The dynamics of American conservatism are fascinating. As those who have read some of the key accounts (my recommendation remains George Nash’s The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America) remember the efforts of Frank Meyer to promote fusionism in the early 1960s, an effort that was reinforced by the existential threat posed by the USSR. One might argue (following Nash and others) that Reagan was a great fusionist figure who could appeal to various factions. Social conservatives loved his emphasis on traditional values. Neocons embraced his defense policy and rejection of détente. Libertarians were attracted by the promise of reducing the role of government, revivifying markets, and controlling regulatory sprawl. Even if we question (as I do) his long-term legacy, I remain impressed by Reagan’s capacity to be like St. Paul, all things to all men.
With Reagan’s passing from the scene and the collapse of the Soviet Union, the conservative movement seemed to enter an extended period in the wilderness. The War on Terror could never serve the same role as Cold War. While George W. Bush appealed to the neocons and (at least initially) to social conservatives, his breathless expansion of entitlements and the constraints placed on civil liberties via the War on Terror proved repellant to libertarians while Iraq and nation-building alienated paleocons.
There appears to be growing disunity among the factions that were once united, however temporarily, under the banner of fusionism. Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.) is doing his best to mobilize social conservatives with his efforts to defund Planned Parenthood, much to the disquiet of fiscal conservatives who would rather not muddy the waters (and the 2012) elections with hot-button social issues. And while some high profile libertarians have received a good deal of attention on entitlements and defense spending cuts, there is little evidence that the GOP took them seriously enough to incorporate their ideas into the so-called Pledge to America.
A few months back, Grover Cleveland had some thought provoking posts of fusionism. Perhaps it is time to return to those debates and consider whether fusionism has a future. Is it possible in a world without a unifying figure like Reagan or an existential threat comparable to the Soviet Unions?