The Enduring Tension That Is Modern Conservatism

Original caption: Magazine editor William F. Buckley, Jr., editor of the  holds a copy of the magazine as he makes a statement on the steps of the U.S. Courthouse.  on the cover if the title of an article the magazine published, "The Wheels of Justice Stop for Adam Clayton Powell, Jr."  Buckley, who admitted sending copies of the article to grand jury members investigating Powell, is facing charges of using improper influence on the jury. (Copyright Bettmann/Corbis / AP Images)

The preeminent conservative intellectual forum called the Philadelphia Society devoted its recent meeting to exploring the roots of its philosophy, especially conservatism’s mid-20th century rebirth at National Review magazine under William F. Buckley, Jr. and Frank Meyer. Discussants could not ignore an important fact: that the modern conservative movement was born bearing a revealing quirk.

To free American conservatism of its image as a defense of the status quo, new labeling was essential. Meyer, who had come on as National Review‘s literary editor in 1956, ruminated upon a philosophical grounding for the movement. In 1962, editor Brent Bozell characterized what Meyer had come up with as “fusionist conservatism” and, despite that this was supposed to have been a criticism of the movement’s (and the magazine’s) apparent dualism, the “fusionist” tag somehow stuck.

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Fusionism and Federalism

I spent the weekend at an excellent conference on the work of Frank S. Meyer, a leading post-war thinker of the right.  His major effort has generally been called fusionism –an attempt to marry classical liberalism and traditional conservatism. But he himself did not claim the term “fusionism”: that was a label others affixed.  He saw himself as revealing the complementary nature of liberty and tradition rather than creating a new alloy out of disparate materials.   For Meyer, liberty was the end of politics, and that fact could be apprehended by reason. But because of the constraints of human knowledge, traditions were important as  a guide for the appropriate realization of liberty. And traditions help men choose virtue when political freedom appropriately gives them that choice.

Besides its importance in reconciling liberty with tradition analytically, fusionism had and continues to have important political implications.

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America’s Way Back


Friedrich Hayek once noted that “A successful free society will always in large measure be a tradition-bound society.” In pursuit of Hayek's wisdom, this podcast with Donald Devine, author of America's Way Back: Reclaiming Freedom, Tradition, and the Constitution focuses on his attempt to revive fusionism by harmonizing freedom and tradition in the manner once proposed by Frank Meyer. While conservatives and libertarians have long been fractured, Meyer attempted in a series of essays almost fifty years ago to find the principles that would unite them. He observed that individual freedom emerges from the religious and moral heritage of the West.…

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Constitutional Conservatism


This Liberty Law Talk is with Hoover Institution fellow Peter Berkowitz on his new book Constitutional Conservatism: Liberty, Self-Government, and Political Moderation. The book deepens Frank Meyer's conservative fusionist project by adding an Aristotelian and Burkean challenge to both libertarians and conservatives in America. Both groups must lead with political moderation, Berkowitz counsels. One example of such moderation was Ronald Reagan, Berkowitz observes, and this explains much of his success. But this sounds odd, surely Reagan stood for something. Berkowitz's understanding of moderation, however, is not that of the mealy-mouthed variety, but is found in the application of principles to the…

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Peter Viereck: Traditionalist Libertarian?

The Post-World War II American intellectual conservative movement was a philosophically jerrybuilt political alliance. Its ideas were greatly influenced by William F. Buckley’s National Review, which started in 1955. The magazine’s chief ideologue was senior editor Frank S. Meyer. He propagated a rather paradoxical notion of conservatism, which he summarized as the individualism of John Stuart Mill without its moral utilitarianism. To become conservative laissez-faire liberalism only needed to be leavened with what Meyer called “an objective moral order.” This ideological stance, called “fusionism,” was typical of National Review in that it fudged, or simply ignored, issues of far-reaching philosophical importance.

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