Conservative Elites and the Park51 Debate

by Conor Friedersdorf

In his latest column at The Washington Examiner, Gene Healy argues that outrage over the Burlington Coat Factory mosque and community center is a red-herring. "You see, cutting government is hard, and often unpopular," he writes. "Faced with difficult choices, the alleged party of small government always retreats to the lazy politics of Kulturkampf... The establishment Right wants to play the Tea Party movement for suckers. It remains to be seen whether they'll play along."

I asserted a similar position here at The Daily Dish.

Will Wilkinson disagrees with us.

This idiotic foofaraw could be a distraction only if the GOP rank-and-file actually cared more about the size of government than the cultural politics of American identity. But they don’t. It’s not even close. American conservatism is a movement consumed by protecting and asserting a certain fabricated conception of the traditional American way of life against imaginary enemies. Support for small government is no more than a bullet point on the Right’s “What We Believe” cheat sheet, mouthed at opportune moments. I approve of what Gene’s trying to do here rhetorically, but the fact is that complaining about Muslims and keeping holy the memory of 9/11 and Ground Zero the legitimizing altar of aggressive American imperialism   is a direct manifestation of contemporary conservatism’s essence.

This overstates the degree to which opposition to the mosque among the general public is a conservative phenomenon. The polling I've seen, and Harry Reid's recent anti-mosque statement, suggest it's far more widespread.

Mr. Wilkinson may be right that the GOP establishment is "nervously along for the ride," but even so, this issue entered the culture wars largely because of elites in conservative journalism who framed it as provocatively as possible, often making factually inaccurate assertions and speculating darkly about the Cordoba Initiative's motives. Go watch this despicable anti-mosque ad. It's easy to imagine how members of the public who've learned about the controversy through it, Sarah Palin's Twitter feed, the Fox News Channel and Andy McCarthy columns would be misled about certain facts, and while I am under no illusion that rank-and-file Republicans would embrace the project if their elites behaved more responsibly (or merely more accurately), I can certainly imagine the issue being a minor one, and mosque opponents feeling less threatened, aggrieved, and inclined toward hyperbolic bombast.