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Five Lessons for Conservatism and Two Voices for Fusionism

At this year’s Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), crowds packed out the main auditorium to hear Presidential hopeful Rick Santorum. Unfortunately, this caused most people to miss one of the most interesting panels of the conference that was happening at the same time. The panel, “God & Man at CPAC: What Can We Learn From the Enduring Legacy of William F. Buckley” featured Lee Edwards of The Heritage Foundation, Alvin Felzenberg, a presidential historian, and Buckley’s own successor, Rich Lowry, editor of National Review. While somewhat of a controversial figure, William Buckley was known for creating the modern conservative movement throughout his career in the latter half of the 20th century. For over 30 years he hosted the television show “Firing Line,” he wrote over 4,000 nationally syndicated newspaper columns, and he authored over 50 books, his most famous of which was certainly his first, “God and Man at Yale.” Buckley’s work was so influential, columnist George Will commemorated him saying, “before there was Ronald Reagan there was Barry Goldwater, and before there was Barry Goldwater there was National Review, and before there was National Review there was Bill Buckley with a spark in his mind.” Alvin Felzenberg laid out five lessons from Buckley’s career from which those in the current conservative movement could continue to learn.
  1. The advancement of conservative ideas has to be viewed as an investment. With his personal wealth, Buckley could have been a playboy, instead “he chose to be the St. Paul of conservatives.”
  2. There will always exist experts who will tell you that you don’t have the money, the support, or a chance. Don’t listen to them. If you are in the right, the money will come, the support will come, and you will make your own chances.
  3. A movement cannot entertain the “kooks.” Buckley never acknowledged the more divisive members of the greater conservative movement such as the anti-semites.
  4. Make sure to balance practicality with ideology. This is especially important with candidates; they have to able to win. Even the little victories are victories.
  5. Practice fusionism. Building a movement means practicing addition, not subtraction.
Now, you may be asking, what exactly do we mean by fusionism? In this context, fusionism is the merging of the conservative and libertarian movements into a single free-market force. To most people on the right, this seems like common sense. Some people may even be asking, “Wait, aren’t they already the same movement?” In fact, this very question was the topic of a debate hosted by the American Enterprise Institute and America’s Future Foundation between Jonah Goldberg, fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and editor-at-large of National Review Online, and Matt Welch, editor-in-chief of Reason Magazine. This was also a hotly debated issue amongst those at CPAC. In a recent interview with yours truly, Goldberg defined the real schism between liberals and conservatives.
The big grand argument between conservatives and liberals broadly defined, is the argument between those who believe we are standing on the shoulders of giants, and those who believe we are not. Conservatives believe we are standing on the shoulders of giants, and that the market of trial and error of civilization worked out a lot of crap that people who suffer from the arrogance of now fail to appreciate.
This is a distinction that is important to the conversation about fusionism. Goldberg considers free-market philosophers such as Hayek, Haslitt and Mises to be on the side of those who believe we are standing on the shoulders of giants, not to mention being some of the giants on whose shoulders we stand. Part of the problem with communicating to libertarians that they should want to be on the side of the schism with conservatives, is the lack of recognition of this big-picture perspective.
That doesn’t mean there aren’t vestigial bits of dogma that have outlived their utility, but like Chesterton’s fence, the only way to know if they have outlived their utility is to think deeply and contemplatively about why that fence is there in the first place. You can’t just say, ‘I don’t understand why that fence is there, let’s smash it down.’ Those are lessons worth reminding young conservatives of, particularly those of the more libertarian bent who do suffer from a ‘we can start everything new because I have an iPod’ mentality.”
The fence, in Goldberg’s argument, separates liberals from conservatives and libertarians. In the opinions of Buckley and Goldberg, a long-view conservative strategy requires a reconciliation between libertarians and conservatives. While there may be disagreements between the two, the survival of the free market is at stake. The war for liberty may be lost while libertarians and conservatives battle over degrees of freedom. Back at the panel “God & Man at CPAC,” Alvin Felzenberg admonished that fusionism is important for the survival of the conservative tradition, “our job is to be a guardian of it, this is a tradition worth fighting for.”