July 10, 2017
by Tevi Troy*
IT is increasingly obvious these days that many of the people who call themselves conservative can’t even agree on what the term means. Despite simultaneous Republican control of the White House and both houses of Congress, the conservative movement seems endlessly at odds.
Senator Mitch McConnell’s recent troubles with the Republican health care bill have presented a window into these continuing disagreements for the world at large to peek through. But health care is hardly the only issue on which the movement is divided: looming debates on tax reform, trade, foreign policy and immigration imperil conservative progress.
Conservatives speak wistfully of an era of conservative unity that brought about policy transformations, especially under President Ronald Reagan in the 1980s. Both the animating ideas and the corresponding policies were in harmony because Reagan believed in a conservative philosophy and used that philosophy to carry out actionable policy.
Crucially, this period was also characterized by a belief that there was a unifying strand to conservatism, and that the Republican Party was the political home for this movement. Even if conservatives disagreed on the details of a specific policy, they agreed on a general direction and on supporting political leaders who would get them there. As for the Republican Party, it was a vehicle for debating policy and ideology, serving as a party of ideas, in contrast to the Democrats’ warring coalition of needy interest groups.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R)
Conservative reveling in this bygone past is a phenomenon that predates the most recent presidential election. As Jonah Goldberg, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, told me: “G.O.P. primaries for the last few cycles have been like the nerdiest possible re-creation of the end of ‘Spartacus’: ‘I am Ronald Reagan.’ ‘No, I am Ronald Reagan.’ ”
The halcyon period of the 1980s did not develop out of nowhere. Reaching this degree of unity was hard, with the Reaganite consensus emerging over a lengthy period of debate dating back to conservatism’s modern revival in the 1950s.
Yale- Educated William F. Buckley Jr. of The National Review
Whenever conservatives talk about unity, the unifying figure in this regard is William F. Buckley Jr. Shortly after starting National Review in 1955, Mr. Buckley and his colleagues sought to join together the various elements of the respectable right. Mr. Buckley’s associate, Frank Meyer, an ex-Marxist of libertarian inclinations, found the key to uniting disparate elements under a common rubric. Mr. Meyer called for a defense of both Western civilization and personal freedom that came to be known as “fusionism.”
Fusionism was an explicit recognition of certain shared concerns — about the existential threat of Communism abroad and the growth of government at home. It managed to bring together both government-skeptical libertarians and religiously minded traditionalists by emphasizing the importance of the individual and Western civilization, as well as the Communist threat to both.
When it came to governing, though, fusionism provided somewhat less guidance. Think tanks like the Heritage Foundation and the Hoover Institution stepped in to fill the void, producing policy books called “Mandate for Leadership” and “The United States in the 1980s.” The Reagan administration then carried out their policy recommendations, or at least many of them. Mr. Buckley himself recognized but also gently mocked the importance of the Heritage Foundation’s work, saying, “Sixty percent of the suggestions enjoined on the new president were acted upon (which is why Mr. Reagan’s tenure was 60 percent successful).”
Within these policy manifestoes and Mr. Reagan’s rhetoric, certain overarching ideas emerged to guide politicians: aggressive prosecution of the Cold War against the Soviet Union, lower taxes and a tough stance on crime.
Today, with a larger conservative movement, it’s harder to find areas of agreement. The policies pursued under the fusionist umbrella now have less sway. The cold warriors’ tough stance on Russia is no longer unifying in a post-Soviet era, to say the least. A more contemporary, and more elusive, idea is the concept of a clash of civilizations that President Trump alluded to in his speech in Poland last week: “The fundamental question of our time is whether the West has the will to survive.”
Crime remains an issue, but less so than in the 1980s or the 1990s, in part because many urban politicians, including liberal ones, adopted conservative recommendations on how to combat crime, like the broken windows theory of policing. As for marginal tax rates, conservative policies reduced them, and took so many people off the income tax rolls that 44 percent of Americans pay no federal income taxes. The hidden lesson here is that conservative policy successes had the effect of making core conservative ideas less politically resonant among voters and thus making them ineffective for unity as well.
At a surface level, some issues do appear to unite current conservatives: disdain for anti-conservative and anti-Republican bias in the mainstream media; support for conservative judges like Neil Gorsuch, who joined the Supreme Court in April; and support for Israel. But these issues themselves are insufficient, as well as more limiting.
As Lanhee Chen, a Research Fellow at Hoover, told me, “those three things alone don’t make a governing agenda.” When I asked Sally Satel, a resident scholar at A.E.I., about whether these areas of agreement could form the basis of a real consensus, she said sarcastically, “Talk about a big tent. …”
Another problem is that these issues unify mainly in opposition to forces conservatives dislike: liberal journalists, judicial activists and Israel bashers. Vin Weber, a former Republican Representative, summed it up this way: “We sort of know who we are against.” Mr. Weber believes that conservatives “need to refocus on why we have a G.O.P.”
In the great sorting that is to come, some conservatives who divided over this most recent election will find themselves permanently ensconced in different camps. But there is still hope for a semblance of unity if conservatives build out from the admittedly narrow list of areas of common agreement in the development of a new conservative agenda. If this difficult yet important work of creating a new conservative agenda at all three levels — philosophy, policy and politics — does not happen, then the conservative movement will lose much of its ability to shape the Republican Party going forward.
Getting this recalibration right is not a short-term commitment. The period from the creation of National Review to the election of Ronald Reagan was 25 years. This upcoming period of conservative re-examination will take some time — although hopefully not as much — as well.
To complicate matters, intense disagreement about the sitting president could make it harder to accomplish this work during Mr. Trump’s tenure. As Jonah Goldberg put it to me, “Trump is like a magnet next to a compass,” making it harder for conservatives to find true north as they argue over whether it is the duty of conservatives to support him or the duty of conservatives to oppose him. These arguments divert attention from the question of what a 21st century conservative policy agenda should be, and they are likely do so for the rest of his presidency.
At the same time, some conservatives think Mr. Trump has performed a necessary service in highlighting the existing fault lines. Seth Leibsohn, a pro-Trump radio host who wrote the new book “American Greatness: How Conservatism Inc. Missed the 2016 Election and What the D.C. Establishment Needs to Learn” with his co-host, Chris Buskirk, told me that “it’s even healthier to have these debates as we win elections — for that we owe a lot to the Trump candidacy, presidency and movement.”
Regardless of where one stands on Mr. Trump, conservatives need to identify a new, modern fusionism, with both a unifying concept as well as a corresponding set of shared policy ideas tailored to our current era. This is not the work of politicians, be they Reagans or Trumps. It is the work of conservative thinkers at magazines and think tanks, who need to debate, argue and ultimately agree or disagree on whether it is possible once again to develop a conservative vision for the future and what that vision might look like.