Gerald Russello’s ambitious essay “Can We Patch Up the Right?” comes at an opportune time when a divided conservative movement is debating, often fiercely, its future. Some conservatives go so far as to say it has none. The task of coming together has been made more urgent by the coronavirus crisis which is forcing all of us, traditionalist or libertarian, to set aside ideology and determine the best possible plan of action for the nation and its people, especially the role of our federal government. As the disease spreads and the fatalities mount, conservatives of every persuasion confront an indisputable truth: in this present crisis, government is not the problem, it is the solution, or at least a large part of it.
Russello begins by briefly and ably describing the present fractured state of the conservative intellectual movement. But he errs when he states that the movement’s purpose is “to explain why the elections are worth winning.” Wrong. The fundamental purpose of the movement is to create and sustain a conservative alternative to the prevailing liberal orthodoxy which spans all parts of our society—political, cultural, economic, educational. From its birth in the 1950s the movement has sought to push the liberal elites to the right and at the same time communicate conservative ideas to the broadest possible audience. William F. Buckley Jr., for example, aimed his arrows at the liberal elite through National Review but appealed to a more general audience with “Firing Line,” his syndicated newspaper column, and his public appearances. Buckley knew that that man does not live by politics alone.
The author goes on to argue, justifiably, that conservatives have become too occupied with arguments over how many paleocons or neocons or classical liberals can dance on the head of a pin and that their work “has become detached from the concerns of actual Americans.” It’s a fair point. But what then of the policy-making of the Big Three of conservative think tanks—Heritage, AEI, and Cato—that led President Trump to nominate conservative Supreme Court justices like Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh? Or events like the annual March for Life and organizations like Americans United for Life that have persuaded a majority of Americans to oppose late term abortions? What about youth groups like Young America’s Foundation, the Leadership Institute, Students for Liberty, and Turning Point who bring dynamic conservative speakers like Ben Shapiro and Charlie Kirk to liberal campuses and who train thousands of young people every year in the finer points of politics?
Russello charges that political elites including conservative ones have been “sleepwalking though the 21st century.” He quotes his own work to argue that the emergence of the Tea Party represented a different kind of “conservative renascence” because of the issues motivating them. But was the Tea Party all that different from Barry Goldwater’s forgotten American, Richard Nixon’s silent majority and Ronald Reagan’s moral majority? The Heritage Foundation shipped several million copies of its pocket edition of the Declaration and the Constitution to the Tea Party which was as interested in the First Principles of the Founding as the mounting national debt. It is true that Congress under both Republicans and Democrats have expanded the Entitlement State, but the Gallup and other polls continue to reveal that a large majority of Americans do not want more government. The conservative idea of limited government does not lack popular support but charismatic leaders committed to limiting the government.
It is true, as Russello points out, that the progressive left has won the culture war, at least for the present. But there are signs of a conservative resurgence as evidenced in the popularity of Ken Burns’ “Country Music” PBS series, the down-home winners of “American Idol” and other talent programs, the record-breaking audiences of Disney and other family films, the longevity of law and order TV shows like “NCIS” and “Blue Bloods." These prominent and popular cultural phenomena suggest that America is not actually in the late stages of a societal collapse resembling the final days of imperial Rome.
The author suggests that conservatives look back as a guide to the future, revisiting such early conservatives as Russell Kirk and John Lukacs. He also proposes that they study the thought of an emerging black conservatism, a group long ignored by the Right. Conservatives, he says, should “integrate the African American experience in its defense of communities.” He quotes with approval Kirk’s warnings about war and occupation and how they can lead to a dangerous militarism. He makes an important distinction between mindless nationalism and patriotism grounded in service and gratitude.
The Reagan coalition thrived, writes Russello, because it had a visible external enemy in the Soviet Union. The current conservative alignment has an adversary in progressivism whose proponents however are also Americans, making further division inevitable. What to do? The author wrote before we were invaded by an invisible enemy—the coronavirus—which may well prove to be the way to reconciliation on the Right.
The means to rejuvenate conservatism exists—fusionism. Starting in the 50s and continuing into the 90s, traditionalists, libertarians, and anti-communists came together and stayed together in the face of a clear and present danger, communism. Even radical libertarians accepted the need of a defense establishment to protect and extend freedom around the world. Historically, conservatives have regularly put aside their differences for the common good. Are today’s differences among conservatives so much greater than those of the founding fathers of the modern intellectual conservative movement? Is the coronavirus less of a threat than the Soviet Union?
A new fusionism dedicated to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness and resolutely opposed to socialism remains the best way to unite a divided conservative movement and help unite a divided America. The first fusionism led by Bill Buckley and implemented by President Reagan set America on the road to regaining its confidence and renewing its strength. A new fusionism can help us travel that road again. Gerald Russello says much the same thing when he concludes that “conservatives need to rediscover common ground as Americans.”
In other words, conservatives need not look any farther than their backyard for a common ground guarded by Russell Kirk, F. A. Hayek, Richard Weaver, Milton Friedman and a hundred other thinkers, waiting to be rediscovered and mobilized in service of a new fusionism.
This piece originally appeared in Law and Liberty