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The Failure of Fusionism

Conservative parties throughout the West are in crisis. This may not be fully understood by simply looking at recent election results, as conservative parties have continued to win elections. But these parties are currently in a state of ideological flux, and their commitment to existing liberal democratic principles and institutions are in noticeable decay. The conventional perception of conservative parties as steady and secure governing hands has made way for a more volatile and agitated form of politics. Parties that have routinely positioned themselves as defenders of the established order have instead become actively hostile to it. Conservative parties, the Economist noted last year, are now “on fire and dangerous.”

This phenomenon is most evident in the United States, where the Republican Party has become a wholly owned subsidiary of Donald Trump; a political actor guided solely by parochial instincts and personal narcissism, untethered to any intellectual understanding of his party’s traditions. The party’s convictions are now driven solely by fealty to the president, regardless of his actions. While Trump may be a singular figure, the tension he represents—between principle and parochialism—has also created the divisions within the Conservative Party in the United Kingdom that were aroused in response to the country’s membership of the European Union.

In Australia, the Liberal Party has been engaged in a decade-long civil war that has seen a number of hostile leadership changes (including against two sitting prime ministers). Although this struggle for control of the party has ostensibly been a battle over the recognition of climate change, that issue is the local proxy for the wider internal problems that conservative parties are facing. In Western Europe, meanwhile, the political systems have provided enough oxygen for radical reactionary parties to form and significantly eat into the electoral support of traditional conservative parties (although they have also drawn support from social-democratic parties).

What has become apparent is that conservative parties—and movements outside these parties that push and pull at them—are now increasingly uncomfortable within the prevailing norms of their societies and political systems. Most worryingly, these parties are demonstrating a notable suspicion towards the restraints placed upon their action by liberal democratic principles; constitutionalism, the rule of law, the protection of individual and minority rights, market-orientated economies, and the scrutiny of the press.

While there is an increasingly clear comprehension of the populist and illiberal impulses that have been developing within Western conservative parties, the question that still requires investigation is: why? Why have parties that have previously characterised themselves as forces for political and social stability transformed themselves into agents of instability? To answer this question, we need to understand what modern conservative parties have been advocating, why these ideas have undermined their own core values and inclinations, and how this has in turn instigated their current agitated and chaotic behaviour.

Modern conservative ideology has a reasonably well-known origin story; in the early-1960s William F. Buckley’s National Review magazine sought to develop a bulwark against the global threat of communism, and began to build a coalition of cultural and social traditionalists with the ardent economic liberalism advocated by the Austrian and Chicago schools of economics to create a new ideological conception of conservatism. The calculation was simple enough; if communism was the all-pervasive hand of the state in a country’s economic activity, then we, as anti-communists, must therefore be staunch free-marketeers. With the elections of Ronald Reagan in the US and Margaret Thatcher in the UK, the project had fully taken root; conservatism was the advocacy of ever-freer markets.

In the period since World War II, the West’s more liberal economic structures had produced far greater wealth and personal freedom than the Soviet Union’s command economy, as well as a number of superior technological advances. This was evidence that liberal democracy—with its essential economic freedom—was a preferable model of organisation. However, as this new ideological conception of conservatism transformed from a Cold War tactic into received wisdom, the inherent incompatibility of the alliance was overlooked. Parties that came to advocate an ever-greater liberalisation never questioned the changes that came with this increased wealth and freedom, nor considered the norms that would shift as people became freer and more able to exchange with one another. They did not even stop to consider whether the results of these exchanges would be suited to a conservative temperament.

In understanding the tensions within what came to be known as Fusionism, it is essential to grasp what conservatism actually is, as it is quite distinct from the prescriptions of socialism, or the principles of liberalism. Conservatism has a more psychological element, it is closely tied to primary human instincts like security, authority, and identity. It attaches itself to ideas, rather than actively forming them itself.

In the early-1960s, British philosopher Michael Oakeshott wrote an essay entitled On Being Conservative in which he illustrated this identification of conservatism as a disposition rather than a prescribed set of political ideals. For Oakeshott, a conservative disposition included a preference for “the familiar to the unknown,” and “the tried to the untried.” He wrote that conservatives “will find small and slow changes more tolerable than large and sudden”; and they will “value highly every appearance of continuity.” The conservative, he stressed, was not an “ardent innovator.” This was a perspective also recognised by an assistant professor at Michigan State University in the 1950s by the name of Russell Kirk, whose book The Conservative Mind stressed that conservative instincts were solidly tied to “custom, convention, and continuity.”

This conservative disposition affixes itself to the existing organisational structures of a society and primarily seeks their maintenance. This is why we refer to those within the Soviet Union who were opposed to Mikhail Gorbachev’s liberalising reforms of Glasnost and Perestroika as “conservatives,” as they were seeking to conserve the Stalinist state with which they were familiar. The unpredictability of greater liberalisation threatened the Soviet Union’s continuity. In the West, this disposition attached itself to liberal democracy, and until recently sought its defence. Conservative parties embraced liberalism (in both the broad and economic sense, rather than the popular American usage of the term), and as Fusionism became the dominant lens of the conservative movement, these parties became advocates of an ever-increasing economic and structural liberalisation.

In his book Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy, economist Joseph Schumpeter identified an inherent feature of liberalism that he called “Creative Destruction.” Schumpeter observed that in market-oriented societies there is a constant incentive to create newer technologies, goods, and services. He stressed that the system itself is built on a platform of perpetual innovation, that is “by nature a form or method of economic change, and not only never is but never can be stationary.” Schumpeter described his creative destruction as a “process of industrial mutation that incessantly revolutionises the economic structure from within, incessantly destroying the old one, incessantly creating a new one.”

As these ever-evolving technologies enhanced our ability to communicate and exchange, this process of technological change accelerated. From train to car to airplane, from radio to the telephone, to cameras to television to the Internet, to the instantaneous access to the sum of human knowledge, borderless communication, and global retail options we all now carry in our pockets. This is not just creative destruction, but exponential creative destruction—each technological innovation makes the next easier to achieve in increasingly shorter periods of time.

Revolutionary technological changes brought massive social and cultural change. New technologies facilitate a greater movement and interaction of different peoples, and greater exposure to non-traditional concepts. As societies industrialise and then post-industrialise, people move to cities where the economic advantages of these new industries are greatest. Here, there is an ever-increasing closeness and overlap of groups and individuals exchanging, embracing, and learning from different kinds of behaviour. This creates more diverse, plural societies, and people establish identities that are not simply determined by village, family, religion, or tribe. This is social creative destruction, where the custom, convention, and continuity of inherited social norms are also in a perpetual state of innovation. Economic change and social change are inseparable. The former begets the latter.

However, these changes have not simply been confined within states, as traditional concepts of nationhood are also an integral part of this evolving process. As markets liberalised and technology evolved, global comparative advantages were recognised and production chains became increasingly complex. In 1958, to demonstrate how this complexity was developing, the economist Leonard Read wrote an essay entitled “I, Pencil,” which traced the production line of a single pencil. The point of the essay was to highlight that no one person, no matter how intelligent or skilled, was capable of creating an object as simple as a pencil. Read’s argument was that the knowledge to do so was completely decentralised, and by extension, centralised systems (like the Soviet Union) were incapable of the efficient and effective production of goods.

But what Read also—inadvertently—identified was the inherent cosmopolitanism of trade. Read’s pencil begins in the forests of Oregon and northern California, but soon finds itself bonding with graphite from Sri Lanka and wax from Mexico, it picks up rubber from Indonesia and pumice from Italy, and the whole process is fuelled by coffee beans from Brazil. This was not just decentralised cooperation, but global cooperation; a production of goods that transcends national boundaries, and pays little attention to local identities in search of economic agility. The technologies of today are created by an array of infinitely more complex ideas and production lines than Read’s pencil; laying the tracks for an express train of ever-increasing cultural interaction, expanding pluralism, and evolving social norms.

The overarching process by which these billions of different interactions constantly intersect, breed, and reconfigure is known as “spontaneous order.” This concept is not exclusive to economics—languages, ecosystems, and solar systems are also all examples of spontaneous order. Yet the idea rose to prominence in the 20th century via Austrian economists such as Friedrich Hayek as a description of the mechanics of market-based societies and the decentralised knowledge of price signals to demand and supply.

Despite its constant innovation and disregard of tradition, spontaneous order appealed in a roundabout way to a conservative sense of natural order and its suspicion of humanity’s utopian experiments. The idea also found accord with the deep-rooted culture of distrust towards government found in the United States. The concept seemed to place social order in the hands of God; the true architect, a sentiment Kirk described as the “divine intent” of a society, one that supersedes any man-made laws. This appeal was further consolidated with a binary reaction to the Soviet Union’s command economy, and the radical decentralisation that must therefore be desirable by default.

As conservative affiliates came to believe their objectives were best served by ideas such as spontaneous order, economists like Hayek became increasingly influential within conservative parties. Margaret Thatcher is said to have entered a Conservative Party policy meeting and slammed a copy of Hayek’s The Constitution of Liberty on the table while exclaiming “This is what we believe!” However, she, like many other Fusionists, apparently failed to read enough of the book to reach its postscript—an essay Hayek wrote in 1963 entitled “Why I Am Not A Conservative,” an often terse explanation of why his ideas were an uncomfortable fit for the parties that would come to adopt them.

Hayek’s own assessment of conservative instincts correlates—albeit less sympathetically—with that of Oakeshott and Kirk when he writes that “one of the fundamental traits of the conservative attitude is a fear of change, a timid distrust of the new as such.” Hayek contrasts this with the lassiez-faire liberalism he advocated, which he said is “based on courage and confidence, on a preparedness to let change run its course even if we cannot predict where it will lead.” His was an advocacy of forces that had no interest in custom, convention, or continuity, a perspective that had only a latent attachment to the wisdom of ancestors, and seemed far more concerned with the innovations of today and the negotiations of tomorrow.

Indeed, Hayek made note that conservatives maintain “a fear of trusting uncontrolled social forces” and this is directly related to their “lack of understanding of economic forces.” This would prove to be his essay’s most prescient observation; the failure of modern conservative parties to fully understand exactly what they have been advocating, and how the outcomes of this advocacy would relate to their own temperaments.

What was missed by conservative political parties as they adopted the concepts advanced by Hayek—and popularised by Milton Friedman—was the sheer radicalism of their ideas. Inherent to these theories was a belief in human capabilities not shared by other philosophies; that human beings are naturally suspicious of authority, they are able to easily transcend group allegiance, and they could feel comfortable within liberalism’s permanent revolution. Their ideas bestowed humans with a perfect rationality, asking people to forgo emotional ties to identity and tradition for a cold, efficient, and abstract universalism.

This adoption of an ever-increasing freedom of exchange—and the dramatic technological and social change that it has produced—has undermined one of the core objectives of conservative parties. As Tom McTague wrote in the Atlantic last year, the purpose of the Conservative Party in the UK—a characteristic that could be extended to a certain degree to other conservative parties throughout the West—was to be “the quiet defenders of the little man from those seeking to impose a different way of life upon him without his consent.” Yet with their evangelical advocacy of freer markets these parties have achieved the very opposite, they have brought a regime of wholesale and incessant change into the house of the little man. And he has become incredibly unhappy about it.

The forces of freer markets; their unanchored spontaneous order, their economic and social creative destruction, and their inherent cosmopolitanism have deeply affronted those of a conservative disposition. With conservative parties accelerating these forces, Fusionism became an ideology in constant conflict with itself, failing to create a harmonious set of ideas to advance, and instead fostering a sense of discord and disorder for these parties’ natural constituents.

These parties neglected to recognise that liberalism’s freedom and wealth creation would need to be accompanied by some kind of compensation for the associated and ever-evolving structural changes. This might have included investment in durable safety nets to provide security to people whose industries would become redundant or relocated, or in an education system and a public discourse that allowed people to understand a shifting world with greater ease and provided them with the necessary tools to adapt economically, socially, and emotionally.

But that is not what these parties have done. Instead they have exhibited a “small government monomania” that has sought to erode state-funded programs that could have assisted people in adjusting to new economic realities. Simultaneously, these parties have fertilised a sense of nostalgic cultural loss, victimhood, and civic disgruntlement, encouraging people to become suspicious and uneasy with how the changes in their societies have progressed. In conjunction with their media allies, conservative parties have preyed upon people’s insecurities, deliberately seeking to confuse and aggravate, making people increasingly agitated, resentful, paranoid, and conspiratorial.

When you step back and see the broader picture, these parties and their affiliates have constructed an extraordinary political project; advancing the revolutionary mechanisms of ever-freer markets, while simultaneously running a counter-revolution against its economic and social effects. This has proved to be a psychological assault on not just their traditional supporters, but also much of the working class, who often share similar dispositions, and have been the group who have most keenly felt the effects of the era’s exponential change. The result has been a retreat into narrow, isolated, and hyper-partisan identities in search of some form of security.

This retreat has found its visceral avatar in Donald Trump. Although Trump’s uniquely self-obsessed personality has meant that he is often depicted as solipsistic and ideology-free, he has been able to harness and amplify the anxieties of those who see change as loss and difference as disorder. He is Fusionism’s blowback; the expression of its internal turbulence and of conservative parties’ failure to advance ideas that could provide a sense of security and reassurance to the public.

As evolving social norms have weakened the traditional authority of churches and dissolved other longstanding civil society groups, as well as creating the revolution in female advancement that has undermined patriarchal structures, conservative parties are now exhibiting signs that they are trying to compensate for these changes to social authority by turning to the state as an instrument to enact social control. This is leading these parties and their affiliates to demonstrate an affinity with autocratic and illiberal regimes like Russia and Hungary, as they romanticise the idea of a “strong leader” who can restore a sense of certainty. The parties that have previously sold themselves as staunch defenders of freedom are now the parties most susceptible to authoritarianism. As Harvard’s Dr Daniel Ziblatt has demonstrated; it is the reaction of conservative parties to the forces of change that decides whether democracy survives.

In 1782, Edmund Burke remarked that “The touchstone of all theories which regard man and the affairs of men is: Does it suit his nature in general?” Fusionism has failed to adequately address this question. It may have served a purpose in building a domestic defence against Communism, but its internal contradictions have been too great to withstand a world without such a rivalry (China’s economic integration with the West creates a unique set of circumstances). If these now nominally conservative parties cannot overcome their current chaotic inclinations, understand the requirements of their own temperaments, and reconcile these with the realities of the day, then these parties themselves will become the primary ideological—and practical—threat to the West.


Grant Wyeth is researcher at the Asia Institute, University of Melbourne, and a columnist for the Diplomat.  You can follow him on Twitter @grantwyeth.


  1. From the article: “Although Trump’s uniquely self-obsessed personality has meant that he is often depicted as solipsistic and ideology-free, he has been able to harness and amplify the anxieties of those who see change as loss and difference as disorder.”

    This is getting boring.
    First, the links the writer provides do not link to hard facts or statistics but other opinions (one link I found particularly contentious was this one “Look, there is a picture of Trump with Duterte! What greater proof of fascism do you need!”)
    Second, why is there not a single Quillette contributor that can’t write about Trump without becoming apoplectic? Sure, Trump is narcissistic. So is Hillary Clinton, so is Kamala Harris.
    Third, “see change as loss and difference as disorder”. Give me a break. To the modern left, not being in power is loss and disorder. Their level of chill has been incredibly low. Also, riots are not difference, they are disorder. A weaker economy is not just change, it’s loss.

  2. Mr. Wyeth’s background is the usual mishmash of soft skill qualifications that allow one to claim any kind of expertise.

    Mr. Wyeth says

    I don’t have a yen to plough through this thinker’s verbiage. Nor am I dazzled by his CV. His opinion on such a weighty subject (and that’s all it is) isn’t backed up by anything substantive.

    Mr. Wyeth claims an interest in Canada. Although I lack his paper qualifications, I’ve had a lifelong opportunity to study that country (cause I live there). I’m a bit surprised then, that he is unaware of our current political situation …

    We’ve had a Liberal government for the last 5 years or so. Under our current prime minister, the party leans very far to the left. The parliament has been prorogued for the summer and into the fall due to the covid virus panic. That means that the PM can do anything he wants to under “emergency measures”. Essentially, he’s a dictator.

    From where I’m standing, one could make a case that the opposite is equally valid. It’s the liberal types and their close buddies, the socialists who seem to be in an ideological flux.

  3. It must be close to impossible for someone outside the USA to truly understand what all Donald Trump really is, in the context of a post-Obama America.

    The oddness of the US experience, the twisted MSM, the rise of political resistance, etc etc, it is all so very odd even for a local. It is no small task for someone abroad to decipher the last four years here in Murca.

    I cant fault the author, but i also dont think he grasps the moment.

  4. No, they are not. They are dynamic, attracting minorities in record numbers, have become the choice for the working class, have redefined globalization, and have made the world a much safer place. Adios ISIS, Hello Israeli/Arab Peace.

  5. The point of quillette is to publish diverse views. You are allowed to disagree. Your complaint that Claire Lehman published this says more about you than her.

  6. The author uses a lot of words to say not much. Mostly the essay suffers from making sinister-sounding and unsubstantiated generalizations. Here’s just one random example:

    As evolving social norms have weakened the traditional authority of churches and dissolved other longstanding civil society groups, as well as creating the revolution in female advancement that has undermined patriarchal structures, conservative parties are now exhibiting signs that they are trying to compensate for these changes to social authority by turning to the state as an instrument to enact social control.

    How and where are “conservative parties” turning to the state to “enact social control?” What kind of social control?

    Is this about the war on drugs? But that’s nothing new. Is it about gay marriage? Abortion? Vaccines? What???

  7. There has never been a 100% correlation between Republicans and Conservative. The Republican party is in crisis, but what we see happening in the conservative movement is a SEPARATION of it from the reductive libertarian politics globalists and soulless money-grubbers used to justify their destruction of our manufacturing base and ultimately the global hegemony of the U.S. They have held the reigns of he party for a long time. Think Jack Kemp to John McCain to Lindsay Graham to Paul Ryan.

    This article is littered with over-broad statements and conclusions. The idea that free markets and liberalism itself are in a state of constant “revolution” is banal and inane. It’s a typical overreach by a Progressive though, as they seek to have a meta analysis of everything and need to fundamentally sabotage classical liberalism for any of their arguments to work.

    Quite the opposite is true in U.S. civil society and markets. Since they are self-organizing and emergent, one sees many types of innovation on an incredibly small scale failing or succeeding and gaining or losing favor based on their efficacy. Because it’s not top down, rules driven, bad ideas don’t get replicated. And because it’s voluntary and based on property, people have a natural incentive to adopt new techniques and technology but they do so on their own terms and in their own ways in civil society. Example: There are people today who don’t have a cell phone or computer. Christopher Walken is one - he can opt to live as he chooses. When you look at many new innovations you see this phenomenon all over American society.

    None of this means we should have unrestricted, open trade with say China, a nation that has declared “unrestricted war” on the U.S. and has been our enemy since the CCP’s rise to power in 1949. The actual idiocy of building China as our own rival and giving our nation over to Communists will go down as one of the most self-abnegating moves every made by a major power. The Visigoths and Rome come to mind as a historical analog.

    As well, open borders is another policy where the Republicans abandoned conservatives. Note that on all these issues, Republicans like the Bushes lied to conservatives to gain their support. They tell us they will stop bad trade deals and deal with the 10s of millions of illegals in the nation - and then turn around and do the exact opposite.

    I’ll stop here as this article doesn’t deserve more of my analytical efforts. I’ll close with this. Mr. Wyeth has recently published this article in the Diplomat, “The Importance of Internalizing Feminism in Australian Foreign Policy”. He’s also often found pushing back against Trump’s challenges to China, in the South China Sea for example. He positions himself as an “international relations” type, got a masters in it. He has the pose down.

    He seems to be in the “engage” crowd wrt China, which is code for anti-Americanism and appeasement of a monstrously evil Communist empire. As for this article? Weak polemic posing as analysis.

  8. If you want a counterargument, here goes. The author’s central argument is basically as follows: conservatives pushed free market policies to counter Communism, but are at odds with the social change innovation in the free market caused. For the sake of brevity, I’m going to ignore the poor sources the author cites, the sweeping assumptions, etc. I’m not sure what “realities” he wants conservatives to face because he never grounds his language in reality, preferring airy abstraction. But I’m guessing he’s talking about traditionalism vs new social mores etc. What he doesn’t digest is this: social mores always change. What matters is: a system that functions. Equality of opportunity works, equality of outcome doesn’t. Democracy works. Socialist social engineering doesn’t. Also, what’s all this talk about populism and authoritarianism? Socialism is populism. “We will throw other people’s money at you” is populist propaganda. “Do what we tell you or we destroy your stuff” is authoritarian.

  9. I just cannot fathom this belief that Trump is some kind of Dictator in waiting. Spare us all the six degrees of separation nonsense and provide a fact. Provide a single example of a Trump order or policy that hasn’t had him follow the Constitution, I’ll wait.

    The reality is that Trump is what you get when a jingoistic outsider gets power, the behind the scenes power brokers and their minions panic.

    The author of this article, who seems eminently qualified to help me write my doctoral thesis, doesn’t really understand why trump was elected and what’s happening in the USA.

    As a side note, evidence for my last statement is the supposition that conservatism began with the National Review movement. Point of fact, the conservative movement is far older. Buckley came in as an establishment force to calm down the more radical forces of US conservatism, like the John Birchers.

  10. “In conjunction with their media allies, conservative parties have preyed upon people’s insecurities, deliberately seeking to confuse and aggravate, making people increasingly agitated, resentful, paranoid, and conspiratorial.”

    “In conjunction with their media allies"?! Who can read this with a straight face? Can anyone not be aware of the unrelenting assault that conservatism faces every day from the establishment media?

    1. There is a contradiction between the sentiments of conservatism and unlimited market liberalism.
    2. This contradiction has become apparent recently: unemployment, rising disparities in wealth distribution, opioid crisis, despair in the working class.
    3. Trump is responding to this contradiction by stating there must be a nation which is conserved, and not just the wealth of the upper one percent.
    4. The people who run the United States have decided this is treason.
      Am I missing anything?
      The author of the Failure of Fusionism could have spared us much hot air and diversion on his way to his central points. All rational consideration of Trump’s presidency need not begin with a flogging of him.
  11. This is true.

    To quote the author.

    “This phenomenon is most evident in the United States, where the Republican Party has become a wholly owned subsidiary of Donald Trump;“

    This is not true.

  12. I should have seen the mask slip sooner.

    This is the old “vote against their own interests” canard. It has been pretty well-discussed already that people don’t want handouts. They want dignity.

    Even Andrew “secure the bag” Yang understood this. His platform was,

    • we have to do UBI until we come up with something else. It’s urgent. This is just the scattered drops of rain before the downpour, and nobody has a solution on the table.
    • there’s more dignity (agency, possibility for success, possibility for failure) in UBI than endless interlocking programs overseen by “social workers.”

    But conservatives don’t ultimately want scraps. They want social power equal to those who displaced them. They have an imagination big enough to believe it’s possible. It’s not a new idea. A person who wants their neighbour to have the same stake in public life they do themselves is the same person who believes “democracy” is a good system of government. You understand equality in all things until it comes to the people who live right next to you. Then it’s, “shut up. I took your father’s money and built a perfectly nice cage for you. It’s in your interest to go in there and shut the door. Now get out of my way or else.”

    These parties have given their supporters the courage and social coverage to overcome their shame and admit they’re worse off than their parents, their children will be worse off than they are, and ask the people running the country to explain why that is. You have no explanation. “Here, have some more of the Programs,” is not an explanation for mismanagement. The right has a clear and plausible explanation—the policies you take for granted were bad—that you have countered with, nothing at all.

  13. He talks about conservative parties’ “affinity with autocratic and illiberal regimes like Russia and Hungary.”

    He needs to read Quillette’s Under the Frog interview with Tibor Fischer (9/9/2020), who says, “…it seems I’ll have to spend the second half of my life constantly denying that Hungary is some fascist backwater. János Kádár, a dictator who was installed by Soviet tanks and whose regime executed hundreds of Hungarians got a better press in the West than the current, democratically elected prime minister, Viktor Orbán. You can’t make it up.”

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