedom constrained by tradition, as per the old fusionist marriage, but just unfettered freedom. And the new fusionism is enough to make old conservatives’, especially traditionalists’, skin crawl. The issues that now divide the former marriage partners are core business, not peripheral. Not much of a basis for a broad church. It doesn’t take much thinking to conclude that the formation of the new fusionism led inevitably to the crack-up of the old.
(The other seismic shift, and the other side of the coin, has been the Old Left’s abandonment of the working class and of its perceived crass values. In the USA, this is lamented by the “blue dog Democrats”, and in the UK by the contrarian trade unionist and anti-globalist Paul Embery, author of Despised: Why the Modern Left Loathes the Working Class and a contributor to Compact).
Has any of this got any significance for post-election Australian politics? Does fusionism remind anyone of the much heralded, so-called “broad church” spoken of with nostalgic relish by John Howard and Tony Abbott, Liberal loyalists and stalwarts both. Well, Australia’s recent, dismal election has shone a bright light on the “broad church” of the Liberal Party.
In many ways, the broad church reflects the fusionism of WF Buckley Jr and of the Reaganite coalition. In other ways, and less favourably, it reflects the 1980s fusion of Hayek and Habermas, the great marriage of economic liberalism and social, laissez-fare post-modernism. After all, many small-l liberals always found the Howard-Abbott marriage of economic liberalism and social conservatism both fragile and, for them, unwelcome. The infusion of practising homosexuals into the Liberal Party has accelerated the overturning of the old alliances, but there is also a rampant strain of what is now termed (certainly, by its adherents) “modern Liberalism” that goes beyond devotion to same-sex marriage, and now includes support for abortion-on-demand, euthanasia, vigorous adherence to the Covid State and the trashing of freedoms and federalism that this has entailed, and at least soft acceptance of the “science” of climate change, or, at any rate, the keeping secret of one’s doubts about it. It has also been seemingly comfortable with fiscal incontinence, executive overreach, a politicised public service and the reduction of representative democracy to cargo-cultism and to the acceptance of the disbursement of electoral goodies as the new form of “representation”.
Most of these unwelcome developments are add-ons to the formerly functioning Liberal Party governance model with its then subdued range of internal views on the liberal-conservative divide that, with the dexterous leadership of a John Howard, survived and, for a goodly time, parked the inherent contradictions of the enterprise. Like the American fusionist model, the Australian Liberal Party’s own marriage of convenience is all but over. Notwithstanding the recent electoral carnage suffered by the Liberal “teals” at the expense of Simon Holmes a Court’s climate crusaders, which might be thought by some to suggest potential for a re-balancing of the partners of the old conservative-liberal marriage, the driving of true conservatives from the Liberty Party over time continues apace, as witnessed, not just by Finn’s benching in Melbourne but by the willing departures from Canberra of freedom fighters and truth-tellers like Craig Kelly and George Christensen, and by the sad ending of the political career of Nicolle Flint.
This hounding of conservatives from the Party and the reality of their crushing has been given cover by the apparent factional deals but revealed in the continued policy dominance of the “moderate” faction, most clearly in New South Wales, despite the recent elevation to the premiership of a conservative, Dominic Perrottet. For guidance on the trajectory of the NSW Liberal Party, simply follow any of Mark Latham’s posts and his running commentary on liberalism, Premier State style, on his various social media platforms. And reflect on the fact that Glady’s Berejiklian’s first Cabinet (in 2017), which may or may not have actually been chosen by her, had thirteen of the seventeen members from the so-called “Moderate” wing of the Party.
The death of the Liberal broad church replicates almost completely the great American conservative divorce. There is a new broad church now in Australia, across the major parties, in which the widely shared, extreme social liberalism of most is revealed most tellingly in the outcomes of so-called “conscience votes” – a very convenient strategy, indeed, on the part of the parties – and where the main players simply seek to out-do one another in green cred and in their acceptance of the hip, globalist agenda on biosecurity, digital passports, online “safety”, and digital currency. And where the commonly accepted enemy of all are the deplorables, the anti-vaxxers, the conspiracy theorists. The vote of the Australian House of Representatives to censure George Christensen for speaking truth to power about the Covid State — in a brief speech to parliament last August he called for an end to masks and lockdowns because they did not work — was possibly the most disgraceful example of parliamentary elitism and virtue-signalling sanctimony in memory. It was one of those markers of the new broad church, aka the Lib-Lab Duopoly or the Uniparty. The late Angelo Codevilla would simply have called it “the ruling class”. This is a church which, again, replicates precisely the North American philosophical debates about the passing of old fusions and the arrival of new ones. In both cases, it has been a tale of two fusions.
It is a pity that the intellectual right in Australia is so thin, so embedded in the Liberal Party and so parochial that we cannot have a discussion about marriages and divorces without it quickly deteriorating into an internecine stoush among second-rate politicians, and as being about the future of a second-rate party. Referencing the great conservative divorce in the United States might just be a good place to start some thoughtful Australian conversations, indeed a deep dive into some uncomfortable truths about our polity. This would necessarily involve a little more than Simon Birmingham’s fretting over the Coalition, and a little more than shoot-from-the-hip, self-regarding, ideologically inspired thought bubbles. Such an excursion would make a pleasant change from the usual rubbish we get served up as “reflection”.
31 May 2022