The Right after Fusionism, Part 1: Whittaker Chambers and the Nationalist Temptation

If conservative fusionism—combining social conservatism with economic liberalism—is no longer politically viable, must the Right choose among the unappealing options of religious and ethnic nationalism, libertarianism, or the atavistic rejection of modernity? These are the options that now command the most attention. But a fresh encounter with Whittaker Chambers’ critique of fusionism would help open our minds to other possible directions for the Right.

This is the first of a series considering three now-tempting directions for the Right in light of Chambers’ thought. This article considers the temptation of nationalism. Future articles in this series will consider the economic and nostalgic temptations, and what other alternatives an encounter with Chambers might suggest.

Why Identity-Politics Nationalism Is So Tempting

A blood-and-soil nationalism, grounded in religious and/or ethnic identity politics, is one obvious possible direction for the Right after fusionism. A cogent nationalist critique of fusionism is simple to state, even if most of the spokespeople for ethnic/religious identity politics who get on television are too busy pandering to base passions to state it. Economic liberalism’s market structures are built on the assumption that cultural loyalties are irrelevant to moral formation. It treats the moral rules upon which economies depend (don’t steal or cheat, don’t build a business model on activities that undermine the necessary social preconditions of market exchange, etc.) as existing on a sort of universal plane, equally known to all and interpreted in the same way by all.

In globalizing markets, immemorial traditions and community institutions are destroyed as people reorganize their lives to realize market efficiencies. Economic liberals don’t see this as a mortal threat. They just shrug and say, “you can’t fight the market.”

But people find it harder and harder to make moral sense of their world under these conditions. The moral formation upon which markets depend is always connected to local loyalties. We learn what is right and wrong from our tribes. If the tribe’s traditions and institutions are destroyed, where will we learn not to steal and cheat? We won’t, which is why economic liberalism is rapidly creating an increasingly corrupt and repulsive world.

The tribe, on this view, must have veto power over markets to protect institutions that provide moral foundations both for the tribe and for the market. This is inseparable from some kind of ethnic and/or religious chauvinism. The tribe cannot teach us right and wrong if it protects all traditions and institutions indiscriminately. It must favor its own traditions and institutions over others in order to be what it is. An increasing number of people on the Right seem to be embracing identity politics out of a sense, often unconscious, that such chauvinism is the price of the tribe’s survival in the face of vocal opponents.

Fusionism’s Blind Spot: The “Crisis of History”

Chambers helps us understand why fusionists are so poorly equipped to respond to the nationalist challenge. This issue was at the heart of Chambers’ critique of fusionism in his letters to William F. Buckley, explaining his resignation from National Review. Chambers was firm in his commitment to individual rights and economic liberalism. And he was also a deeply religious man who saw moral failure as the core challenge of modern society. Nevertheless, he had always refused to call himself “conservative.” In his resignation letters, he explained to Buckley that he had come to a fuller realization of why conservatism on the fusionist model won’t work.

Chambers conceded to Buckley that you can’t have individual rights and economic liberalism (to which they both were firmly devoted) without accepting growth, mechanization and social modernization (which Buckley welcomed and Chambers distrusted). But he pointed out to Buckley that this market reorganization of society destroys traditions and community institutions. Conservatism had not developed an account of how to sustain moral formation in the kind of world free markets create. For all its socially conservative policy commitments and all its talk about how we rely on churches and communities to make us moral, fusionism had no resources—intellectual or practical—for assisting people when their traditions and institutions are destroyed by globalizing markets.

Today, about 60 years after Chambers’ resignation, fusionism still does not have much account of how to keep a society moral as the market constantly upends its traditions and institutions. It can only scramble, with decreasing plausibility, to blame moral breakdown on Big Government. There are a few cases, like school choice, where economic liberalism really does “fuse” almost seamlessly with concern for institutions of moral formation; on the whole, however, harmonizing markets and morals is proving harder than fusionism anticipated.

G.K. Chesterton famously remarked that the only problem with conservatism is that a white post has to be constantly repainted (i.e. revolutionized) merely to remain what it is. Left alone, it will not remain a white post, it will become a black post. Jonah Goldberg once drew on this observation to complain—on Twitter, I believe—that for critics of conservatism, “everything is Chesterton’s post.” I’m sympathetic to Goldberg’s concern to resist mere faddism and contempt for the past. But I’m increasingly convinced that in the constantly changing social environment created by economic liberalism and globalizing markets, everything really has become Chesterton’s post. Keeping our moral institutions moral requires defending them, but also constantly reinventing them.

In addition to showing why fusionism’s responses to identity nationalism have been ineffective, appreciating the crisis of history also highlights why nationalism is consistently drawn toward ethnic and religious tribalism. Some conservatives are now trying to build a benign version of “nationalism,” asserting the primacy of the nation-state against the unaccountable power of trans-national liberal elites without falling into ethnic or religious identity politics. But until we have developed an adequate response to the crisis of history, what will supply the moral content of our nationalism, if not the identity politics of ethnic and religious tribes? Until we figure out how to build moral consensus under conditions of modern markets without resorting to toxic tribalism, the wiser course would be (as Goldberg suggests) a careful distinction between “patriotism” and “nationalism,” with a stern prohibition on the latter.

Why Nationalism Doesn’t Work

Chambers’ thought also suggests how we might think more seriously about the moral foundations of societies and markets without falling into the nationalist trap. We do not know what Chambers would have said if he had lived long enough to develop further the insights in his letters to Buckley. And in any event, he famously declared that he did not see how the crisis of history could be overcome. Nevertheless, he provides several helpful starting points for reflection.

In Witness, Chambers insists that we take the crisis of history seriously, showing the enormous magnitude and complexity of this challenge. But as it has drifted away from the influence of people like Chambers, the Right has begun talking as if the moral breakdown of society would automatically take care of itself if we could just get Big Government out of the way. Important as limitations on government are—Chambers was, it bears repeating, inflexibly devoted to individual rights and free markets—the reflex to describe every social problem as an opportunity to roll back government must be unlearned. This is not because government doesn’t need to be rolled back, but because so many other things also need to be done.

Chambers also shows why we must not give tribes a final veto power over people’s choices. Tribes consistently fail to live up to their own standards. If given a veto over our lives, tribal leaders will not use it to build us up morally. They will use it to insulate themselves from moral accountability. That’s part of the crisis of history, from which tribes are not immune. Under modern conditions, it is no longer possible—as it was when we were radically poorer and less mobile—to uphold traditions in society without giving unaccountable power to people who will abuse it.

Chambers’ life story is a series of confrontations with tribal institutions that fail morally—from his unhappy home life to the widespread oppression and mistreatment of workers by big businesses, his experiences among the extremely marginalized, his expulsion from a religious society, and his abuses at the hands of both the Communist Party and the leading institutions of the U.S. government and media. In each case, when Chambers refuses to acquiesce in the tribe’s moral failure, the tribe’s response is vicious. This theme is what gives Witness its tremendous power as both a personal and political meditation on modern life.

All this implies that, while we may learn about right and wrong from our tribes, our tribes are not the ultimate source of the morality they teach us. The fallacy in giving the tribe a veto in the name of morality is that it reduces “morality” to “whatever the tribe does.” This empties our morality of all meaningful content. Real freedom and virtue demand that we limit local loyalties in the name of the higher power that is the real source of moral obligation.

Few people have ever loved their country as much as Chambers loved his. He sacrificed everything he had to save America, even as all its leading institutions were doing their best to destroy him. There is a lesson in that for nationalists. People who really love the tribe hold it accountable to its own moral commitments—and such people are persecuted by the tribe more often than they are welcomed by it.

Nationalism and the Right

Amid the crisis of history, the moral coherence we need cannot be regained by giving the tribe a veto over people’s lives. It can only be regained in the opposite direction, with people exercising a moral veto over their own tribal leaders. For the Right, that requires reining in ethnic and religious nationalism.

White ethnic chauvinism is not just a short-term embarrassment for the Right, it is a cancer that destroys the Right’s moral principles. We can defend the Constitution and the classical liberal regime because they are right, or because they belong to our social group, but not both. Pandering to ethnic passions, whether explicitly or through dog whistles, would once have earned a speedy and irreversible one-way ticket out of the movement. It is now not only tolerated, but built into the business models of some of the Right’s key institutions, especially in broadcasting. We are a long way from Bob Dole’s resounding “the exits are clearly marked” at the 1996 GOP convention. Failure to escort the ethnic nationalists to those exits, even at great short-term cost, has not only destroyed the Right’s moral credibility but undermined its moral philosophy.

The Right must also rethink the relationship between religion and public morals. Ultimate moral standards are needed, but the religious institutions uniquely capable of holding up such standards are themselves increasingly loci of amoral tribalism. Fusionism relied on a simple binary between “religion” (good) and “secularism” (bad). That may once have made some sense. But globalization and the crisis of history have scrambled that simplicity. As people search desperately for some stable and reliable source of moral coherence, religion has not declined, as many predicted. But it is being used more and more aggressively as a way to regain lost tribal loyalties. This, ironically, perverts religious morality into the selfish assertion of our tribe’s interests against those of others, emptying religion of moral content. The Right must become sensitive to the increasing tendency of religious institutions to turn into destructive idols of power-worship—including not only “the other side’s” religious institutions, but the very ones the Right has historically valued.

To generalize from these particulars, the crisis of history forces us to choose between amoral tribalism or moral reform of our institutions. Granted, no one claims to have an easy five-point plan for moral reform. (Well, okay, actually lots of people do claim to have that, and we’ll get to them in a future article in this series.) But it’s not hard to figure out where to start: Defenestrate the ethnic hucksters and religious sellouts, or repudiate them where we cannot defenestrate them. As C.S. Lewis once said in another context, the road is hard, but the path is clear.

This essay continues here.