What people call political realism often seems to me a kind of short-sightedness. The idea that valid political action requires us to choose from among the most prominent current alternatives — in short, to decide whether you’re going to be a Republican or a Democrat and then work to bring your chosen party more closely in line with your convictions — makes sense if your chief goal is to gain a political victory and to gain it now. Or soon.

Sometimes for good and often for ill, I am temperamentally incapable of thinking in that way. I tend to see politics in terms of a history that’s considerably longer than that of today’s political parties, or indeed of America itself. My political vision, such as it is, has two components: a long defeat followed by long joy.

The phrase “long defeat” comes from J. R. R. Tolkien, who in The Lord of the Rings puts it in the mouth of Galadriel, and in a letter uses it himself: “I am a Christian, and indeed a Roman Catholic, so that I do not expect ‘history’ to be anything but a ‘long defeat’ — though it contains (and in a legend may contain more clearly and movingly) some samples or glimpses of final victory.”

The promise of a “final victory” is the context of the “long joy.” Stanley Fish coined that phrase in response to a scene from Milton’s Paradise Lost in which Adam gets too readily excited about a scene from the future revealed to him by the archangel Michael, so that when the darker realities of the situation are revealed to him he finds himself “of short joy bereft.” Michael warns Adam that he needs to cure himself of political and social idealism and focus instead on the simple but challenging work of obedience to God. Fish explains the “politics” that Michael recommends to Adam: “It cannot be too much emphasized that the politics of being — the politics of long joy — is not quietism. Its relative indifference to outcomes is not an unconcern with the way things go in the world, but a recognition that the turns of fortune and and history are not in man’s control and that all one can be responsible for is the firmness of one’s resolve.”

When I wrote about this passage some years ago I commented,

It seems to me that this politics of long joy is the one thing needful for the Christian cultural critic, as for a warring angel like Abdiel or a poetic polemicist like Milton. Perhaps the chief problem with the “culture wars” paradigm that governs so much Christian action and reflection, in the North American context anyway, is that it encourages us to think in terms of trophies rather than testimonies. It tempts us to think too much about whether we’re winning or losing, and too little about the only thing we ultimately control, which is the firmness of our own resolve. If the culture warrior would prefer not to be governed by Stanley Fish, or even by John Milton, maybe Koheleth provides an acceptable model: “In the morning sow your seed, and at evening withhold not your hand, for you do not know which will prosper, this or that, or whether both alike will be good” (Ecclesiastes 11:6).

It seems to me that the most important political acts I can perform do not involve siding with one of the existing parties, or even necessarily to vote at all, but to try to bear witness through word and action to this double vision of the earthly city: a long defeat followed by a longer joy.

We are too prone, I believe, to think that voting is the definitive political act. That would be true only if politics simply belongs to the government. There is a far vaster sphere of politics — the life of the polis — that belongs to everyday acts of ordinary people. In this maybe Gandalf is a pretty good guide: “Yet it is not our part to master all the tides of the world, but to do what is in us for the succour of those years wherein we are set, uprooting the evil in the fields that we know, so that those who live after may have clean earth to till. What weather they shall have is not ours to rule.”