The post-Trump era has been a time of extraordinary political ferment on the right. Stephanie Slade, senior editor of Reason magazine, has had a front-line view of these new political developments. She is both a libertarian and a Catholic, and has written extensively for both libertarian publications and for religious publications, such as the Jesuit magazine America. She covers the intersection of religion and politics as well as the growing illiberalism of the New Right, evident in such new movements as National Conservatism and Catholic integralism.
Most recently, she wrote an op-ed in the New York Times on how Florida Republican governor Ron DeSantis’ clash with the Walt Disney Company demonstrates the ways that the Republican Party is distancing itself from libertarian conservatism, particularly in the realm of economics. Trump-aligned, populist-leaning Republicans such as DeSantis, Missouri senator Josh Hawley, and Ohio senatorial candidate J. D. Vance show a new willingness to use the power of the state to punish their political enemies, including allegedly “woke” institutions such as colleges, universities, and foundations as well as large corporations such as Disney speaking out against Republican-authored legislation.
Slade believes that what’s at stake in these clashes is the future of fusionism – the commitment to liberty and virtue – as the animating philosophy driving the modern American conservative movement. Unlike many on the New Right, she believes that libertarianism is compatible with religious social thought, like Catholic teachings on subsidiarity, for example. And although (in her estimation) the energy and momentum in intellectual and activist circles on the right are currently with the illiberals, she believes the fusionists have the potential to revive.
Stephanie Slade: Both sides have an awful lot of power, and both sides have worked themselves up into such a panic over the power that the other side has, that they’re now being willing to transgress the norms that would’ve previously — rightly I think — governed the use of the power that their side has.
Geoff Kabaservice: Hello! I’m Geoff Kabaservice service for the Niskanen Center. Welcome to The Vital Center Podcast, where we try to sort through the problems of the muddled, moderate majority of Americans, drawing upon history, biography, and current events. And I’m happy to be joined today by Stephanie Slade of Reason magazine. She’s been an editor at the magazine since 2014 and was recently promoted to senior editor. She has an extensive background in writing and editing. She was the recipient of a Robert Novak Journalism Fellowship, as well as a finalist for the Bastiat Prize for journalism. And she was also a White House intern during the presidency of George W. Bush. Welcome, Stephanie.
Stephanie Slade: Thanks so much for having me on. Wow, you dug really far back there to get my 2006 internship into the bio.
Geoff Kabaservice: We have an extensive research team here. I know that for people outside the journalistic world, your promotion in February from managing editor to senior editor of Reason sounds just like semantics. But if I understand correctly, this new position will permit you more time to write, which is wonderful news since, along with many other people, I consider you to be one of the most thoughtful young voices on the political right.
Stephanie Slade: Well, thank you. I appreciate that. And I’m very excited. It was an honor to be managing editor at Reason for about five and a half years and get to help put my stamp onto the print magazine. But now I get to do more writing of my own, and I’m very excited for that.
Geoff Kabaservice: That’s great. And your writing beat at Reason, if I’m getting this correct, is broadly speaking the intersection of religion and politics. But you’ve also in recent years focused on the schism on the right between those whose conservatism is grounded in liberal principles and those who are moving in an illiberal direction. Is that right?
Stephanie Slade: That’s correct, yeah. I started out during the Obama years writing about religion and politics. And at that time, it mostly meant I was making an affirmative case for the importance of religious liberty and having a politics that respected people of faith and allowed people like me — I’m Catholic — people of faith to be able to live out their faith in a free society. But as time has gone on, what it means to cover the intersection of religion and politics has evolved. And now I’m doing a lot more looking at how is religion seeping into our politics, sometimes in less sanguine ways.
Geoff Kabaservice: Okay, well, we’ll get into that. But before we do, can you just tell me something about where you come from, where you grew up, how you came to the journalistic world?
Stephanie Slade: Sure. I’m from Florida. I went to middle school, high school, and college in Florida, studied economics at the University of Florida. And when I started at Reason about not quite eight years ago, I definitely thought that I was going to be writing about economic policy or something like that. That was what my background was in. It’s what I had mostly been writing about to that point. But what I found was that as a young Catholic at an otherwise quite secular magazine, that the way that I could really add value turned out to be able to write about religion and religious liberty from, I don’t know, a more credible perspective. When I was making the case for religious liberty, although many of my colleagues at Reason agreed with the positions I was staking out, I could just write about them more knowledgeably.
And so I said, “Okay, let’s give it a try. I’ll be a religion writer.” And I’ve started down that path, and it’s taken me to where I am now. There was a few years before I started at Reason when I was doing political consulting work, working on campaigns and issue campaigns, mostly in the public opinion research field. So I would write poll questions and analyze polls and conduct and analyze focus groups, which gave me a good grounding in the importance of looking at public opinion: What does the public think? What are voters thinking about things? And also, what are the limitations of polling research when you’re trying to draw conclusions as well?
Geoff Kabaservice: Okay, great. Full disclosure, you were in fact my editor on a review I wrote for Reason last summer, so I can personally attest to your editing skills. Just parenthetically, the book that I reviewed for you was Soul City: Race, Equality, and the Lost Dream of An American Utopia by Thomas Healy. And it was about civil rights leader Floyd McKissick’s utopian plan in the late ’60s to build a wholly new black-run community, to be called Soul City, in the midst of the North Carolina Piedmont on the site of a former slave plantation. And inspired by reading the book, I actually drove out to the site of Soul City, where there’s not much left besides the very ’70s-looking sign at the entrance to what was supposed to be a city of 50,000 people and is now basically a ghost town. It’s in the middle of nowhere, it really is. And there was essentially zero chance of building a viable, freestanding town in this isolated, impoverished rural county, even with a lot of government funding.
But it was a fascinating story nonetheless. I really thank you for putting me onto that. I found it particularly interesting since McKissick was the nation’s leading exponent of black capitalism, and he was for a while Richard Nixon’s chief black Republican spokesman. And I was actually very impressed that a generally conservative magazine was interested in having that book reviewed. So maybe you can tell me something about Reason magazine, its history, and its political/philosophical orientation.
Stephanie Slade: Sure. And the first thing I would have to do on behalf of my colleagues who are a little less conservative than I am is to say that we really do not in any way identify as a conservative magazine. Reason is a libertarian magazine — small-L libertarian — which is to say that we are not in any way affiliated with the capital-L Libertarian Party. We’re not an arm of the party or representative of the party. And often our coverage of Libertarian Party politics is critical, just as our coverage of Republican and Democratic party politics is critical. But we do represent a… We write about politics and culture and we do so through the lens of a small-L libertarian perspective. And so, again, it’s neither Republican nor Democrat nor Libertarian Party, but it is just a general belief in the presumption of individual liberty on both economic issues and on social issues. We believe in limited government and we believe in devolving decision-making away from big, powerful, and especially coercive institutions, and down towards the individual person and voluntary and community-level institutions.
Geoff Kabaservice: If you had to guess, how do you think your fellow editors and workers at Reason vote? Is it a range of how they vote?
Stephanie Slade: Well, every four years we actually publish who we’re going to be voting for, and the answers are certainly not representative of anyone else in the world. We’re pretty unusual. A lot of non-voters on our staff, principled abstainers. Some people who vote for the Libertarian Party candidate in any given year, and usually one or a few that go Republican or one or a few that go Democrat in any given cycle. But certainly, the people who are voting for either Republicans or Democrats are almost always outweighed by the people who are not voting at all. We tend to be pretty skeptical of the two-party duopoly.
Geoff Kabaservice: A lot of what goes viral from Reason are often videos attacking both parties with equal gusto. I just saw one that came up on my feed, where it’s a nightmare version of Disney World from both the Republican and the Democratic standpoint. And I know that both-sider-ism is supposed to be this terrible accusation nowadays, but a lot of these videos are in fact quite funny.
Stephanie Slade: So we try to use humor to make that point.
Geoff Kabaservice: And there is something about libertarianism where conservatives and those on the left can buy into certain aspects of it while rejecting an awful lot of the rest of it.
Stephanie Slade: Yeah. We would like to think — I certainly would like to think, always — that really everybody should like us, because we agree with everybody on at least something. But the truth is that, for the most part, everybody hates us because we disagree with them and are not really shy about saying so, about calling it like we see it. And when we see something we like or don’t like from either side, we will write that. And so we tend to not be the most popular magazine in the room.
Geoff Kabaservice: You and I are both Floridians, although I think you’re a west coast person and I’m an east coast person.
Stephanie Slade: I’m from a suburb of Tampa.
Geoff Kabaservice: Maybe being Floridians, we take a particular interest in the recent collisions between the state’s current Republican governor, Ron DeSantis, and one of its largest employers, the Walt Disney Company. And you recently wrote a terrific op-ed in the New York Times entitled “The Party of Big Business Is Getting More Anti-Conservative by the Day.” First, congratulations again for that great op-ed.
Stephanie Slade: Thank you very much.
Geoff Kabaservice: Did the Times ask you to write on that subject?
Stephanie Slade: They did, they did. I had written something for them once before about the evolution of the Republican Party and its drift away from what you might think of as small-L libertarianism, especially on economics. And so when this drama broke out in Florida, I think they thought of me to offer a perspective on that.
Geoff Kabaservice: I’m glad they did. You pointed out in that op-ed that the Republican Party used to be considered the party of business. I mean, one thinks of Republican president Calvin Coolidge’s assertion that the business of America is business. And the principle legislative achievement under President Donald Trump, economically at any rate, was an enormous corporate tax cut. But what you have now with the case of DeSantis and other populist-leaning Republicans is this new willingness to use the power of the state against large companies as well as nonprofits that take the wrong political line, so far as they are concerned. So there really is a need for someone like you to explain this to an interested public. So can you first explain how you see the events that led DeSantis and Disney to find themselves at such odds — because the company had, after all, donated over $100,000 to DeSantis-linked PACs in recent years and had also given generously to the Republican Party and state legislators in Florida.
Stephanie Slade: So to just run through briefly the facts of the case… In Florida, they passed what critics have referred to as the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, which was a law that would restrict… The idea was that it would restrict discussion or instruction on sexual orientation and gender issues in public school classrooms in the state of Florida. This was supported by Republicans in the state and signed by Republican Governor DeSantis about two months ago, although there were… And I think it’s important to note, this was a bill that had some bipartisan support and had some Democrats in the state legislature that crossed party lines to support it as well. But it was DeSantis’ baby, and a Republican initiative to regulate speech in the classrooms in this way.
The CEO of Disney, which is one of the largest — far and away the largest —employers in the state of Florida objected to this law. He initially was reluctant, I think, to weigh in at all. But under pressure from activists and from employees of the Disney Company, the CEO put out a statement condemning the law as anti-gay. And Republicans in the state of Florida and Governor DeSantis did not take kindly to Disney meddling in this way and speaking out critically against this law, and reacted with what I consider to be a very troubling willingness to use state power — almost thoughtlessly. What they did was they rushed through another law in a matter of days that would strip Disney of its governing jurisdiction around the theme parks that Disney has in Central Florida near Orlando. And it was pretty explicit, in the reasoning behind the second law that they passed, that it was to target and to punish Disney for daring to criticize the earlier law that Republicans supported.
So this was, again, pretty openly an example of Republicans — who once, not too long ago, were considered the party of business and even big business — cracking down against a big business and a major employer in the state in retaliation for that company’s political speech, the company’s disfavored speech. And I consider that to be, sure, yes, a reversal in terms of the Republican Party’s orientation toward business, but much more troubling to me, a real violation of rule of law as well.
Geoff Kabaservice: So I’d somewhat question your use of the word “meddling” to characterize Disney and its reaction to the situation. Disney had nothing to do one way or another with this bill — what is it technically called, House Bill 57, or rather 1557, aka the Parental Rights in Education Act, which critics had referred to as the “Don’t Say Gay Bill.” Bob Chapek, who is the current CEO, actually had initially resisted any kind of internal pressure to condemn the bill. And it’s not until the point is raised by both people inside and outside the company, as you say — including the company’s customers as well as its employees — that Florida legislators who put this bill forward had actually been funded by Disney, so Disney isn’t a completely uninvolved party. So it feels more as though Disney got baited into an almost impossible situation here, where it’s going to be criticized severely no matter what it does. And so this feels like performative politics, as much as anything else, on the part of DeSantis and the Florida Republicans.
Stephanie Slade: Yeah. And I think when I used the word “meddling,” I was channeling the talking point that people like DeSantis would use. When he was signing the second law that abolishes Disney’s special business jurisdiction, he said, “You’re a corporation based in Burbank, California, and you’re going to marshal your economic might to attack the parents of my state. Well, we view that as a provocation, and we’re going to fight back against that.” So this is the kind of language that they were using. I agree with you completely that, in fact, Disney was putting out a statement, reluctantly and belatedly, that criticizes a law that had already become law. And nothing about Disney speaking out against it does anything to stop it from being law or from being enforced. There really was no actual meddling at all. But that’s why I consider this to be retaliation for speech — which, again, is really troubling. And I’m not going to say for sure that Disney would be able to prove its First Amendment case in a court of law and win, but I think that it is certainly contrary to the spirit of the First Amendment to have a government body punishing a private corporation for expressing disfavored political speech.
Geoff Kabaservice: And it seemed to me… I was back in Florida in October, and it seemed to me that DeSantis was looking to pick a fight with companies at that time. He was giving a talk to the Florida Chamber of Commerce, and he blasted what he called “the rise of corporate wokeness.” And he warned that he was going to “look under the hood of these companies” if they dared to speak out on these issues, and he’s got a podium and that would be very damaging for these companies. And his actions, as you point out in your op-ed, seem consistent with the attempts of people like, let’s say, Republican Senator Josh Hawley of Missouri, who’s trying to break up Big Tech and who also introduced a bill to deprive Disney of its copyrights, or Ohio Senate nominee J. D. Vance, who proposed to seize the assets of the Ford Foundation. What do you think is going on here? Where’s this coming from?
Stephanie Slade: I think it’s good politics right now. I think there’s a lot of people, Republican base voters, who do feel that they are under attack. Rightly or wrongly, they feel that they are under attack from the commanding heights of our culture — Hollywood, universities, Big Tech, and so on and so forth — and that their view as conservatives, as Republican voters, as Christians, as white people, suddenly doesn’t have a place in our culture. They feel like they’re being under attack. This is the thing you hear them say, again, whether you agree with the premise or not. And they’re angry. And they’re really right now ready to reward politicians who will feed that anger and who will fight back against their perceived enemies in these various institutions.
I thought that J. D. Vance’s comments last year were particularly egregious when he said — he used the phrase “seize the assets,” by which he means punitive taxation. So the government, which has a legitimate right to tax corporations and individuals, but this would be a targeted, punitive taxation against either what he refers to as leftist nonprofits and foundations, like the Ford Foundation, or someone like Harvard University, which has this endowment. He wants to seize their resources through taxation.
And also he wanted to target with taxation any big corporations — like Delta, say — that would come out against these state level voting laws that Republicans were passing in some places like Georgia last year. If a company criticized a law as in their view in some way disenfranchising the people of that state where they do business, he said they should be punished through the tax code. And this was the first inkling I had, that this sort of rule of law had been breached. It wasn’t just, “We are going to criticize the companies for criticizing us,” or “We’re going to criticize the companies for being ‘woke.’” But rather, “We are going to use the power of the state in a targeted way to punish them and to harm them,” and to essentially try to browbeat them into obedience.
Geoff Kabaservice: It’s interesting… You and other people at Reason have criticized industrial policy as a deviation from the free functioning of the markets. But what’s being talked about here is beyond industrial policy into something more resembling authoritarianism or Orbanism or perhaps Putinism. Is there actually a split going on, in your view, between libertarians who once upon a time might have supported people like the populists, the more traditional approach of people like DeSantis and Hawley?
Stephanie Slade: Yeah, I definitely have written a lot over the last two years about what I call “the liberalism schism.” And I think it’s a schism that does run across both the left and the right in our politics. But it’s very obvious to me, as I cover the right, that there still are people — not just libertarians but some people who identify as classical liberal conservatives, Republican voters who still believe in individual liberty and limited government and rule of law — who are not comfortable with what they’re seeing from this other faction. They are what I would describe as on the other side of the schism, who have decided that no, actually all that stuff about limited government and individual liberty sounded good, but we don’t like where it’s gotten us and so instead we’re going to pivot, we’re going to completely reverse our position, and we’re going to now embrace “muscular government” — a phrase you’ll often hear — big government. We’re going to seize control, use the power of the state, be willing to wield it as a weapon against our enemies, our political enemies, and be unapologetic about doing that.
And what they would say is, “The left doesn’t have any qualms about using the power of the state against us. And so it’s time to fight back in kind.” I understand the impulse, I guess, but I think this is a really dangerous, dangerous road to go down.
Geoff Kabaservice: Derek Thompson of the Atlantic speculated recently that what’s more broadly going on here in the Disney clash is that Republicans feel that they’ve been culturally disempowered by the left — companies, universities, the media, big institutions of all kinds — while Democrats fear that they’re being politically disempowered by the right. And both sides are basically using the levers that they see as available to them to fight back. And the result is that the Republicans are yanking the politics right while the Democrats are yanking their institutions left. Does that seem plausible to you?
Stephanie Slade: Yes, it does. And what’s interesting is that you’ll hear some of the same rhetoric from both sides. They’ll say things like, “We always play by the rules. We always play nice and they never do. And therefore it’s time for us to fight back in kind.” So they’ll say, “They have all the power and they’re willing to use it.” And both sides, they believe what they’re saying. They think that the other side really does hold all the power, because they’re only thinking about the kind of power that they don’t have and where they feel vulnerable and weak. And so there is a real sense that both sides have an awful lot of power, and both sides have worked themselves up into such a panic over the power that the other side has, that they’re now being willing to transgress the norms that would’ve previously — rightly, I think — governed the use of the power that their side has.
Geoff Kabaservice: You were quite eloquent in your condemnation, in the op-ed, of the way in which these conservative populists are trying to use state power to punish their opponents. And you pointed out: “This is not just a departure from the Republican consensus of the past half-century. It is a wholesale rejection of free markets and the very idea of limited government. It will make America poorer and the American people more vulnerable to tyranny.” Now, you didn’t do both-sides here, but you actually did seem to feel as well, though, that companies like Disney have kind of helped put themselves in a bind, at least partially, by acceding to activist demands. Is that fair to say?
Stephanie Slade: Yeah, I am very much of the belief that according to both my principles — my first principles as a libertarian and Supreme Court precedent — that private companies have the right, they have speech rights. Corporate speech rights are protected by our Constitution, as they should be. And so I will defend Disney’s rights to have an opinion about this law, just like I will defend other collections of individuals that come together in some sort of corporate association, whether that’s a business or a church or a labor union, to pool their resources and express a political opinion. That’s a right that we should have in a free society.
So this is not a legal argument or even a principled argument, but I do think there’s something to be said on a prudential level for when you’re a company, and you are a very large company whose customer base spans the political spectrum and is supposed to be catering to Americans and American families, not making the choice to alienate 50 percent of your customer base does seem like perhaps a smarter choice than alienating 50 percent of your customer base. And I think that we are going to see, and probably should see — I think it will probably be better all around to see less of this, the sense that companies absolutely must be frontline combatants in the culture war.
We saw just this past week Netflix come out and say, “We are not going to censor unpopular perspectives in our programming. And if you’re uncomfortable working on a documentary or a TV show or a movie that promotes a view that you don’t agree with, then maybe Netflix isn’t the right place for you to work.” I think we’re probably going to end up seeing more of that, that that’s probably a necessary correction. Because corporations, although again they have every legal right to express political opinions, it’s not very good for them, or I think for our politics and our society — I think it’s really putting a lot of strain on the fabric of American society to have this all-encompassing culture war where every single entity, even Disney, has to be a combatant in it. I don’t particularly want to live in that world and I think a lot of other people feel the same way. And I think companies are starting to realize that.
Geoff Kabaservice: I was a Disney-obsessed child and even read a whole bunch of books about Disney at an age where I was really much too young to appreciate the political dimensions of them. But I always could tell, even as a child, that Disney actually was a pretty conservative company, very concerned with presenting a family-friendly image. It would not hire employees at Disney World who had long hair on men. And there actually was a case where somebody in a high school a few towns over had the bad judgment to go up to Disney World wearing a marijuana belt buckle, and security actually took the belt buckle from him and forced him to walk around the rest of the day holding up his pants.
Nonetheless, I think that what’s going on, to some extent, is not that companies like Disney have decided that they want to get involved in these culture wars. There’s a famous quote by Michael Jordan: “Republicans buy sneakers too.” I think they’d rather not get involved if they can help it. But I think that most of their employees, certainly at Disney, are college-educated. And college-educated people come with certain political attitudes and expect different things of their companies than they used to in the past. And while a company can afford to alienate a certain percentage of its customer base, it probably can’t at all afford to alienate its own employees. Do you see some of this going on as well?
Stephanie Slade: Oh, I definitely think that’s the dynamic at play. And it’s not unique to Disney. Lots of companies, I think, feel that they are under pressure from their employees. But again, I think that we’re still living in history. This is not just like the new normal and necessarily an enduring status quo. I think there has been this sort of a move in the direction of more demands for activism on the part of corporations. And now I think we might see some correction back in the other direction. And I’m not necessarily… I just don’t see any reason to assume that this level of really intense activism, corporate activism, is where the equilibrium will be forever. I hope that it will be possible to get to a little bit of a healthier place.
Geoff Kabaservice: There’s another interesting set of sentences in your piece… You wrote, “The American economy is rife with cronyism, like subsidies or regulatory exemptions, that give some businesses advantages not available to all. This makes a mockery of free markets and rule of law, transferring wealth from taxpayers and consumers to politically connected elites.” And this is also what my Niskanen colleagues Brink Lindsey, Steve Teles, and Dan Takash refer to as “the captured economy.” I wonder if maybe some of the Republican working-class voters hate big corporations now because they feel that they have rigged the system. Is that a plausible reading?
Stephanie Slade: Yes, absolutely. This is a real problem with our economy, that it is rife with cronyism and capture. And people aren’t completely stupid or ignorant of this fact. This is a thing that I’m sure that voters and customers are aware of and are unhappy with — just a generalized sense that something about the system is rigged against us, something isn’t quite working the way it’s supposed to in a free society and a free market. People have that sense, for sure. On the other hand, I think some defenders of what DeSantis and the Republicans in Florida did in this case have tried to climb up on a high horse and say, “Well, this is good-government reform because we are removing a special privilege that Disney had in terms of its special governing jurisdiction around its theme parks. And so how dare you be on the side of crony capitalism when you criticize us for stripping away this special jurisdiction?”
And that I think is very disingenuous and needs to be pushed back against. Because this was not a good-government reform. There are some 1,800 special investment districts in the state of Florida, and politicians who passed this law were very open about the fact that they were doing so in order to target Disney for its speech. That is, I think… You mentioned the speech that DeSantis gave last year in which he told business leaders to knock it off with this corporate wokeness. And if they don’t, “I may take a look under the hood and not like some things that I see.” I might come after you, in other words. And I just think this is such an almost literal example of, “Very nice business you got there. It would be a shame if something happened to it” — which is truly as far as you can get from good-government reform. This is a shakedown. And I strongly object, and I think it’s very important that we not allow them to take credit for as if this is anything other than that, as opposed to making the system fairer.
Geoff Kabaservice: Yeah, it really is the language of gangsterism. And this is what makes me really skeptical that the Republican Party as currently constituted could actually do anything to reform capitalism, to actually make it fairer, to remove some of this crony-capitalist element from it. I’m afraid that what we’re seeing is a move toward, again, Orbanism, where companies’ success in the market, even their access to the market, is determined by their level of donation and obeisance to the party in power.
Stephanie Slade: I don’t think this is unique to the Republicans or to the right. There’s plenty of cronyism happening on all sides and has been for a long time. But this is, I think, a particularly egregious example that needed to be called out.
Geoff Kabaservice: You also in your piece said that what’s at stake here is actually the future of fusionist governing philosophy, the philosophy that in some sense has undergirded the conservative movement since Bill Buckley founded National Review in 1955. Could you give your definition of fusionism as you see it?
Stephanie Slade: Sure thing, especially because it’s actually used by many people today in what I would consider to be an ahistorical way. Most people, if they talk about fusionism in terms of conservative politics, they use it to mean: “This is just a word for the coalition that we formed between libertarians and social conservatives and maybe Cold War hawks during the 20th century.” And that coalition was a real thing. But fusionism actually was a nickname that was given to the political philosophy put forward by a senior editor at National Review named Frank Meyer. And Frank Meyer, in the ‘60s and ‘70s — especially the ‘50s, ‘60s, and ‘70s — he said, “Look, what we are aiming to conserve here is the Western tradition of a non-negotiable commitment to both liberty and virtue.” That was the really important thing, liberty and virtue. “We are not old-fashioned, European-style conservatives who are entirely focused on hierarchy and tradition and virtue and Judeo-Christian religion — virtue in that sense. And we are also not libertarians who just care about liberty. We think both these things are necessary, and this is what it means to be a conservative in the American context.”
And this was, I think… It was a really successful message that won over through being put out there through National Review, the flagship conservative magazine of the times. It won over a lot of people that influenced the movement, the growing conservative movement that came up over the last 50 to 70 years. And it influenced a lot of people who identified as conservatives and a lot of people who went into Republican politics over that time. So fusionism was the idea that, “We believe in both liberty and virtue.” Actually, Frank Meyer went even further than that and said, “The way we can reconcile with these two things seem like they may be in tension with each other, is that we support a government that just focuses on protecting people’s liberty and then a non-governmental sphere in which people, individually and in community, can pursue virtue. So separate out these two spheres and we give each one its own task. Government exists to protect liberty and the non-governmental sphere exists in which for us to pursue virtue.”
This was fusionism — at least the idealized fusionism. But it had a long tail. It has influenced a lot of people who identified as conservatives and as Republicans for many decades. And the sort of schism that has opened up in the last few years really has pitted the fusionists against the non-fusionists — that’s maybe one way to think about it — or the anti-fusionists, those who have repudiated fusionism on the other side.
Geoff Kabaservice: You’ve been a contributing writer, I think, at the Jesuit magazine America. Am I right about that?
Stephanie Slade: That’s right. I haven’t written for them lately, but I have written for them in the past.
Geoff Kabaservice: Do you have a church in DC that you regularly attend?
Stephanie Slade: I do. I’m a parishioner at my neighborhood church here in D.C.
Geoff Kabaservice: So you are in a sense, yourself, a kind of embodiment of the fusionist doctrine. I always had this sort of argument with Bill Buckley — not argument, exactly, I was just more curious to know where he was coming from. He once said to me that he actually sympathized with the moderate Republicans, always trying to balance between different factions, because he also saw himself as trying to balance between different kinds of libertarianism and different kinds of traditionalism, some of which were outside of whatever kind of consensus he was trying to form in the middle of his conservative movement. So on the one hand he had to anathematize Ayn Rand and the John Birchers from the right, but he also had to, as he saw it, anathematize Murray Rothbard and some of the more anarcho-capitalists who surfaced on the libertarian side in the 1960s. And that idea of balance is one that you don’t hear much about from within the conservative movement, but I think it actually was more important than people tend to remember.
Stephanie Slade: Yeah, I think that’s right. And again, I think that there certainly was a very intentional project on Buckley’s part, when he was putting together National Review in 1955, to ensure that there were voices from different camps that would be included and some that would be excluded. This was conscious on his part. But Frank Meyer’s fusionist project really was something a little bit different from that. And, I mean, I think it’s important to correct the record and say fusionism really was supposed to be a stand-alone, distinct philosophical orientation that said, “No, here’s what we all believe. We all believe in promoting and defending both liberty and virtue and to build a consensus around that philosophy” — as opposed to just bringing a bunch of people together in one room who had different philosophies and trying to find a way to get them to all get along.
Geoff Kabaservice: Speaking of that, I am sure you’ve also seen the statistics where no more than one in ten libertarians, if that, identify as Catholic. So you must have a lot of these arguments with people who you work with, for example.
Stephanie Slade: Yeah. When I started at Reason, I used to have the words “resident Catholic” in my Twitter bio, as Reason’s resident Catholic. I’m not actually the only one anymore. It’s a minority position, but I meet (or virtually, at least, encounter) Catholic libertarians online all the time. So there are some of us out there. I’m not literally the only one. But it’s a minority view. I’m happy to make the case that these two things, that seem on the surface to some people to be potentially incompatible, surprisingly are perfectly compatible. I believe they are.
Geoff Kabaservice: I remember you once writing that you drifted away from your cradle Catholicism when you were in college, and what pulled you back was, at least in part, a consideration of Humanae Vitae, which was Pope Paul’s VI’s 1968 encyclical reaffirming the church’s teaching in rejecting birth control and other forms of artificial contraception. I don’t remember exactly what you wrote, but you said that the reasoning in that encyclical anticipated “our current toxic sexual culture” — and I apologize if I’m misremembering exactly how you phrased it. Does that sound about right?
Stephanie Slade: That sounds about right, yeah. I encountered this encyclical when I was in college. I looked at the college campus around me, at what did seem like quite a toxic culture to me at that moment, and I thought, “Gosh, wow. The Church knows what it’s talking about. It knew what it was talking about 50 years ago when it put this document out. And I am living through the embodiment of what it means when a society ignores that wisdom.”
Geoff Kabaservice: You know, Christine Emba of the Washington Post has come out with a book recently kind of calling for a re-erection of barriers, if you will, or some kind of guidelines, which would go against the libertarianism in the dating market, if that makes any sense.
Stephanie Slade: Well, okay. So you have to recognize when I talk about libertarianism, what I mean by this — and I had a piece in an issue of Reason two or three months ago called “Two Libertarianisms.” I differentiate between political libertarianism and comprehensive libertarianism. And for me, when I say I’m a libertarian, what I’m talking about is: This is my political philosophy. This is what I believe to be the proper role of the state in society. I want a minimal state that does a few things very well and then stays out of the way of the rest. But I don’t think, unlike somebody who might be more of a comprehensive libertarian, I do not think that libertarianism tells me how to live my life well or how we ought to go about structuring society outside of that governmental sphere.
I just think that we have to look to other things besides maximizing liberty when you’re looking at how do you build a good society, or how do you live a good life? I think liberty is certainly a consideration, but it is not the highest or the only consideration. And so when you talk about the dating market, as far as I’m concerned, there’s no government regulation there. There is, I hope, a very minimal role for the state in the dating market. I want to keep it that way, and I also want to resist the urge to think that all that matters is how do we maximize freedom in the free market of the dating market.
Geoff Kabaservice: Well, there is that. I was thinking about Buckley’s forward that he wrote to a reissue of his first book, God and Man at Yale, which was published in 1951. He had written that the most famous sentence in the book was actually not written by him but by his mentor, the political science professor Willmoore Kendall at Yale. Kendall, in his distinctive green writing, wrote on the margins that this was the way Buckley should put it: “I believe that the duel between Christianity and atheism is the most important in the world. I further believe that the struggle between individualism and collectivism is the same struggle reproduced on another level.” And when this went into the book, one Christian conservative magazine cited it and declared, “No Solomon or Confucius or other wise man of the ages ever spoke or wrote truer words than the sentence just quoted.” To which Buckley, who never lacked for an ego, added: “It was the very first time I had been compared to Solomon or Confucius.” But in fact, there’s lots of reasons to doubt whether the struggle for capitalism and virtue are in fact exactly the same thing, or even whether they’re compatible, are there not?
Stephanie Slade: Well, I would not say that they’re the same struggle. I think that the level of virtue in the society bears upon the outcomes that a free market will produce, right? I’ve written a lot about this. I want to live in a virtuous society, and I think that people making virtuous choices should and will influence the consumption choices they make, the choices they make in business, in the marketplace, when you’re trying to decide, again, how to live your life. And that includes how to make a living and how to interact with your neighbors, how to interact with your employees or your employer, or your business partners or whatnot.
You could imagine two markets that are both equally free from government interference, but one in which a population that believes that we have interpersonal obligations to each other and one in which everybody believes that “All that matters is for me to get mine.” And those two markets are going to look really different. And it’s going to have nothing to do with government regulation of the marketplace. It will have nothing to do with the government regulation of the marketplace, actually. Let me put it this way… It will have everything to do with the way that the actors in the marketplace self-regulate, how their choices have a sort of regulating effect on the outcomes that that market will produce. That’s how it should be. I mean, that’s a really important and good thing. I do not think that every market, even every free market, is created equal on a moral level.
Geoff Kabaservice: A few years ago, you wrote a piece for America magazine entitled “A Libertarian Case for the Common Good.” And your message — I’m paraphrasing here — is that libertarianism does uphold the importance of community, contrary to what people might think; that it does not preach selfish unconcern for the plight of one’s fellow humans; and that it is therefore compatible with the Catholic Church’s social doctrine and particularly its teaching on the common good. And you did address the Catholic Church’s first great social encyclical, Rerum Novarum, which was issued by Pope Leo XIII in 1891. I’m about to get myself into some trouble here, but if I remember, its principal concern was to ameliorate the misery of the working classes at that time. It did reject socialism, it did reject any attempt to abolish private property, but it also rejected unrestricted capitalism — which to an untrained ear sounds a lot like libertarianism. But you did not read it as a document incompatible with libertarianism as you conceive it, am I correct?
Stephanie Slade: No, that’s correct. Absolutely, yeah. I think that if you read it, it’s actually a really powerful and eloquent defense of freedom, but also of the obligations we have to each other and of the idea that would come to be known in the Catholic social tradition as subsidiarity. That is to say that problems should be solved, social problems are best solved at the level closest to the individual. And so instead of saying, okay, we have poor people in this country, for example, or we have people who don’t have health insurance in this country, and therefore we should have a federal government program to solve it, Pope Leo said something very different. He said that through individual people coming together and forming associations and bodies and charitable organizations and unions and all of these different civil society institutions, we can go a really long way towards solving these problems. The obligation is on us as individuals to do that work and not to just pass off the responsibility for helping people to some faraway bureaucrat in the state capital or in the nation’s capital. Rather, the responsibility is ours. So this is the idea of subsidiarity, of local communities trying to solve problems, and of only looking to higher levels of government if there’s some reason that it can’t be done at the lower level.
Geoff Kabaservice: I cannot help but point out that Michael Sean Winters wrote a response to this piece in the National Catholic Reporter, which maybe should have been entitled Contra Slade or maybe Ad Abolendam Slade, in which he completely denied that libertarianism is in any way compatible with Catholic social thought; he actually thought it is the enemy of it. And without getting into his specific arguments, I have heard other people say that, essentially, the unfettered free market tends toward spiritual poverty because it encourages materialism, regardless of what it does to actually increase levels of human economic income. And that furthermore, if you look at the way that our world has gone since the 1960s, it has been a continuing diminution of the role of religion in public life, in the number of people who believe in God. And that this is, at least in some part, the doings of the unfettered free market. Are you sympathetic to those criticisms? Do you think there’s anything to them or do you think there are other things at work?
Stephanie Slade: Oh, I definitely think there are other things at work. I also don’t think that history is linear. So if you look at all of human history, you’ll see a cyclical pattern of people who read the Bible, people who find God and then go away from God and then have to find their way back to God. So this is historical, a sort of world-historical. And in American history, we also have over the course of the last 500 years a series of religious awakenings and then of secularizations. The work of Lyman Stone at AEI, I think, really has informed my view on this. When you realize that this is not a story, American history is not a story in which at the Founding we were an incredibly pious and religious people and today we are an incredibly debased and secular people, and there was a straight linear line between those two things… No, no, it’s very cyclical.
I have every hope — as a Christian, I try to always be motivated by and animated by hope — that we can find our way back again. So yes, okay, at this moment, there’s a lot of secularization. There’s a lot of fracturing in our society. There are many things, including what we were talking about a few minutes ago, about what the sexual revolution has done that I’m not a fan of and that I’m openly critical of. But I don’t think that’s the end of the story. So I’m hopeful that there can be another awakening and a recovery of some of the importance of these transcendental things that we may currently have drifted away from, but also that I see around me, all the time, people searching for, in their own ways. I see people coming back to the Church all the time. I see people looking for answers about: Why does this life seem empty or dry? Or: What is missing? And so I’m very hopeful that this is just the beginning of a potential. At least there’s an opportunity here for a recovery of the things that we have lost, but not lost forever.
Geoff Kabaservice: First Things magazine is something I always want to call a conservative Catholic magazine, but it’s not, it’s an ecumenical Christian magazine. I need to keep correcting myself on that. In the current issue for June-July, there’s a piece by Ross Douthat which is a meditation on Jacques Maritain. And, again, I will get myself into too much trouble if I try to go too deeply into this. But he’s essentially, in a very gentle way, arguing against integralism, which is in its way a counterpart to National Conservatism and other post-liberal efforts going on on the political side in the Republican Party, to say, “We’ve failed. We need something stronger. We need a more muscular response to the negative tendencies of this age and the progressive monopolization of the heights of the economy and society.”
Geoff Kabaservice: And Ross Douthat here is in a debate of sorts with Edmund Waldstein, who is an integralist, who does think that what’s necessary is maybe some kind of state Catholicism, if the religion is going to be preserved. You’ve dealt with integralists in some of your own writings as well. How do you see what they’re thinking about? Are you sympathetic? Are you more critical than sympathetic? How do you come down on this question?
Stephanie Slade: I’m unsympathetic. I am definitely a critic, yeah. So what they are essentially arguing in favor of is doing away with the separation of church and state. What I want to be clear on is that I don’t just mean that they’re saying, “Hey, religion and culture and society and politics are all interwoven. And people, if they are religious believers, are going to bring their religious beliefs to the public square and to their politics.” That’s a true statement, and I would defend that. And in any kind of attempt to drive religion out of the public square, going back to my beginnings as a reporter writing about religious liberty, I’m going to be on the side of defending people of faith and their right to live out their faith, including in public.
But that’s not the same thing as Catholic integralism, which would actually integrate — that’s where the root of the word is — the Church hierarchy with the civil government. And in fact it would say that, although we have these two separate bodies — one, the Church that is responsible for our spiritual authority, and the other, the civil government, which is the temporal authority — that the temporal authority, the government in society, should be subordinated to the higher authority of the Church. That’s the Catholic integralist view. And it’s extreme, and I think extremely dangerous.
Geoff Kabaservice: What you do often hear from not just the integralists but from a lot of people of faith is that the ultimate progressive goal is to eliminate their ability to worship freely, to be religious in this society; in some sense the progressives mean to exterminate them. Do you think they have reason to fear this? Are their fears overblown? How do you come down on that?
Stephanie Slade: I think they have reasons to fear this, and their fears are overblown. I think both those things are true. So again, I started out in my career covering religious liberty controversies, in which… For example, a big piece I did for America magazine, when I was writing for them a little bit more, was a long investigation of this series of lawsuits being brought by the ACLU and other left-of-center groups against Catholic hospitals, trying to force Catholic hospitals to perform abortions, gender transition services, and elective sterilization procedures. Catholic hospitals exist all over the country. Sometimes there are communities where they’re the only provider of hospital care for a long way. And if they were to be shut down by one of these lawsuits, it wouldn’t help the people in those communities. It would mean that they would have to go without care. Because the Catholic hospital, which does this as an expression of its sort of missionary and charitable output, is able to operate in these places through the support of the Church.
These lawsuits are punitive. They basically say, “We would rather people not have access to hospital care than that you, the Catholic church, be allowed to run a hospital in accordance with your religious beliefs” — which is to say, “We believe that abortion is the innocent taking of a human life, and we don’t do elective abortions. And we don’t do elective sexualization procedures. This is an expression of our religious views — and the same religious views, by the way, that motivate us to want to operate this hospital in this place where nobody else was willing to do so.”
So I think I definitely side with… I’m sympathetic, and I understand why people of faith in this country feel like they are under assault, that there are attacks on religious liberty, that being a sort of traditional Christian believer or traditional believer — holding these sort of traditional views, especially about sex, sexuality, and sexual morality — is not welcome in our culture. This is a sense that people have, and I understand why they have it. At the same time, you go a little bit farther down the rabbit hole and you hear people talking about genocidal attempts to root out Christianity and destroy all believers. And this is not right. This is not true.
Geoff Kabaservice: But I do remember a case, just a few years ago, where I think it was the ACLU in Massachusetts that was trying to say that if a church allowed non-congregants into its basement for a spaghetti supper, let’s say, then that made it a place of public accommodation. Therefore, it should be subject to the rules that otherwise govern public accommodations. And therefore, it would have to conform. This seems like a thin edge of the wedge, doesn’t it?
Stephanie Slade: Right, exactly. And there have been a lot of these cases. Some of them have been real cases where there was lawsuit brought, or there was a local ordinance that was trying to be enforced against a Catholic school or a synagogue or whatever. And a lot of them have been also speculation, or people saying, “This church shouldn’t be allowed to do that. Something should be done. There ought to be a law.” And so you have enough people on the left who are saying this about the way that religious institutions, religious charities are run. And people sort of on the… I shouldn’t use left and right. But the sort of people of faith start to feel like, “Well, it’s only a matter of time until they make good on this threat and then they come after us.” So even if there isn’t actually that much of a concrete threat, there is a sense in the air that people feel that “It’s not safe for people like me anymore.” And that’s really dangerous. Even if it’s overblown, I think it is causing people to then lash out in a way that they maybe wouldn’t otherwise.
Geoff Kabaservice: You know, we’re talking at a time when there’s been this draft leaked by Samuel Alito that would appear to overturn Roe v. Wade and Planned Parenthood v. Casey, and throw the issue essentially back to the states. And I’m not optimistic that this will lead to good political outcomes. And there’s also a question as to whether that doing away with the right of privacy that seemed to be behind abortion also will lead to the undoing of other decisions such as Obergefell, which legalized gay marriage. And I’m not in favor of that either.
But I do remember that before Obergefell, when this issue of gay marriage was still being fought out state by state, there actually was a compromise reached in Utah between gay rights advocates and religious authorities — principally, in Utah, the Mormon Church — where it was just kind of made clear that the aim of the gay marriage advocates was not to force churches to conduct religious ceremonies for homosexual couples in the churches. And by the same token, the church could live with gay marriage elsewhere and the expression of culture. And I do wonder, if the abortion issue is thrown back on the states, whether there would be some room for creative compromises of that sort, or whether we’ve just become so polarized that it’s just going to be a war of all against all.
Stephanie Slade: I tried to get out of the business of making predictions after 2016, because my predictions were so universally wrong during that election cycle. I think it’s going to be fascinating to watch. Assuming the decision handed down does overturn Roe v. Wade, it will of course not do the thing that some people expect, which is suddenly ban abortion everywhere in the country overnight. No, it will send, in fact, the issue back to the states, and each state will be able to legislate or pass a state-level constitutional amendment. And we will definitely have different states with different governing regimes. That for sure will happen. Whether we will end up with a bunch of states where abortion is completely banned and a bunch of states, like what New York State has currently on the books, where abortion is legal with no restrictions at all right up until the moment of birth, or whether we will have some meeting in the middle and some sort of attempts to craft more subtle legislation that actually would reflect better what public opinion research suggests where voters in most places really are…
I’ve written about this. Other people have written about this too. But it bears repeating that, in fact, it’s only the sort of activist class at the two extremes on the abortion issue — of it should be illegal at all times under all circumstances, or it should be legal at all times for any reason right up until the moment of birth. Very few Americans, even those who identify as strongly pro-life or strongly pro-choice, are anywhere close to those two extremes. Most people are in the middle. They think it should be legal under some circumstances, and they just differ about what those circumstances are. And so it will be very interesting to watch, if this is returned to the states, whether states start trying to in a more fine-grained way draft legislation that reflects where the electorate in that state is.
Geoff Kabaservice: The National Conservative movement, which you’ve written about extensively, is something that I’m interested in because in some ways I see it as a response to this changing in the bases of both parties that we’ve talked about, where the Republican Party having been the party actually of the college-educated middle classes is now largely the party of the non-college educated working classes. And the Democrats, by contrast, are starting to take on some of the old Republican base. And the question is how should the Republican Party, which is aware of this new constituency, respond to its needs? And one of the things that National Conservatism is calling for is a revival of religion to reverse American decline, however you want to conceive it. And I’m not sure how I feel about that, but I do feel that there is a kind of spiritual emptiness out there, particularly in the left-behind parts of the country, if you want to call them that, that the left is not really addressing.
I think Christopher Caldwell is in some sense one of the most dangerous of the national conservative intellectuals. I certainly was not sympathetic to his book on the 1960s, which concludes that what we need to do is abolish the Civil Rights laws of the 1960s. But he wrote this incredibly eloquent piece in First Things on the opioid epidemic, which truly is American carnage. This is a phenomenon that killed 107,000 Americans last year. I believe it is the single leading cause of preventable death among young people at this point. And yet very few Democratic politicians seem to mention it, or care. So to what extent is it realistic to actually hope for some kind of religious revival that might actually solve the various crises that we’re seeing with atomized, unattached, seemingly empty young people that are out there?
Stephanie Slade: I don’t know that I would use the word “solved.” That seems like asking a lot.
Geoff Kabaservice: Address. Mitigate. Meliorate.
Stephanie Slade: I really am hopeful that there could be progress on this front. What I don’t think is that the state is the right means by which to pursue a religious revival. And that’s what’s really, I think, misguided about this idea that well, because there’s been this political realignment where the Republican Party now, most of its base voters are different — less educated and more rural than in the past — and that therefore the Republican Party should be on the front lines of trying to, I don’t know, return America to its past glory as a Christian nation or something. I think this is very dangerous. The state is, by definition, the entity in society with a monopoly on the use of force, right? It is coercive by nature. And that is never going to be the right means to even a really worthy end of trying to restore meaning and belonging and a sort of sense of the importance of the transcendental in society, that I agree is lacking.
I do not agree that politics is going to be the right way — and by that I really mean, like, state power is going to be the right way to get us there. I think it’s got to be done at a cultural level. It’s got to be done through the hard work of institution-building and winning hearts and minds and person-to-person. And that is not satisfying to people who are used to thinking of the law as a magic wand that you can wave, pass a law, and solve the problem: Something has been done, the problem has been solved! I don’t think that it… It’s very dangerous to think that way. And it’s particularly dangerous when we’re talking about trying to save souls in that way, in that magical thinking.
Geoff Kabaservice: I agree. I feel suitably put in my place for using the words “solve” and “solution.” I will never use them again. As a final question, Stephanie, you wrote a long essay in Reason last March asking: “Is There a Future for Fusionism?” How would you answer that question today?
Stephanie Slade: Well, I think it’s a live question right now. I think that the future of the conservative movement, the right-of-center politics, right now… This fracture has happened between the classical liberal conservatives who still are more or less reflective of that idea of fusion, that Frank Meyer philosophy that liberty and virtue are both non-negotiable. And there are a lot of people on the other side, often as a sort of catchall referred to as the New Right, the post-liberals. The Catholic integralists are part of this. But there’s a bunch of different, smaller factions that are rejecting those ideas. And a lot of the energy seems to be on the other side, with the illiberals, right now. But I don’t think that the story has been written, and that this is a battle that has been lost by people like me who really believe that fusionism is the way. I think it’s a live battle. And I don’t want to see us cede the ground to them without a fight.
Geoff Kabaservice: As I’ve mentioned to you before, we find ourselves facing a lot of uphill battles, but I hope that you will, if not win, at least prevail for some of the causes in which you believe and are fighting for.
Stephanie Slade: I appreciate that. I hope so too.
Geoff Kabaservice: Thank you so much for joining me today.
Stephanie Slade: Thanks for having me.
Geoff Kabaservice: And thank you all for listening to the Vital Center Podcast. Please subscribe and rate us on your preferred podcasting platform. And if you have any questions, comments, or other responses, please include them along with your rating, or send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks as always to our technical director, Kristie Eshelman, our sound engineer, Ray Ingenieri, and the Niskanen Center in Washington, DC.
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