Progressives and conservatives understand victory and defeat in starkly different ways. I’ve seen it illustrated many times in my years in academia, government, and media. Those outcomes have not been evenly distributed to the parties on the Left and Right, not in recent decades, and certainly not in the areas of culture and education. Progressives have a much better win-loss record, beating conservatives on one front after another in the worlds of art, education, media and entertainment, even corporate America—beyond politics, government, and the courts.
But progressives rarely seem happy with their wins. They still act as if they’re on the defensive as if the conservative threat remains daunting and growing, and that, as the progressive motto goes, “There’s so much more to do.” That’s the attitude they have toward their own triumphs: dissatisfaction, inadequacy, do more! Barack Obama embodied it well, never letting the air of sober urgency fall from his countenance as his administration careened from one audacious progressive act to another, be it the insertion (by fiat) of gender identity into Title IX or the appointment of activist judges to the bench.
As for the losses the Left has suffered, President Obama showed the way as well. The many Democratic defeats in Congress in the 2010 midterms didn’t moderate his progressive aims at all. Nor did the legal decisions that struck down his administration’s positions on employment and religious liberty curb its leftist enthusiasms. He kept going for a full eight years.
The pattern is typical. When progressives lose, they only try harder. Defeat doesn’t demoralize them—it energizes them. They have the zeal of true believers, and setbacks seem to them a species of persecution that confirms their rightness. When conservatives beat them, leftists return the next day with the same demands asserted in the same language. They have stamina and confidence and dedication. Defeat doesn’t lead to retreat. They aren’t losers.
As for conservatives, things go in reverse. I have seen them lose and lose and lose, then finally get a win, and proceed to celebrate that win as a mighty accomplishment. They have the dud’s habit of accepting a batting average that keeps a player in the Double-A league; a single here and a home run there are enough to keep their egos intact despite the team’s cellar-dweller standing. They chuckle at Texas Governor Greg Abbott sending a few buses of illegals to Washington, D.C., which is, indeed, a clever tweak at Biden Administration policy. But let’s not overdo the impact. A genuine victory would be 100 busloads sent to the White House with notes telling the administration, “You help these people.”
Conservatives hail the University of Austin as a rebuke of and alternative to the illiberal campus, and it is. But again, don’t exaggerate. Conservatives shouldn’t be satisfied with the project until 25 University of Austins open across the country.
But conservatives don’t think that way. They accept small advances, and they resist sweeping victories. They are cautious, prudent, careful, and realistic. Their Burkean instincts steer them into “gradualist” acts. Don’t think big, don’t overreach. Grand ambitions and radical change are the purview of the Left. We’re more circumspect, more heedful. We know the damage that revolutions do.
The Left conducts experiments against reality while we live by the reality principle. They push affirmative action in college admissions against empirical evidence of how the mismatch effect harms its beneficiaries. Reality for them is merely the current state of affairs, ever up for reshaping. They have the “audacity of hope.” Conservatives mock and chide that arrogance, but deep down, it frightens them.
So, when conservatives lose, they pull back, reflect, and revise their aims. After the 2012 Mitt Romney loss, the Republican National Committee commissioned a postelection review that included recommendations for ways the party might avoid future defeats. The result sounded like a diversity and inclusion statement composed by a college dean. It told conservatives to stop being conservatives—exactly the opposite lesson a progressive would draw from setbacks (“We’re not left enough! We must be more progressive!”).
This Republican reaction explains the establishment’s abhorrence of Donald Trump. Trump ignored all the recommendations in the 2012 report. When critics hit him, he hit back. The fighting posture shone a spotlight on the low-energy establishment types, humiliating and discrediting them, and they hated him for doing that. Republicans long in office or otherwise comfortable in D.C. and state capitals felt a newfound pressure every time Trump spoke. He set a higher standard of vigor and action, a standard Barack Obama upheld quite well.
Peggy Noonan in late November 2012 wrote a column on Obama’s high-octane style titled, “The Drawn-Out Crisis: It’s the Obama Way.” In it, she asked: “Why does it always have to be cliffs with this president? Why is it always a high-stakes battle?”
She was correct in her attribution of exigency to the president but incorrect in confining it to him. The omnipresent crisis is the progressive mode of being. Republicans need to admit it and realize that principles and facts alone cannot overcome it. This is always a battle of personalities. We need stalwart men and women at the helm, a never-say-die attitude, and a recognition of the full animosity of the other side—of the Left’s relentless verve. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis has those virtues, and we need at least 10 more of him.