Understanding the upheavals of American conservatism requires the study of its history—in particular, the fortunes of Frank Meyer, inventor of the Cold War synthesis that reigned for decades as conservative orthodoxy and has only recently met with serious challenge.
Like many other figures on the Cold War right, Meyer had a communist background. He had studied at the London School of Economics, but was expelled and deported from the United Kingdom in 1933 for subversive activities, including publishing the Marxist newspaper Student Vanguard.
He was still a communist in 1940. That year, in an essay for the theoretical journal of the Communist Party USA, he saluted the “brilliant power of Marxism in the hands of so great a master as Stalin.” During World War II and its aftermath, however, Meyer had second thoughts. Many communists turned away from their beliefs in light of the horrors of the Soviet Union; Meyer’s conversion was bookish by comparison. His reading of Friedrich Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom and Richard Weaver’s Ideas Have Consequences led him to reject Marxism and the Communist party in favor of limited government and individualism. Veering to the right, he contributed first to the libertarian magazine The Freeman and then to the young National Review, and he soon made a name for himself as a defender of liberal conservatism against the traditionalist ideas of Russell Kirk. He argued that the fundamental political division facing the U.S. was between, on the one hand, “collectivism and statism which merge gradually into totalitarianism,” and on the other hand, “individualism: the principles of the primacy of the individual, the division of power, the limitation of government, the freedom of the economy.” His analysis reflected the Hayekian fear that once the state begins to grow, it swells inexorably into a totalitarian force. The threat of the Soviet Union around 1950 seemed to confirm this analysis all too well.
In 1961, Meyer wrote The Moulding of Communists, which explained the means by which communists recruited and indoctrinated members. Drawing on his own experience, he described how young Americans were signed up and put to work by the Communist party. Whittaker Chambers’s Witness was a moving meditation on the author’s time as a communist. By comparison, Meyer’s book was as cold and impersonal as a medical text that details the treatment of a dangerous infection. Meyer detested his former beliefs. But as the libertarian Murray Rothbard observed in a perceptive review, this detestation clouded Meyer’s judgment. He viewed communism as uniquely diabolical and showed no understanding of the fact that inflexible dogmatism can seep into other systems. In doing so, Meyer revealed that though he had abandoned communism, he had not moved beyond his ideological cast of mind.
His 1962 book In Defense of Freedom further developed his individualist ideas. It laid the foundations of the settlement for which Meyer is best known: “fusionism.” The conservative contributors to National Review had fierce disagreements over concepts of freedom and virtue, with libertarians on one side and traditionalists on the other. Meyer’s fusionism appeared to bridge the gap by advocating a political commitment to libertarianism and a moral commitment to traditional values. One should preach virtue, in other words, but not prohibit sin.
This would have been an interesting synthesis even had it been born of pure pragmatism, but Meyer was more idealistic than that. Virtue, for him, depended on the individual’s having a free choice between good and bad deeds. “Freedom can exist,” he wrote, “at no lesser price than the danger of damnation.” Freedom was “the essence of man’s being,” and so man “must be free to choose his worst as well as his best end.” Otherwise, he is not virtuous, but slavish.
From their platform in National Review, Meyer and fusionism came to set the agenda for conservatism in the United States. “Anti-Communism,” as Daniel McCarthy has written, “was the [conservative] coalition’s glue,” and freedom was a potent value for the West to wield against the grim dictators of the communist states. And Meyer seemed to be vindicated by history. In the 1980s, as the Soviet Union slumped and liberal economics thrived, Ronald Reagan saluted Meyer as a “great thinker” who had helped to guide the movement that swept him to power.
Amid the triumphalism, astute Americans might have observed how much Meyer’s early critics had been vindicated. L. Brent Bozell Jr. of National Review was troubled early on by the hard individualism of his colleague and friend. In his 1962 essay “Freedom or Virtue?” he argued that these two concepts could not be aligned as easily as Meyer maintained. If Americans ought to maximize their virtue by maximizing their freedom, then societal as well as legal restraints should be abandoned. “Social disapproval,” after all, “can be as persuasive a deterrent against scribbling on walls as the threat of a legal fine.”
We will want to make our own divorce laws even laxer. We will also want to launch a public education campaign (privately endowed of course) aimed at breaking down residual social prejudices; and perhaps, to help overcome the mechanical difficulties, a special fund could be set aside for periodic newspaper notices advising dissatisfied spouses of the most convenient cut-rate agency or mail order house.
Bozell framed this scenario as a reductio ad absurdum, but in hindsight it looks prophetic. In the decades following Bozell’s essay, no-fault divorce was legalized, Roe v. Wade was instituted, obscenity laws were weakened, and the United States experienced unprecedented levels of divorce, single parenthood, abortion, and pornography consumption. Meyer wrote of “fibers of tradition and civilization” that were “carried in the minds of men from generation to generation,” but it is clear that to expect traditional values to survive the abolition of legal and social restraints is to exaggerate the strength of a people’s moral fabric.
Other contemporary critics of Meyer predicted that a political commitment to hard individualism would enable not just cultural decline but social atomization. “Meyer’s society is not actually a society,” Stanley Parry wrote in Modern Age. “It is a collectivity, i.e., a multitude of . . . free autonomous individuals.” Meyer’s individualism was the wrong strategy for the 1960s, a decade of social fragmentation in which families were separating, civic engagement was declining, and communities were withering as old industries began to die. In Defense of Freedom blamed the “social boredom” that traditional conservatives diagnosed in Western culture on an “excess of state-enforced community.” But later analysis by Christopher Lasch, Robert Putnam, and others of the effects of commodification, technology, and diversity on Western life suggests that Parry was right.
Fusionism became the organizing principle of American conservatives because it united the American right around free-market principles and against communism. With the end of the Cold War, the communist threat receded and fusionism faced opponents in nationalists such as Pat Buchanan. His challenge to the establishment went nowhere, however, as a thriving economy allowed social and economic liberals such as Bob Dole and George W. Bush to sustain fusionism, and 9/11 kept American conservatives united against a common foe.
Failure in Iraq and the financial crisis of 2008 made the old freedom arguments less persuasive. No major external threat held the coalition together, and an unstable economy made the fusionist emphasis on market deregulation less compelling. Republican voters elected the reactionary, protectionist Trump, raising the question: Whither conservatism?
Against the Dead Consensus,” a manifesto for a new conservatism, published by First Things and signed by Sohrab Ahmari, Patrick Deneen, and Rod Dreher, among others, offers direction. Cold War conservatism, the statement maintains, “often tracked the same lodestar liberalism did—namely, individual autonomy,” and thus surrendered to cultural progressivism and unmoored capitalism. “Against the Dead Consensus” argues for a more socially conservative, communitarian right that would distinguish itself from what Dreher calls “Zombie Reaganism”—which is to say, fusionism.
One critic of the manifesto, Noah Rothman of Commentary magazine, wrote:
It is not my job to tell you how to realize your maximum potential and happiness, so long as those aspirations do not infringe on the rights and aspirations of another.Beyond those infringements, the public has no role and assuming it does is hubris. Down that road lies tyranny.
This is the liberalism of John Stuart Mill refracted through the conservatism of Frank Meyer, in a compromise that made sense in 1960 but is unworkable today. A state that encourages marriage, for example, and insists that husbands and wives must have good reasons to seek divorce, need not be an austere, totalitarian one. This is, in fact, how the United States governed such matters through the 1950s. And in the hyper-commodified twenty-first century, a state that fails to encourage marriage is misgoverning.
Representing the establishment view, Rothman has argued that conservatives “undervalue” the accomplishments of fusionism, which include:
The creation of a series of global frameworks that prohibit protectionist industrial and trade policies, the revitalization of First and Second Amendment freedoms, the scaling back of organized labor’s privileges, and the reformation of the nation’s welfare programs with the aim of inculcating in beneficiaries a work ethic.
But these advances in economic liberalization must be assessed against a background of rising rates of suicide and death by opioid abuse, and declining rates of birth and family formation. Conservatives know that no society can be perfect. But there is something to be said for viewing a nation’s wealth as a means to an end—that of its citizens’ flourishing—and not as an end in itself.
Murray Rothbard was right: Meyer was an ideologue, after his conversion as before. His account of fusionism, though it purports to be universal, made only superficial sense. In truth, virtue is necessary for freedom, not freedom for virtue. In the twenty-first-century West, we are afflicted with a mediocre libertinism, which is as unstable as it is unsatisfactory. We need a new conservative fusion, one that prioritizes social connection instead of atomization.
Ben Sixsmith is a writer in Poland.