Easter, which began yesterday and extends until Pentecost, provides an occasion for Christians to meditate on the consummate paradox at the heart of their faith. In this profound theological conundrum, death marks the path to everlasting life. Jesus is crucified so that others may live. Jesus loses in this world so that humanity wins—despite its abject failings. The triumph of Easter Sunday is achieved only through the defeat of Good Friday.
If mixing religion and politics invites trouble, as they say, adding a shot of theology during campaign season certainly won’t cut the cocktail. Yet without trying to sacralize politics, Easter reminds us that there are certain lessons about winning and losing that spill beyond the walls of church sanctuaries—into political life and even presidential campaigns.
We often hear that the essence of democracy is compromise—the willingness to forfeit the narrow interests of the few in order to find the common ground shared by the many. The ability to compromise and negotiate—to forge a “win-win” from competing interests—is indispensable to the democratic political process, especially one governed by two rival political parties. To be sure, there has been a dearth of compromise in recent years that makes many citizens yearn for more cooperation in national politics and that has prompted the formation of organizations like the Bipartisan Policy Center, which is dedicated to creating policy proposals that both Republicans and Democrats can support.
But the road to bipartisanship runs all uphill. Former Senate leaders Tom Daschle, a Democrat, and Trent Lott, a Republican, warn of the perils of unbridled partisanship in their new book Crisis Point: Why We Must—and How We Can—Overcome Our Broken Politics in Washington and Across America: “The center can no longer hold under such mindless and unprecedented partisanship: it is no exaggeration to say that the state of our democracy is as bad as we’ve ever seen it.” This charge is striking coming from two party leaders who clashed frequently and publicly over a range of divisive issues during their tenures. Recovering the spirit of compromise is one of the essential principles they propose for reinvigorating democratic life in America.
Few who have observed national politics for the last fifteen or so years can doubt the need for greater compromise in government. But the principle most lacking in democratic politics today is not simply the ability to compromise. It’s the ability to lose—a virtue essential to democracy. The virtue of losing involves putting principle and process ahead of the politician.
Around the world, young democracies are judged not simply by the quotient of electoral fraud but by the willingness of the loser—especially an incumbent—to admit defeat and give up the office. Last year, Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan addressed his country following his electoral loss, the first time a sitting president of Nigeria failed to garner the popular vote:
I promised the country free and fair elections. I have kept my word. I have also expanded the space for Nigerians to participate in the democratic process. That is one legacy I will like to see endure. Although some people have expressed mixed feelings about the results … I urge those who may feel aggrieved to follow due process based on our constitution and our electoral laws, in seeking redress. As I have always affirmed, nobody’s ambition is worth the blood of any Nigerian. The unity, stability and progress of our dear country is more important than anything else.
The United States has its own rich history of noble concession speeches. After John McCain lost to Barack Obama in 2008, he reminded his listeners of the contempt that President Theodore Roosevelt endured in 1901 for inviting Booker T. Washington to the White House for dinner. “America today is a world away from the cruel and prideful bigotry of that time,” McCain declared. “There is no better evidence of this than the election of an African American to the presidency of the United States. Let there be no reason now for any American to fail to cherish their citizenship in this, the greatest nation on Earth.” McCain went on to offer kind words of sympathy on the recent death of Obama’s grandmother, followed by gracious words of support for his rival. While McCain’s speech initially was punctuated by boos from the audience, he silenced them and continued. By the time his speech ended, the boos had turned to applause, as he urged his followers to unite and work together with the new president-elect: “Whatever our differences, we are fellow Americans. And please believe me when I say no association has ever meant more to me than that.” Defeat was the mantle of McCain’s virtue. His public evocation of humility, magnanimity, and patriotism betokened moral courage, affording him a platform that perhaps even he could not have seized as well had he won.
This speech, recall, ensued from earlier moments during the campaign when McCain contravened supporters who took their criticism of Obama too far: “No, ma’am. He’s a decent family man [and] citizen that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues and that’s what this campaign’s all about.” McCain’s ambitions were circumscribed by carefully drawn limits and principles—a commitment to truth, love of country, esteem for democracy, and respect for one’s opponent and fellow citizens—that were even more important than winning.
Put differently, McCain showed the country the dignity of losing. Such courage had nothing to do with compromise. In fact, his unwillingness to compromise when it came to these principles was exemplary. The virtue of losing that McCain personified entails using one’s own defeat as a way of ennobling other values and furthering their triumph. It takes courage and character to lose—to recognize that winning at any cost is no victory at all. Rather, victory comes by admitting one’s own insufficiency and sublimating the ego through ethical values that transcend the self. The virtue of losing involves the vindication of a higher cause that defines one’s loss.
Losing instills other virtues, too, such as patience for the losing side. Losers must endure, even suffer through, the low period that follows their loss of power. It is an occasion for humbling, introspection, even contrition. It usually involves regrouping and strategizing before the next election, but humility also invites deeper forms of soul-searching that ultimately can be invigorating and transformative.
In Washington, however, we’ve seen a surprising inability to lose in recent years. Losing the ability to lose has resulted in legislative gridlock, government shutdowns, and most recently the Senate’s unwillingness even to schedule a hearing for an eminently qualified Supreme Court nominee. Things have been even worse in other countries such as Egypt, where an impatient military, unwilling to endure a rival party’s failures, overthrew a democratically elected leader. However feckless, deposed leader Mohamed Morsi had earned from his people the chance to fail on his own and the right to be voted out of office the next time.
Understanding the difference between the value of compromise and the virtue of losing is crucial. For today we have a major presidential candidate who extols the former and abhors that latter. He promises us two things. First, he tells us that he is a winner—someone unacquainted with losing and preternaturally predisposed to win, someone who will win at seemingly any cost (torture; unconstitutional executive action; authoritarian proclivities that would subvert democracy). Second, he touts his tremendous ability to negotiate, compromise, break gridlock, and bring together rival parties to make deals. In reality, these are two sides of the same coin. Compromise is simply one of Donald Trump’s ways of winning. He doesn’t lose, because no principles are important enough to be immune from compromise. Even what others have described as his failed ventures are, to him, simply the inevitable costs of being a winner. His losses are but other peoples’ failures to appreciate him for the winner he really is.
We should yearn for political candidates who esteem the virtue of losing and who understand that democracy depends upon it. I recently spent some time with Michael Ignatieff, the Harvard political philosopher turned elected official who returned to his life in academia after a major defeat in Canadian politics. In 2011 he lost his seat as MP and his position as Liberal Party leader. The stakes could not have been higher. Had he and his party won the election, he would have become prime minister of Canada. The full story of Ignatieff’s political career is told in his memoir Fire and Ashes: Success and Failure in Politics. The book is a candid—at times dispiriting but mostly inspiring—story about the calling, fortunes, follies, and virtues of elected public service. Ignatieff doesn’t identify losing as a virtue, and his prose vividly conveys the sting and disappointment it brings. But he certainly appreciates its moral significance for democratic life:
A prudent leader will save democracies from the worst, but prudent leaders will not inspire a democracy to give its best. Democratic peoples should always be looking for something more than prudence in a leader: daring, vision and—what goes with both—a willingness to risk failure. Daring leaders can be trusted as long as they give some inkling of knowing what it is to fail. They must be men of sorrow acquainted with grief, as the prophet Isaiah says, men and women who have not led charmed lives, who understand us as we really are, who have never given up hope and who know they are in politics to make their country better. These are the leaders whose judgment, even if sometimes wrong, will still prove worthy of trust.
Ignatieff actually penned those lines in 2007, in an article explaining a different failure involving his own support for the Iraq War. Yet nearly ten years later, those lines remain surprisingly apt for the presidential campaign unfolding before us. For any candidate is bound to have failures. In democracies, what matters most is the art and virtue of owning them.
From where we sit now, it seems likely that Donald Trump will be the Republican nominee this year—so long as the “Never Trump” establishment of the Republican Party embraces the democratic virtue of losing. (I’d add here that the best option for the “Never Trump” contingent would be to recruit a third-party candidate who will lose but, in so doing, ensure the nobler principles of the platform live on.) If Trump faces off against Hillary Clinton in November, I wager that contest will be decided not by who can win on their own strengths but who can explain and capitalize on their failures. And there are certainly plenty of failings between them. Trump, for his part, has never apologized for even his most outrageous claims and proposals. Someone who has lashed out at the pope, Trump boasts of never confessing—or needing to confess—anything to God. For him, confessing one’s sins is clearly for losers.
Of course Clinton has her share of foibles—many she has already acknowledged. There is Benghazi and her private email server not to mention Whitewater and other sideshows. As well, there is her past support for the Iraq War. But the most significant failure now haunting her is her strong advocacy for military intervention in Libya during her tenure as secretary of state. This decision will become a greater liability as she squares off against Trump. The chaos engulfing Libya has now spread west, as numerous African countries counter the flow of well-armed Islamist militants, and also north as countless migrants and refugees traverse the Mediterranean bound for Europe. President Obama himself has now expressed deep misgivings about the Libyan operation. Clinton will have to address this failure head-on. Sugarcoating the operation—touting the overthrow of a dictator, the freedom the U.S. has brought to Libyans—will sound like a throw-back to George W. Bush (and not in a good way).
What should Clinton do in a match-up against Trump? For her to admit failure outright—against a candidate who equates apologizing with losing—carries certain risks. One artful way to convey her contrition would be to tap someone who opposed the Libyan intervention as a running mate. (She could even consider Robert Gates whose prudence and acquaintance with sorrow and grief defined his term as defense secretary.) Such a decision not only would show how she values the judgments of those who hold views contrary to her own. It also would allow her to claim that, while her daring and vision may have seemed right at the time, hindsight today vindicates a more modest, prudent approach. Thus might one candidate’s willingness to lose—to acknowledge mistakes and admit defeat—actually help bring about her victory.
In offering these Eastertide reflections, it should go without saying that Christians should always be wary of “using” their religion for partisan ends. Scholars have expended much ink on the evils of investing politics with a sacred aura. Nevertheless, sometimes theological lessons and insights cannot help but find other formations and applications beyond the formal bounds of religion. This admission will come as little surprise to many Christians who look around the wider culture and find evidence of their beliefs within.
My colleague Charles Mathewes, a Christian ethicist at University of Virginia, has described Christianity as a religion for losers. My students—even non-Christians—resist the claim. It seems unkind. Even worse: It runs counter to the American mythos that above all values winning and success. But sometimes, around Easter especially, it’s worth recalling the virtues of losing. Democracy is built upon principles—and thus contains inbuilt limits—that require knowing how to lose. For the virtues of losing offer the surest, most consistent way for democracies to prevail over time. To make—or keep—our country great, we need to remember how to lose.
Of course, no political project or outcome can ever compare to the Good News of Easter morning. But in the effort to redeem American democracy of some of its recent failures, fractures, and brokenness, a more bipartisan and consensual outcome following the election would still be good news.
John D. Carlson is associate professor of religious studies at Arizona State University where he also serves as associate director of the Center for the Study of Religion and Conflict.