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From Communist to Reagan Conservative

Today practically every Republican candidate rushes to proclaim himself or herself a “Reagan conservative.” But what exactly does that mean? Or what should it mean?

Ronald Reagan suggested the answer when he described modern conservatism as “a vigorous new synthesis of traditional and libertarian thought.” The president credited a “great thinker” with “fashioning” this synthesis: National Review editor Frank S. Meyer.

“It was Frank Meyer,” Reagan said, “who reminded us that the robust individualism of the American experience was part of the deeper current of Western learning and culture. He pointed out that a respect for law, an appreciation for tradition, and regard for the social consensus that gives stability to our public and private institutions, these civilized ideas must still motivate us even as we seek a new economic prosperity based on reducing government interference in the marketplace. . . . Because ours is a consistent philosophy of government, we can be very clear: We do not have a separate social agenda, separate economic agenda, and a separate foreign agenda. We have one agenda.”

Meyer the great conservative thinker was actually a Communist Party member as a young man. In fact, he became so active as a Communist leader that he was expelled from the London School of Economics. 

Meyer began to reassess his beliefs during World War II, especially after reading that celebrated work on classical liberalism and free-market economics, F. A. Hayek’s Road to Serfdom. By 1956, when he joined William F. Buckley Jr.’s National Review, Meyer was an avowed anti-Communist and a leading conservative intellectual. Until his death in 1972, he stood at the fore of the effort to bring libertarianism and ­traditionalism—freedom and virtue—into harmony. This synthesis is often called “fusionism”; to Reagan and many others, it was simply “conservatism.” 

Today, as threats to freedom and the moral order abound, we could do worse than turn to Meyer to be liberated from what he called the “intellectual bankruptcy of . . . collectivist Liberalism.”

Freedom and Virtue

"Truth withers when freedom dies, however righteous the authority that kills it; and free individualism uninformed by moral value rots at its core and soon brings about conditions that pave the way for surrender to tyranny.”
What Is Conservatism?, 1964

What Are We Conserving?

"Conservatism is no more, nor less, than devotion to the restoration and renewal of the spirit of Western civilization.”
—Remarks on the tenth anniversary of National Review, 1965

The Bulwarks of Civilization

"The first victim of the mobs let loose by the weakening of civilizational restraint will be, as it has always been, freedom—for anyone, anywhere.”
—“Libertarianism or Libertinism?,” 1969

Tradition

"The essence of civilization . . . is tradition: no single generation of men can of itself discover the proper ends of human existence.”
—“Libertarianism or Libertinism?,” 1969

National Security

"I would be, if there were not an armed enterprise determined on our destruction, an isolationist.”
—Conversation with R. Emmett Tyrrell Jr., 1969


Complement with Frank Meyer on what all conservatives can agree on, Russell Kirk on the six core beliefs of conservatism, and with our quiz: which conservative thinker are you?

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