A Family-focused Fusionism

John Shelton

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In recent years, fusionist politics has become a whipping boy for many parts of the intellectual right. Gladden Pappin once characterized it as "a hodgepodge ideology" and "rote cultural conservatism overridden by libertarian economics." Rod Dreher and others have derided it as "zombie Reaganism." Perhaps most prominently, in March 2019, First Things declared fusionism a "dead consensus."

Yet the aftermath of a recent National Conservatism conference indicated that this post-mortem was premature. Fusionism is not dead — it just needs to be reformed for the 21st century.

A revitalized fusionism would restore family policy to the forefront of its agenda. To pull this off, today's fusionists will need to apply tools from the Reagan era to ensure that agencies consider adverse effects on family formation when crafting new rules. Such an approach would appeal to social conservatives, satisfy small-government libertarians who want to stem the tide of agency rulemaking, and prove alluring to Catholic integralists, their Protestant cousins, and other post-liberals who want to redeem the administrative state.


Political parties exist to win elections. And under the conditions of hyper-pluralism that exist in the United States, parties can only hope to achieve electoral victory by advancing a vision of the common good that is capacious enough to bring together a broad coalition spanning diverse constituencies without fracture.

The conservative fusionism that dominated the Republican Party after 1980 was and remains a successful example of this principle. While there have been more definitive triumphs of party politics in American history — e.g., the Democratic-Republican Party's quarter-century stranglehold on the presidency during the early years of the republic and the New Dealers' two decades of rule in the 20th century — winning three presidential terms in a row is nevertheless a sign that something had gone right. Conversely, single-term presidencies are, in a healthy party, an opportunity for reflection and self-examination.

Fusionism boils down to the belief that libertarian individualism and virtue-oriented traditionalism are not inimical, but complementary values. Birthed from the mind of National Review's Frank Meyer in the 1950s, fusionism mobilized the Reagan revolution at the 1976 GOP convention and fueled its next 12 years in power (which might have been 16 if not for voters' reading George H. W. Bush's "lying lips" on taxes).

While academic observers and critics delight in teasing apart the tensions carefully counterpoised in movement conservatism, when understood historically as a reaction against the evils of communism, fusionism's concerns for limited government, religious freedom, free markets, and a bold stance against foreign aggression are quite coherent. With global communism providing a consistent enemy to both economic freedom and traditional values, the third leg of Reagan's three-legged stool — a hawkish, anti-communist foreign policy — was a natural outgrowth of the first two.

In his 2022 book The Right, Matthew Continetti argued that fusionist conservatism and Reagan's rise were "contingent, unplanned, and unpredictable." That may be true. But even if other varieties of fusionism were possible — Continetti highlighted Richard Weaver's synthesis of libertarianism and traditionalism through the critique of arbitrary power as one prospect — some sort of coalition-enabling consensus would have needed to emerge to ensure that a party of the right was nationally competitive.

Holding together a coalition made up of thinkers and writers who "disagree more than they agree," who constantly "look for deviation and betrayal," and who "sometimes form a circular firing squad," as Continetti characterized the conservative movement, requires a unifying force. For three decades and two Bushes, fusionism successfully staved off the worst of the infighting. But eventually, the firing squad grew impatient to do its deadly work.


Many believe that 2016 was a realignment election, though the shape of the realignment is highly contested — as is its very existence. In these pages, F. H. Buckley argued that in 2016, Donald Trump "incarnated the spirit of his time and recognized the need to break with the stale policies of a Republican Party dominated by a libertarian economic ethos." He called on Republicans to "return to the party's tradition of progressive conservatism."

Six months before Election Day, Michael Lind was already pronouncing the "beginning of a policy realignment." Lind roasted Jeb Bush, who had recently dropped out of the Republican primary, in the pages of Politico as an "exemplary living fossil" who "pushed a neo-Reaganite synthesis of support for a hawkish foreign policy, social conservatism, and cuts in middle-class entitlements to finance further tax cuts for the rich."

The realignment that Lind had variously predicted and promoted for more than two decades was one of populist nationalism on the right and multi-cultural globalism on the center-left — a new axis that kicked a purported right-leaning globalist like Jeb entirely off the map.

Polling data from the 2016 election went a long way toward underwriting Lind's credibility. Then, a year after the election, the Democracy Fund's Voter Study Group released a report written and based on research by Lee Drutman, a colleague of Lind's at New America and fellow advocate for realignment (or, as Drutman prefers to call it, "transformation").

Drutman's report, "Political Divisions in 2016 and Beyond," was modest about its findings, arguing that the "primary conflict structuring the two parties involves questions of national identity, race, and morality, while the traditional conflict over economics, though still important, is less divisive now than it used to be. This has the potential to reshape the party coalitions."

The careful caveats of the report, however, were quickly lost in the media cycle. New York Magazine published the write-up of the report that would go mainstream, complete with a clickbait title ("New Study Shows What Really Happened in the 2016 Election") and provocative section headings like "Libertarians don't exist." The chart associated with the report (see below) quickly circulated through major publications and sealed its status as the authority on the shape of a winning Republican coalition.



Six years later, the chart still enjoys near-mythic status; it is bandied about as if it were some statistical knockout against any skepticism of the realignment. But what the chart misses is that the right-libertarianism that characterized fusionism was never an amoral, "markets only" mentality, nor was it necessarily socially liberal. In its purest form, as expressed by Robert Nozick (not the caricature of libertarianism sometimes identified with Ayn Rand), right-leaning libertarianism championed a form of politics that would exist quite comfortably in Drutman's upper-right quadrant: What could be more "right coded" today than strongly affirming a night-watchman state that cracks down on rioting, looting, and other forms of anarchism?

Furthermore, as Stand Together senior fellow Russ Greene notes, Drutman classifies several policies that libertarians roundly reject (like affirmative action) or are officially split on (like abortion) as "libertarian." Yet even if Drutman has correctly mapped libertarians onto the chart, the 3.8% of the electorate they make up would have been an election-defining bloc in almost every presidential contest of the 21st century. Acknowledging this, anyone writing off libertarians needs to be kept far away from the Republican Party apparatus.


Regardless of whether a "new right" ought to have been encouraged to emerge, it most fervently did. Many elements that would go on to make up the movement preexisted 2016. Nevertheless, it is stunning how many new outfits came onto the scene that year — a kind of Cambrian Explosion for post-liberal and anti-fusionist political projects.

Take the Journal for American Greatness, which, as The Nation tells it, was created in 2016 largely in jest but quickly grew into something more serious: an attempt to articulate a robust theoretical foundation for what its contributors saw as the most important components of Trump's political agenda. These included "economic nationalism, border controls, and an 'America First' foreign policy," as well as Trump's "attitude toward the plummy elitism of what they called 'Conservatism, Inc.'"

While the Journal for American Greatness fell apart under the unanticipated limelight, several of its alumni (most notably Julius Krein and Gladden Pappin) went on to found American Affairs in 2017 with the help of an advisory board that included Lind and Yoram Hazony — all characters whose names continue to recur in the story of the new right.

Daniel McCarthy's characterization here is a helpful, if overly simple, rule of thumb: "National Affairs has generally been associated with the 'reform conservative' movement, while American Affairs is the closest thing there is to a theoretical journal of the populist right." Pappin, now the deputy editor of American Affairs, has made his opinions about reform conservatism clear: "[T]he moderate Burkean inspiration for moderate reform works when times are going moderately well, and only then."

Also in 2016, Edmund Waldstein created The Josias, "a manual of Catholic Integralism" that rejects "the liberal separation of politics from concern with the end of human life" by reviving a medieval conception of the Church. Harvard's Adrian Vermeule made his own contributions to the integralist project, writing in The Atlantic that the right should abandon the hallmarks of classical conservative jurisprudence for "common-good constitutionalism" and "[redeem] the administrative state" rather than perpetuate conservatives' half-century quest to abolish it.

Three years later, R. R. Reno's First Things published "Against the Dead Consensus," which declared "there is no returning to the pre-Trump conservative consensus that collapsed in 2016." The statement accused movement conservatism of tracking "too often...the same lodestar liberalism did — namely, individual autonomy," merely "[paying] lip service to traditional values," failing to combat the "the eclipse of...family stability," yielding to "the pornographization of daily life," and on and on. It culminated with a pronouncement that the signers "respectfully decline to join with those who would resurrect warmed-over Reaganism."

As Ross Douthat observed in the New York Times, "the consensus that the manifesto came to bury belonged to conservatism as it existed between the time of William F. Buckley Jr. and the rise of Donald Trump." Christian conservatives, whether Catholic integralists, Protestant nationalists, disaffected post-liberals, or something else altogether, largely found the statement's criticisms compelling, even if they did not sign onto it. Reno, a Catholic, highlighted Republicans' failure to ban pornography, preserve traditional marriage and religious freedom, and restrict abortion in a follow-up piece. Jake Meador, the editor of Mere Orthodoxy and an interested Protestant non-signer, blasted Reaganism for overseeing "the height of the American divorce crisis."

Signers and those sympathetic to the statement's critiques of "warmed-over Reaganism," said Douthat, "want social conservatives to exercise more explicit power within the conservative coalition." This sentiment was echoed by Brad Littlejohn, one of the signers of the National Conservatism statement that Hazony had a hand in drafting. After the third gathering of the National Conservatism conference, Littlejohn argued that the conference had come around to the necessity of fusionism, but argued that if fusionism were to be revitalized, it must put social-conservative values — not the business wing of the party — in the driver's seat.


The criticisms contained in these essays were important ones, though they did not find the right target in Reaganite fusionism. Yes, then-governor Ronald Reagan was a divorcé who enacted the nation's first no-fault divorce law in 1969 with the hope that it would, in his son's words, "reduce acrimony, legal costs, and harm to the children of divorce." Yes, Reagan took part in legalizing abortion in California in 1967. But as he witnessed nationwide divorce rates soar 250% between 1960 and 1980 and abortions in his state jump from 516 to over 100,000 per year, Reagan later determined that these measures were some of the "worst mistakes of his political career."

The social-conservative bona fides of fusionism are especially visible in two documents from the Reagan administration: the "Final Report of the Attorney General's Commission on Pornography" (also known as the "Meese Report") and "The Family: Preserving America's Future" (the "Bauer Report"). These documents outlined a series of steps to combat the forces arrayed against the family and moral decency.

During Reagan's reelection bid, the word "pornography" appeared for the first time in the Republican Party platform. With that provision, Republicans promised to "vigorously enforce constitutional laws to control obscene materials which degrade everyone, particularly women." In 1985, a victorious Reagan kept this promise by establishing the Commission on Pornography, headed by attorney general Ed Meese. The commission's charge was to

determine the nature, extent, and impact on society of pornography in the United States, and to make specific recommendations to the Attorney General concerning more effective ways in which the spread of pornography could be contained, consistent with constitutional guarantees.

The commission carried out its work in the shadow of the 1967 Commission on Obscenity and Pornography (the "Lockhart Commission"), which had recommended liberalizing pornography law in its 1970 report. Reagan's commission, by contrast, "aimed to put the fear of the federal government into the porn industry, threatening retailers who legally sold soft-core magazines in a show of brute political force." James Dobson, one of the 11 commissioners, reported that what "was recommended, to the consternation of pornographers, was that government should begin enforcing the obscenity laws that are already on the books...criminal laws that have stood constitutional muster!"

As a result of the investigation, 7-Eleven stopped stocking magazines like Playboy and Penthouse on its shelves. According to Tim Alberta, the adoption of the final report "put obscenity on the back foot" over the next five years.

The second document — the Bauer Report — was born out of the frustration of one Gary Bauer, the future president of the Family Research Council and one-time Republican presidential candidate. Beginning as a low-level staffer on Reagan's Domestic Policy Council, Bauer "changed his fate" by daring to ask why no one on the council was working on "the social issues Reagan got elected on." From there, the family-values portfolio was his, and he worked his way up the bureaucracy, eventually being tapped by Meese to "chair an Administration working group that would study how government at all levels could be more supportive of American families."

Across the 52 pages of the report, the most significant recommendation was that all departments and agencies "should review current programs and policies within their jurisdictions" with the following questions in mind:

1. Does this action by government lessen earned household income? If so, how do the benefits of this action outweigh, and justify, the exaction from the family budget?

2. Does this policy serve to reinforce the stability of the home and, particularly, the marital commitment that holds the home together?

3. Does this measure strengthen or erode the authority of the home and, specifically, the rights of parents in the education, nurture, and supervision of their children?

4. Does it help the family perform its functions, or does it substitute governmental activity for that function?

5. What message, intended or otherwise, does this program send to the public concerning the status of the family?

6. What message does it send to young people concerning their behavior, their personal responsibility, and the norms of our society?

7. Can this activity be carried out by a lower level of government?

8. Can it be performed by a mediating institution in the private sector?

Reagan ultimately implemented this rubric with Executive Order 12606. The order called on executive agencies to "give careful consideration to family-related concerns and their impact" when assessing proposed rules. It listed a series of questions that agencies would be required to take into account when making such assessments — questions that largely tracked those outlined in Bauer's report. With this move, the Reagan administration placed concern for the family at the heart of agency rulemaking.

Reagan's executive order remained in force through the first Clinton administration. Then in 1997, President Clinton revoked it with Executive Order 13045, swapping the emphasis on the family as a social unit for a focus on environmental risks to children's health — not a trivial consideration, to be sure, but one that risked diverting focus away from the broader, often subtler ways regulatory policy destabilizes the family. Seeing this move as, in the words of Patrick Fagan, "sharply at odds with traditional American moral principles," conservatives in a Republican-controlled Congress overrode Clinton's order with the Treasury and General Government Appropriations Act of 1999. That law reestablished what is now called the "Family Policymaking Assessment" (FPA) and strengthened it by allowing members of Congress to request family-impact analyses from departments and agencies on these grounds.

The FPA provision remains on the books to this day. Nevertheless, rulemaking continues to operate largely in the Clintonian mode, with agencies all but ignoring the provision's directive (except to invoke it opportunistically against the Trump administration's immigration policies).


In certain ways, the new right might look cynically at the Bauer Report. It does, after all, state "[f]irst and most important, a pro-family policy must recognize that the rights of the family are anterior, and superior, to those of the state" — a charge that runs counter to the desire of these groups (especially the integralist camp) to place the common good at the fore. Furthermore, the report argues that "[w]hen dealing with the family, the starting point for government at any level — Federal, State, or local — should be the central tenet of the Hippocratic Oath: Primum, non nocere. First of all, do no harm."

Writing with Maria Molla, Gladden Pappin blasted these sorts of "indirect methods of fostering family formation." Yet in a certain sense, one could see a re-embrace of FPAs as a way of taking Pappin seriously when he called for conservatives to learn "to advise on the use of the administrative state rather than plaintive, nostalgic, and counterproductive calls for its abolition."

After all, even in the most aggressive forms of integralism, there are limits to how far the state can and should go to foster family formation directly. An essay by Charles De Koninck — an acknowledged intellectual predecessor of today's integralists — republished in The Josias is illustrative. In it, De Koninck points to a section of Pope Pius XI's encyclical Divini Illius Magistri, which clarifies that "the function of the authority which resides in the State is twofold: to protect and to further the family and the individual citizen, but not in the least by absorbing or replacing them" (emphasis added). Manhattan Institute senior fellow Andy Smarick quoted a similar statement in the pages of this journal from Pope Leo XIII's Rerum Novarum: "The contention...that the civil government should at its option intrude into and exercise intimate control over the family and the household is a great and pernicious error."

Protecting and furthering the family may very well impose proactive and direct responsibilities on Catholic policymakers. However, it also entails a duty that overlaps with the leading principle of the Bauer report: First, do no harm. While there may be no convincing integralists or their counterparts on the statist right to do away with the administrative state (Vermeule suggests that it is "essential to promoting the common good in contemporary society"), when it comes to pro-family rulemaking, there is still room for common cause with movement conservatives.

But what about libertarians? Why would they ever go along with Pappin's suggestion to direct the administrative state rather than call for its abolition?

It turns out that FPAs can make administrative rulemaking more cumbersome. Directing agencies to take into account a proposed rule's effect on the family will complicate their cost-benefit analyses. It's also likely to tip the scales on any proposal toward the cost side — especially if family impacts are taken at least as seriously as environmental impacts (as they should be). Thus the more often FPAs are applied, the more difficult rulemaking could become — making it possible to cast the embrace of FPAs as a fundamentally deregulatory move.

The regulator may be persona non grata for libertarians, but the regulator of the regulator ("the enemy of my enemy") is a hero. While the goal for many members of the old fusionist guard will remain eliminating the administrative state, encumbering the regulatory process with concern for the family in the meantime is a fine consolation prize.

Even new-right statists and technocrats should be content with embracing further government inefficiency for the sake of the family. As theologian Oliver O'Donovan has said (albeit in a different context): "inefficiency is the worship [we] pay to the humanum, the human person and personal relationships, objects which cannot be subject to the laws which govern productive efficiency."

Rather than abandoning outreach to the libertarian, bottom-right quadrant of Drutman's graph to pursue further inroads in the populist, upper-left quadrant, combining pro-family rulemaking with FPAs could allow a coalition of the right to bring together significant numbers of voters in all but the corner-most parts of the bottom-left quadrant.


The best way to illustrate what a pro-family rulemaking process might look like is to find an instance in which such a focus could be helpful. President Joe Biden's electric-vehicle (EV) mandate offers an excellent example.

While aspects of the administration's EV push are already unpopular with broad swathes of the right, so far most of the criticism has focused on the mandate's inefficiency and concern for domestic production. Senator J. D. Vance gestured toward concern for the family with his proposal to repurpose funds set aside for EV subsidies to eliminate the marriage penalties in the Earned Income Tax Credit. And yet, when the administration issued a notice of proposed rulemaking to implement Biden's EV mandates, the comment I submitted on behalf of Advancing American Freedom was the only one to raise concerns other than economic and technical ones.

As I noted there, the Environmental Protection Agency's cost-benefit analysis had not even begun to take into account how the mandate's unintended consequences could harm families. And yet, regulations related to vehicles have a proven connection to family formation. Even something as innocuous as car-seat laws (which are explicitly designed to protect children) can harm the family.

Strange as that may sound, as Jordan Nickerson and David Solomon found in their 2020 study, "Car Seats as Contraception," the adoption of car-seat laws saved as many as 6,000 lives since 1980, but it resulted in 145,000 fewer babies being born. Nickerson and Solomon explained that because many cars cannot easily fit three car seats in the back row, laws requiring children to ride in a car seat at increasingly higher ages often indirectly compel families to purchase larger vehicles like minivans when expanding from two to three children. These vehicles, per Nickerson and Solomon, not only tend to be more expensive, they also "have class and lifestyle connotations that may not appeal to everyone."

In other words, for every life saved by car seats, 24 children were never born — all because families chose not to have a third child under these policies. Americans would probably be reluctant to relax car-seat laws if doing so increased child mortality. But if the impact on mortality were negligible, all but climate-change doomsayers and the anti-natalist fringe would balk at a policy that led to a reduction in births, especially with birth rates in the United States continuing to fall below the levels necessary to replace the previous generation.

If indirectly forcing families to spend money on an expensive car upgrade can drive down birth rates, there is every reason to suspect that an EV mandate would similarly deter reproduction. Beyond taking into account the obvious financial impacts, an FPA would give serious, weighted consideration to factors like whether the decreased driving range of EVs would have a disproportionate impact on families needing to visit the grocery store or make distant drives to visit relatives more frequently, and whether longer charge times (compared to the handful of minutes spent refilling a gas tank) could erode the marital commitment as parents' patience is tested by screaming children.

Members of Congress have the authority to force the EPA and other agencies to answer most of these kinds of questions. Using this authority would likely prove attractive to many factions on the right — including those that spend most of their productive time warring among themselves with competing statements of principles.


The old-school fusionist coalition of conservatives and libertarians may continue to hope for the eventual demise of the administrative state, but unless and until that happens, focusing on directing the administrative state toward promoting and protecting families would allow that coalition to fold in new-right movements — including those that otherwise resent "zombie Reaganism."

The ultimate irony for members of these movements, of course, is that the blueprint and statutory tools offering the greatest potential for building a coalition capable of advancing a pro-family agenda were developed during the Reagan administration. While additional executive orders and laws would surely help America's political leadership fulfill its duties to "protect and to further the family," what is already on the books is sufficient for a start. These laws and authorities don't have to run the lawmaking gauntlet; they simply need to be applied. Indeed, even the pornography problem could be tackled with aggressive enforcement of existing statutes — as the Reagan administration proved and Representative Jim Banks argued in the pages of First Things.

If factions on the right would stop resorting to infighting as a fundraising tactic and start thinking more strategically about how to work with one another to advance and enact policies that matter, conservatives could deliver significant victories. Post-liberals, populists, conservatives, and libertarians don't need to have a common ideological framework to form a winning coalition: As Jacques Maritain observed when asked how such an ideologically and geographically diverse group ever came to agree on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, "we agree about the rights, but on condition no one asks us why." This kind of razor-thin consensus, he argued, was "nevertheless, enough to enable a great task to be undertaken."

Although today's integralists, and De Koninck before them, have an unending quarrel with Maritain (blaming him for secularism despite his contributions to the revival of Thomistic thought), the model for coalitional politics must be the philosopher whose influence led to the successful publication of the universal declaration, not the Catholic infighter.

With Maritain's statement as a guide, the various factions on the right do not need to be able to answer "why" they support pro-family rulemaking; their support, regardless of rationale, is enough to enable a new great task to be undertaken.

Crafting rules with the family in mind might not be particularly radical or revolutionary — it's not even new. But the goal for the state is not novelty; it exists, as C. S. Lewis wrote, "simply to promote and to protect the ordinary happiness of human beings in this life....And unless they are helping to increase and prolong and protect such moments, all the laws, parliaments, armies, courts, police, economics, etc., are simply a waste of time."

John Shelton is the policy director for Advancing American Freedom, an advocacy organization founded by former vice president Mike Pence.


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