Before political movements can be understood by others, they need to understand themselves: what they want to be, what they actually are and how they might bridge the gap between aspiration and reality.
Today, the post-George W. Bush, post-Mitt Romney conservative movement is one-third of the way there. Among younger activists and rising politicians, the American right has a plausible theory of what its role in our politics ought to be, and how it might advance the common good. What it lacks, for now, is the self-awareness to see how it falls short of its own ideal, and the creativity necessary to transform its self-conception into victory, governance, results.
The theory goes something like this: American politics is no longer best understood in the left-right terms that defined 20th-century debates. Rather, our landscape looks more like a much earlier phase in democracy's development, when the division that mattered was between outsiders and insiders, the "country party" and the "court party."
These terms emerged in 18th-century Britain, during the rule of Sir Robert Walpole, the island kingdom's first true prime minister. They were coined by his opponents, a circle led by Henry St. John, Viscount Bolingbroke, who were both conservative and populist at once: They regarded Walpole's centralization of power as a kind of organized conspiracy, in which the realm's political, business and military interests were colluding against the common good.
Bolingbroke is largely forgotten today, but his skepticism about the ways that money and power intertwine went on to influence the American Revolution and practically every populist movement in our nation's history. And it's his civic republican ideas, repurposed for a new era, that you hear in the rhetoric of new-guard Republican politicians like Rand Paul and Mike Lee, in right-wing critiques of our incestuous "ruling class," and from pundits touting a "libertarian populism" instead.
Theirs is not just the usual conservative critique of big government, though that's obviously part of it. It's a more thoroughgoing attack on the way Americans are ruled today, encompassing Wall Street and corporate America, the media and the national-security state.
As theories go, it's well suited to the times. The story of the last decade in American life is, indeed, a story of consolidation and self-dealing at the top. There really is a kind of "court party" in American politics, whose shared interests and assumptions -- interventionist, corporatist, globalist - have stamped the last two presidencies and shaped just about every major piece of Obama-era legislation. There really is a sense in which the ruling class -- in Washington, especially - has grown fat at the expense of the nation it governs.
The problem for conservatives isn't their critique of this court party and its works. Rather, it's their failure to understand why many Americans can agree with this critique but still reject the Republican alternative.
They reject it for two reasons. First, while Republicans claim to oppose the ruling class on behalf of the country as a whole, they often seem to be representing an equally narrow set of interest groups. A party that cuts food stamps while voting for farm subsidies or fixates on upper-bracket tax cuts while wages are stagnating isn't actually offering a libertarian populist alternative to the court party's corrupt bargains. It's just offering a different, more Republican-friendly set of buy-offs.
Second, as much as Americans may distrust a cronyist liberalism, they prefer it to a conservatism that doesn't seem interested in governing at all. This explains why Republicans could win the battle for public opinion on President Barack Obama's first-term agenda without persuading the public to actually vote him out of office.
There might indeed be a "libertarian populist" agenda that could help Republicans woo the middle class -- but not if, as in Rand Paul's budget proposals, its centerpiece is just another sweeping tax cut for the rich.
There might be a way to turn Obamacare's unpopularity against Democrats in 2014 -- but not if Republican populists shut down the government in a futile attempt to defund it.
To overthrow a flawed ruling class, it isn't enough to know what's gone wrong at the top. You need more self-knowledge, substance and strategic thinking than conservatives have displayed to date.
Here the historical record is instructive. The original "country party" critique of Robert Walpole's government was powerful, resonant and intellectually influential.
But it still wasn't politically successful. Instead, the era as a whole belonged to Walpole and his court -- as this one, to date, belongs to Barack Obama.
Ross Douthat is a columnist for The New York Times.