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As readers of my thoughts on Islam and American politics may have suspected, I’ve been beating my head against the wall lately, trying to understand why American conservatism allows itself to be ideologically outmaneuvered by liberalism, and this even as conservatism wins elections.

But perhaps that’s precisely it. As polling about the mosque controversy suggests, certain themes can rally voters, but they are largely unworkable as governing principles. What, exactly, would the anti-Islam rhetoric translate into as far as policies are concerned? What would be a workable account of how we should worry about Islamic religious symbolism, but not, say, the symbolism of Catholicism for those who are victims of sexual abuse by clergy?

For that matter, what would the anti-liberal elite rhetoric, which plays such a large role in the conservative world, add up to? If Obama is a communist, then what are we to do with the great bulk of Democrats who largely share his views? Do conservatives plan to drive the liberal establishment out of positions of cultural and political responsibility? I’ve taken jabs at the liberal establishment myself, and I’ve found myself brought up short: OK, what happens after I knock out my opponent. I can’t say I’ve got a good answer.

By contrast, the liberal establishment is willing to alienate voters in the interest of sustaining a governing consensus. We all know, for example, what “inclusion” means when it comes to bureaucratic action—just see the way in which universities are administered. Defense of an already fortified position, I suppose, has natural advantages.

Evidence of this difference can be found in the fact that the Democrats can elect one of their own elites (Hillary and Obama are both transparently representative of only slightly different aspects of the liberal establishment.) By contrast, the conservative elites need to work behind populist masks (e.g., Palin, and to a large extent G. W. Bush).

This difference clearly indicates the ideological weakness of the Right. Aside from free market principles, which are in any event widely shared across the political spectrum, conservatism seems largely moribund as a coherent way of thinking about contemporary governance, satisfied with populist anger, but unable to formulate an alternative to the (to my mind) unattractive liberal status quo. I don’t mean to suggest that there aren’t excellent ideas out there, as well as intelligent spokesmen, but it doesn’t seem to jell into a workable position, or even a workable rhetoric, that gets traction in the public square.

This is, perhaps, the perennial problem for modern conservatism, especially in America, where our own national identity tends to work against conservative principles. Consider the core conservative principle of ordered liberty. The liberty part is easy. It’s a god term in America. But order? It’s something conservatives often have to disguise or redescribe so that it doesn’t seem to compromise liberty.

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