James Kerian: Conservatives Should Acknowledge Victories And Try Optimism


In the early days of the Cold War Whittaker Chambers remarked upon his conversion to the cause of freedom “I know that I am leaving the winning side for the losing side, but it is better to die on the losing side than to live under Communism.”  Clearly the pessimism that runs rampant through conservatism today is not a new development.  Chambers, however, was wrong.  So too are the gloom and doom forecasters in today’s conservative movement.  One must grant the stick-in-the-mud naysayers that Communism has hardly been abolished but anyone familiar with the history of the Cold War knows that Communists of that era would not at all be happy with how things have played out since then.

Of course, it isn’t as if conservatives have won everything they wanted either.  The case for conservative frustration/despair has been aptly summarized by Ross Douthat:

“To many conservatives, the right has never come remotely close to getting what it actually wants, whether in the Reagan era or the Gingrich years or now the age of the Tea Party — because what it wants is an actually smaller government, as opposed to one that just grows somewhat more slowly than liberals and the left would like. And this goal only ends up getting labeled as “extreme” in our debates, conservatives lament, because the right has never succeeded in dislodging certain basic assumptions about government established by F.D.R. and L.B.J. — under which a slower rate of spending growth is a “draconian cut,” an era of “small government” is one which in which the state grows immensely in absolute terms but holds steady as a share of G.D.P., and a rich society can never get rich enough to need less welfare spending per capita than it did when it was considerably poorer.”

But while neither side has won everything that it wants you would never guess that from the incessant boasting of the left and the equally omnipresent sulking of conservatives.  Leftist are incessantly proclaiming their new permanent majority, their irreversible progress and their glorious destiny.  Any poll, election, or legislative accomplishment that does not fit this narrative is simply disregarded as an irrelevant outlier.

Conservatives, on the other hand, are always intent on proclaiming their own defeat.  Rather than celebrating the obvious fact that the new speaker of the House, Paul Ryan, is far more conservative than John Boehner conservatives are mostly complaining about Paul Ryan’s position on immigration.  In this state conservatives never took the time to celebrate the disintegration of the Democrats’ vaunted “Team North Dakota.”  Instead they began immediately to complain incessantly about Berg, Cramer and Hoeven despite the fact that no one could honestly equate their voting records to those of the men they have replaced. The incredible accomplishments of Scott Walker probably would have carried him much further into the presidential primary if conservatives could bring themselves to even acknowledge (let alone celebrate) their victories.

As Ed Fuelner once observed “In [politics] there are no permanent victories or permanent defeats, only permanent battles.”  Conservative resentment over the need to keep fighting these battles has led them to be loud about their defeats and quiet about their victories.  This is an unfortunate habit that conservatives ought to break, partly because optimism wins elections but mostly because the incessant sulking is just a miserable way to live.