Looking Back: A Libertarian Goes to CPAC

On the afternoon of February 9th, 2012, the first day of the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), I attended a panel discussion on the topic of “Is Fusionist Conservatism Still Possible?”  I didn’t have any particular personal interest in the topic (especially since I had no idea what “Fusionist Conservatism” was), but one of my long-time friends wanted to go and dragged me along.  The panel was being moderated by Dr. Donald Devine, Second Vice Chairman of The American Conservative Union.  Speaking at it were Dr. George Nash, Historian and Author, Becky Norton Dunlop, Vice President of External Relations at the Heritage Foundation, and Christopher Long, President and Chief Executive Officer of the Intercollegiate Studies Institute.  It turned out to be a very interesting presentation, one that led me to seriously consider and evaluate my position as a libertarian in the conservative movement.

Dr. Nash’s presentation focused on the history of conservatism and origins of fusionism conservatism.  Apparently, in the years following World War II, three different groups “fused” together (hence the name) to create what we call the American conservative movement.  Those three groups were first, the libertarians or classical liberals; second, the new conservatives and traditionalists; and finally, the militant anti-communists.  These groups disagreed on what the “highest good” of a society is, with libertarians coming down on the side of individual liberty, while traditionalists believed the highest good is decent behavior/ordered freedom.  Dr. Nash referred to this as the “freedom versus virtue debate” in his presentation.  A middle path between the two competing visions is found in fusionism conservatism, in which government is designed and meant to protect individual liberty, while individuals in society should choose to use that liberty to pursue virtue.  Communism was an enemy to both faith and freedom, so the anti-communists were incorporated into the fusionism conservatism movement.

The problem today, according to Dr. Nash, is that since the end of the Cold War in the 1990s, the common enemy of communism that these groups could focus their attention on was removed, leading to more sectarian arguments and rivalries amongst the three groups (along with the neocons and social conservatives who joined the coalition along the way).  Still, in answer to the panel’s titular question, “is fusionist conservatism still possible?” Dr. Nash answers that yes, it is, if we make it so.   Doing so, however, would require intentional behavior on our part to continue the coalition.

The other panelists came at the question in different ways.  Dr. Devine disagreed that anti-communism was the glue of the movement, instead pointing to the beliefs of major conservative leaders as the glue holding the community together.  Of course, since all of the past leaders he named are dead now, it was unclear to me what he sees for the movement’s future.  Becky Dunlop’s presentation emphasized that many people think like fusionist conservatives and don’t realize it.  That’s probably true, but if people don’t realize it, how can they act on it?  Christopher Long, who by then was running out of time to present, talked about the importance of the Sharon Statement, which was written in 1960 and is considered “the first statement of principles of the modern conservative movement” by the American Conservative Union.  In the end, the question of whether fusionist conservatism is still possible seemed completely unresolved to me, although I at least had some understanding of what the movement was, and why the question was important.

This panel discussion and its question stuck with me for the rest of the conference.  It made me more aware of how my own beliefs fit (or don’t fit, as the case may be) into the larger political movement of conservatism.  I also examined more closely the types of organizations present at the conference as exhibitors, those exhibitors that were left out or that choose not to attend, and the topics of speeches and panels.  There was minimal libertarian presence at the conference (especially, or so I’m told, in comparison to previous years’ conferences).  Some libertarian issues that have been (or are in the process of being) adopted by the conservative movement as a whole, such as debt reduction or overturning ObamaCare, were discussed on panels and referenced frequently in speeches.  Other important, perhaps essential, libertarian issues such as repealing the indefinite detention provisions of the NDAA or ending the Patriot Act, were completely absent from the conference. 

The official theme of CPAC was “We Still Hold These Truths…,” a reference to the United States Declaration of Independence.  In reality, the overwhelming theme of the conference seemed to be that Republicans must beat Obama in the upcoming election at all costs.  This theme was evident in many places.  Part of Senator Marco Rubio’s speech, for example, dealt with how President Obama “can’t run on his record” because “everything had gotten worse” under his presidency.  His speech was far from being the only one to include a direct attack on President Obama’s record.  There was a panel on “The Security and Economic Costs of Obama’s Policies,” one on “Why Obamacare Must Be Repealed,” and a session on “How the Obama Administration’s Policies Are Detrimental to Young People.”  Everywhere you looked, the message was about defeating Obama.

The problem with many of these speeches and panels attacking President Obama was not so much the content or the bombast and pomposity, but rather that many of them seemed to ignore the checks and balances we have in place in this country.  Yes, the President does have a lot of unilateral power, much more than the Founding Fathers intended, but some of these speeches and panels seemed to place all the blame for bad laws squarely at Obama’s feet, ignoring the involvement of Democratic AND Republican lawmakers.  The President can’t sign laws until they’ve first been approved by Congress.

My ultimate point is this: as libertarians, we have been, historically, part of the larger conservative movement, even if we don’t always feel very welcome there today.  More recently, we have seen significant gains in getting issues we care about – like auditing the Federal Reserve and lowering the national debt – attention from and even adoption by other branches of the conservative movement.  There is still, however, a long way to go: ending the Patriot Act, ending (and avoiding future) unconstitutional wars, pushing back against government encroachment on the internet, and many others.    In the end, it is possible that fusionist conservatism may survive our current disagreements, although I’m somewhat doubtful.  If it does, however, I think it behooves us to see that it survives infused with a healthy, vibrant strand of libertarian thought and principles.  We need to actively work to make that happen.

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