Fusionism Gone Cold?

Here’s a piece from the Washington Times covering last week’s America’s Future Foundation–sponsored debate between Reason’s Nick Gillespie and National Review’s Jonah Goldberg. The debate’s topic was the state of the libertarian/conservative alliance (Or, as the ad copy put it, libertarians and conservatives: “are we best friends forever?”). I missed the debate, but in my view, the answer is emphatically ”no.” 

The American Prospect’s Matt Yglesias provided one of the best short explanations for why the answer is ”no” on his blog a while back. As a guy on the center-left, Yglesias stands well outside the conservative-libertarian alliance and thus may be in a better position than the rest of us to see what’s going on. 

Matt points out that the Right is made up of two kinds of people, those who are ”motivated primarily by a distrust of the state” and those who ”are motivated more by a distrust of leftwingers.” This is not quite the same as saying “the libertarian-conservative alliance is made up of libertarians and conservatives,” since there are conservatives who are consistent opponents of statism and self-identified libertarians whose main focus is opposing the Left. 

From the New Deal to the 1990s, political conditions in America favored an anti-left/anti-state alliance, since the Left, for the most part, controlled the state:

Liberals gave birth to the vast majority of the federal apparatus, and the government was usually controlled by — and always populated by — leftwingers. If you were concerned about the state, you had to be concerned about the left, because the state was full of leftwingers. If you were concerned about the left, you had to be concerned about the state, because the state was the most important institution the left controlled.

By the turn of the 21st century, with the increasing political success of the Republican Party, that was no longer really the case, and you began to see hints of a fusionist crack-up. You may have gotten a sense of this in the last few years if, like me, you’ve found yourself in conversations with conservative friends who seem far more exercised by George Clooney’s latest antics than they are about, say, galloping socialism in the health care sector, or the president’s war on federalism, or — or, you know, his war. 

But from an anti-left perspective, giving the GOP a pass (after a few requisite grumbles about Bridges to Nowhere) makes perfect sense. As Matt notes, the Left’s influence today

stems primarily from Turtle Bay, Hollywood, academia, Brussles, or elsewhere. The important thing [for mainstream conservatives] is hounding the leftwingers out of their spider-holes, or destroying the credibility of the institutions where they still have some influence. Curbing the long arm of the state would be nice, but the most important thing, state-wise, is to maintain the right’s control over it….

In some ways, it was “ever thus,” which helps explain past tensions — and fractures — over foreign policy and civil liberties issues:  

Most rightwingers were never very interested in applying the same standard of suspicion to the military and the police that they displayed with regard to “bureaucrats” or public school teachers. Not coincidentally, the security establishment was the exception, even during the high tide of New Deal/Great Society liberalism, to the general rule that the state was run by and for leftwingers. With conservatives running the show everywhere, that same sort of attitude is [now] extended by most of the right’s constituents to the whole project.

If Matt’s right, then the conditions that made fusionism viable have eroded significantly. Libertarians motivated by a healthy distrust of state power (if that’s not redundant) will find no permanent home on the Right. That’s not to say that the answer lies with the as-yet-mythical “Libertarian Democrats.” Classical liberals and modern liberals may have more to cooperate on in the coming years, but it’s unlikely that there will ever be enough common ground to make us permanent allies.   

But habits of the mind developed during the long conservative-libertarian alliance may cloud libertarian thinking about how much common ground there is to our right. That a conservative stands with you on free trade or tax cuts — that he shares your enthusiasm for Kennedy jokes and your rage over McCain-Feingold — none of that means he’s a reliable, principled opponent of overweening state power. Or that he doesn’t support policies far worse than a minimum wage hike. Many of the greatest threats to liberty today come from the Right, whether it’s the “pre-1776” view of absolute executive power or the apocalyptic urge to turn a limited, containable conflict into World War III.  

Friends? Yes. On some issues, good friends. But “best friends forever?” Not a chance.