Published February 15, 2022
Hubris invites nemesis, which explains a lot about fights within the conservative movement. Or as National Review’s Michael Brendan Dougherty recently put it, “Intra-conservative discourse is mostly just spiking the football before you’ve reached midfield.”
A little success often swells heads, and this arrogance sabotages future efforts. Unfortunately, the so-called New Right—led by writers and public intellectuals such as Sohrab Ahmari and Patrick Deneen, and consisting of a loose confederation of post-liberals, national conservatives, and others—is at risk of this.
The New Right has energy, ideas (many of them good) and momentum, but its practical political influence is still minor. It will be handicapped if its boosters indulge in hubris and ingratitude. Unfortunately, some of them are.
For example, Josh Hammer of Newsweek recently rhetorically asked, “What exactly can modern Fusionism claim to have successfully conserved?” This disdain for his conservative forebearers may be cathartic for Hammer, but it is not persuasive. The fusionist coalition—the alliance between social conservatives, free marketers, and cold warriors—had its failures, but it also conserved quite a lot.
The Soviet Union is on the ash heap of history, which is kind of a big deal. The collapse of the Iron Curtain also restored national sovereignty to many peoples, including the Poles and the Hungarians, whose governments are much admired by the New Right.
Domestically, Second Amendment rights are far more robust and secure. Perhaps relatedly, crime rates dropped for several decades, with major cities becoming livable again. Taxes were lowered and welfare was reformed. The Equal Rights Amendment is dead.
Even in areas where conservatives now feel besieged, there have been successes. Religious freedom advocates have won substantial victories in court, including the Zelman decision and the unanimous decision in Hosanna-Tabor. The Religious Freedom Restoration Act (passed in response to the Smith decision, which was the late Justice Antonin Scalia’s greatest mistake) is still the law, though it is under sustained assault from the left.
On marriage, the fusionist coalition won a great many victories through the democratic process, from the Bill Clinton-era Defense of Marriage Act to California’s Prop 8 in 2008. It was the federal courts, and ultimately Justice Anthony Kennedy, that redefined marriage, not the people.
As this shows, the judiciary has been a persistent problem for conservatives, but it is not obvious the results would have been different if, instead of originalism, the conservative legal establishment had been pushing Hammer’s “common good originalism” or Adrian Vermeule’s “common good constitutionalism.” If Roe v. Wade is overturned this summer in Dobbs, it will be due to Federalist Society originalist judges and decades of work by pro-lifers largely working within the fusionist framework.
So yes, fusionism conserved a lot. Nor are its defeats necessarily discrediting, for being right does not guarantee victory.
Nonetheless, there are now good reasons to rethink the fusionist coalition, as old alliances and positions may no longer make sense with the Cold War long over and Big Business and Wall Street going woke. This does not mean that fusionism was nothing but folly and failure.
There are also, of course, just and reasonable criticisms of how the conservative establishment, let alone the GOP, has acted over the years. In many cases they have prioritized donor interests and issues over those of voters.
The calcification colorfully described as Zombie Reaganism had grown worse as GOP candidates and establishment conservatives failed to adapt to new challenges. This created a political opening for Donald Trump, and an intellectual opportunity for the New Right and others to rethink conservatism in beneficial ways.
But that chance could easily be squandered through arrogance, insolence, and ingratitude. After all, other factions on the right have fallen from greater heights of influence than the New Right has yet scaled.
For example, when the neoconservatives were riding high, they tried to smear those on the right with less enthusiasm for foreign intervention as “unpatriotic conservatives” who “have finished by hating their country.” Today, although their influence lingers in the GOP, many of the leading neocons, including the one who wrote those words, are Democratic shills despised by the Republican voters they once led.
This example also illustrates how events often do as much as ideas to elevate, or exile, a faction. The 9/11 attacks gave the neoconservatives an opportunity to lead, and the 2008 financial crisis, as much as the drag of the Iraq War, ensured the end of their time in office.
Events often overtake ideas, for good or ill. Samuel Goldman argues this could pose trouble for the New Right. He writes that, “as the pandemic has continued, opposition to restrictions on personal conduct, suspicion of expert authority, and free speech for controversial opinions have become dominant themes in center-right argument and activism.”
This is an obvious challenge to managerial left-liberalism, but Goldman suggests it also poses a problem for the New Right, which is overtly hostile to libertarian ideas and often favorable toward government intervention. This analysis is too simple.
It is not just that American folk libertarian attitudes are not interchangeable with libertarian ideology, but also that many of the New Right’s leaders have joined the resistance to continued heavy-handed pandemic management. For instance, although Vermeule has endorsed vaccine mandates, writers such as Hammer and Ahmari have been very critical of them, and they are unlikely to be overtaken and undone by a pandemic-inspired libertarian moment.
But Goldman does direct us toward a genuine difficulty that the New Right must address, which is how it can justify being given power. Promising effective big government conservatism is logically compatible with critiquing big government liberalism. But why should the rest of us trust the advocates for big government conservatism, such as Vermeule’s plans to, instead of trimming the administrative state, use it to advance conservative, or at least Catholic, ends?
There are obvious difficulties, such as how the would-be managers of the New Right would staff the permanent bureaucracy when it and the institutions that train and accredit people to work in it are overwhelmingly held by the left. And there are the persistent problems caused by human fallenness, fallibility, and finitude.
These should not paralyze us from action, but, with a humble awareness of our limitations, they should give us pause. “The road to hell is paved with good intentions” is a well-worn proverb for good reason.
It is not only libertarian ideology that can make people skeptical of expansive government power; experience and humility can have the same effect. Unfortunately, some of the leading figures of the New Right seems to have gotten cocky after a taste of success, and they retain an appetite for petty Twitter feuds.
They should instead remember the virtue of humility, both personally and ideologically. A conservative who disrespects everyone who came before him is doing it wrong.
Nathanael Blake is a senior contributor to The Federalist and a postdoctoral fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.
Nathanael Blake, Ph.D. is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. His primary research interests are American political theory, Christian political thought, and the intersection of natural law and philosophical hermeneutics. His published scholarship has included work on Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Hans-Georg Gadamer, Alasdair MacIntyre, Russell Kirk and J.R.R. Tolkien. He is currently working on a study of Kierkegaard and labor. As a cultural observer and commentator, he is also fascinated at how our secularizing culture develops substitutes for the loss of religious symbols, meaning and order.