Conservatives should learn to embrace small victories, or they will continue to lose

Conservatives should learn to embrace small victories, or they will continue to lose
© Greg Nash

Conservatives must learn that what incrementalism constructed, incrementalism can also deconstruct. Members of the right have misguidedly rejected the means by which the left created the liberal edifice. The result has been that conservatives, despite a superior strategic position, have repeatedly failed to exploit their inherent advantage over the left.

Liberals have proven remarkably successful in taking what opportunity presents, often in very incremental steps. Certainly, there have been notable leaps, such as the Great Society. But while many believe that liberals won their victories all at once, the reality is that they were won through slow accretion.

Conservatives, on the other hand, have proven frustratingly unsuccessful in dismantling the liberal edifice. The debacle over ObamaCare is the latest reminder, and it serves to contrast the two camps’ approaches. 


In hindsight, we forget Democrats struggled to create ObamaCare. Despite Obama campaigning on it and large Congressional majorities, it took much time, numerous compromises, and liberals still fell well short of their ultimate goal: a single-payer (i.e., government) system. However, finally by the barest of margins they succeeded. 


Seven years later, Republicans confronted a failing ObamaCare. They opposed it before they held the White House and congressional majorities, but despite extended effort, the law still stands, even as its failings pile up.

How could similar circumstances yield vastly different results? The answer lies at the poles of America’s political spectrum, specifically in terms of how relative strength is able to shape perspective.

America’s left harbor no illusions about their minority place on America’s political landscape. Presidential election exit polling showed liberals comprised just 26 percent of voters in 2016. By comparison, conservatives comprised a considerably larger 35 percent. 

Moderates remained the largest ideological bloc at 39 percent, and as a result, both left and right must win their support in order to succeed. However, liberals face a much steeper quantitative task to reach majorities for their positions. 

The left’s qualitative chore is even larger. America has always been at least a center-right nation. De Tocqueville wrote almost two centuries ago, “In no other country in the world is the love of property keener or more alert than in the United States, and nowhere else does the majority display less inclination toward doctrines which in any way threaten the way property is owned.” 

The left is diametrically opposed to America's innate conservatism. As Saul Alinsky wrote in the left’s organizing bible, Rules for Radicals, "It is most important for those of us who want revolutionary change to understand that revolution must be preceded by reformation ... that masses of our people have reached the point of disillusionment with past ways and values."

To counter their quantitative and qualitative disadvantages, America’s left embraces compromise out of necessity. As Alinsky noted, "To the organizer, compromise is a key and beautiful word ... if you start with nothing, demand 100 percent, then compromise for 30 percent, you're 30 percent ahead." 

America's right has been just the opposite. Well larger than their ideological nemesis, they harbor the illusion of majority. Failing to recognize their need for moderate support — and that gaining it is comparatively easier — they believe they can go it alone. Such misapprehension equates compromise with failure, and incrementalism with surrender. The result is that while the left repeatedly maximizes smaller opportunities, the right persistently minimizes its larger ones.

America’s politics are akin to poker. The cards dealt only partly determine outcome. How they are played is even more important. The left, frequently with worse cards, is always willing to win as much as its hand permits. The right, frequently with better hands, believe only a jackpot worth winning. So conservatives are forever playing for the hand that will “bust” the left, while leaving winnings on the table that they could have pocketed. 

Conservatives must accept that left and right face the same challenge: Securing enough moderate support to reach a majority. Just because the right's task is inherently easier, does not make it different. The left recognize America's political equation and, by accepting their tactical liability, have converted it into a strategic asset of taking what circumstances permit. The right refuse to recognize this equation and their tactical advantage in it, thereby creating a strategic liability. They refuse incrementalism, or taking what circumstances permit.

The right's refusal also creates additional liabilities. Each time the left incrementally gains, the political terrain shifts in their favor. What once was "too far" becomes more acceptable through familiarity. The left’s agenda not only advances, but brings further gains closer and rewards their coalition in the meantime. Success breeds success.

Failure also breeds failure. Rejecting the attainable, the right pushes larger goals further away, and they have nothing to show for it even when they win elections. Supporters go unrewarded, and the left's achievements remain in place.

Neither side imagines they want anything from the other. However, there is something that each should. Conservatives should learn liberals’ incremental approach. And liberals should want America's right to continue to not do so.

James Young served under President George W. Bush as the director of communications in the Office of Management and Budget and as deputy assistant secretary in legislative affairs for tax and budget at the Treasury Department. He served as a congressional staffer from 1987-2000.