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Conservatives win by playing the long game

Activism looks different for those committed to defending truth and the created order

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Conservatives win by playing the long game

Why is it that conservatives always seem to lose? Sure, we get the occasional electoral success or judicial victory, but for at least the past generation, it’s felt like one step forward, two steps back. Cultural battle after cultural battle has gone to the left—on pornography, same-sex marriage, transgenderism, and more. Even the generational triumph of Dobbs seems to have been followed by a slew of setbacks at the state level, as pro-abortion activists have outmaneuvered or out-messaged the pro-life cause in a slew of ballot initiatives and court cases.

We could certainly identify specific causes of failure in many of these particular battles. We could also point to the overwhelming opinion-shaping power of left-leaning educational and media institutions, which can leave conservatives feeling like David facing Goliath more often than not. Worse still, the very tide of civilization seems to be flowing against us, as we find ourselves more and more enmeshed in a technological age that seems determined to remake nature to suit the basest whims of human desire.

All this is true, but perhaps there is another fundamental factor at work: Conservatives don’t make good activists.

In a recent National Review column profiling pro-life activist Lila Rose, the author observed, “Typically, activism is the Left’s domain. It requires certain qualities that are often lacking in conservatives: monomania; the desire for radical change; unrelenting energy combined with uncompromising demands; and, perhaps above all, a willingness to get into the trenches and stay there for as long as it takes.” The author is not wrong.

To live a conservative life is to live out the conviction that there are some things more important than politics: faith, family, community. It is to commit to investing one’s time in these things—in the long hard hours of being a spouse and a parent, a church elder or Little League coach. It is to stay rooted in a place rather than be always on the go. It is to rest in God’s providence rather than entertaining delusions of grandeur about one’s ability to change the course of history. It is also to prize truth above all else, even effectiveness.

Radical progressivism, however, puts all its energy into politics; it is the work largely of the single and unattached, the restless and mobile, the arrogant and self-assured. And while these habits may not be the path to happiness, they can certainly effect political change—especially if the activists have no compunction about manipulating truth or sowing outright falsehoods to serve their purpose.

Genuinely conservative causes cannot be advanced by radical means; it is dangerous to think that you can play with fire and not be burned.

Faced with their continual rout at the hands of progressive activism, many on the right are calling for conservatives to fight fire with fire, to get in the trenches and do activism the way the left does. This is short-sighted. For the fact is, genuinely conservative causes cannot be advanced by radical means; it is dangerous to think that you can play with fire and not be burned. It is difficult to be a globetrotting, barnstorming, rabble-rousing activist and retain the habits of soul that tie you to truth-telling, to faith and family. So, what are conservatives to do?

The answer, I think, is institution-building. Institutions are inherently conservative things: They require cooperation, commitment, self-sacrifice, loyalty, and humility—all fundamentally conservative virtues at odds with the spirit of expressive individualism that has been wrecking our societies. They manifest continuity through time and deference to tradition. This is precisely why the left has systematically targeted our culture’s most prestigious institutions. Seeing them for the conservative forces that they were, they hated them and determined to co-opt them.

Our problem today is that so many institutions have become progressive that conservatives have turned against them. We’ve become anti-institutional, determined to tear down rather than build up. Evangelical Christians didn’t help matters in the later 20th century by adopting pessimistic eschatologies that focused simply on saving individual souls before the imminent Rapture. And when the dangers engulfing us seem so urgent, it can seem pointless to invest in the long, slow work of rebuilding and redeeming institutions. But it is the only way to effect true conservative renewal; consider how the Dobbs decision was the fruit of decades of institution-building in the conservative legal movement.

That’s not to say there is no place for conservative activism. Even when you’re on the defensive, trying to buy time to build a stronghold, you need some front-line troops in the field, not to mention some saboteurs and commandos to slow the enemy advance. But they need not be very numerous; the attacking force will always have more.

Why should conservatives be content to be on the defensive, though? Isn’t that an acceptance of long-term defeat? Certainly not. For if it is human nature and created order we are defending, we have the high ground. Reality will win out over unreality in the end. We can afford to play the long game.

Brad Littlejohn

Brad Littlejohn (Ph.D., University of Edinburgh) is a fellow in the Evangelicals and Civic Life program at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. He founded and served for ten years as president of The Davenant Institute, and has taught for several institutions, including Moody Bible Institute–Spokane, Bethlehem College and Seminary, and Patrick Henry College. He is recognized as a leading scholar of the English theologian Richard Hooker and has published and lectured extensively in the fields of Reformation history, Christian ethics, and political theology. He lives in Landrum, S.C., with his wife, Rachel, and four children.

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