Fence Posts and Popular Votes

Connor Ewing: Conservatism begins with a preference for preservation; a willingness to defend the fence posts that uphold the political order.

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In the matter of reforming things, as distinct from deforming them, there is one plain and simple principle; a principle which will probably be called a paradox. There exists in such a case a certain institution or law; let us say, for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, “I don’t see the use of this; let us clear it away.” To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: “If you don’t see the use of it, I certainly won’t let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it.”
G.K. Chesterton

That, to my mind, is among the best expressions of the conservative temperament, of the standard by which any proposal traveling under that banner should be measured. In the face of change, Chesterton asks, do you first inquire into the nature and purpose of the thing to be changed? And if you do not know its nature or purpose, will you stand in its defense until such is found? To be a conservative is to have an initial preference in favor of preservation, even—indeed, especially—when it isn’t self-evident why something should be preserved.

Reminders such as these are always helpful, but they are especially needed when change is the mantra of the times, when the poles of the political spectrum are united only by their desire for something different. It’s in times like these that hostility to the fences of political life—the forms of which Tocqueville wrote—is openly and widely expressed. Consider, for example, NPR’s recent “Reconstituting the Constitution: How to Rewrite It,” in which readers and listeners were invited to suggest amendments to the Constitution. Ten of these proposals, ranging from referendum provisions for federal legislation to campaign finance reforms, were submitted to an online vote. Of these, four received the two-thirds vote needed for ratification.

Among the successful amendments is the abolition of the Electoral College, the Constitution’s presidential selection mechanism that essentially makes individual states the battle grounds for the highest office in the land, passing with 75% of the vote. Granted, those voting in an NPR poll probably aren’t a representative sample of the country or the electorate. But before you dismiss the results consider that in a 2007 Washington Post poll 60% of Republicans surveyed expressed support for “changing to a system in which the president is elected by direct popular vote, instead of by the electoral college.” And that was less than six months into the second term of a Republican president who first came to office despite losing the popular vote. With 78% of Democrats and 73% of Independents joining the majority of Republicans in that poll, we can see that while the NPR numbers are skewed in one direction, the upshot is the same: there is widespread support for electing the president by simply counting the votes.

Given the popularity of abolishing the Electoral College, it probably shouldn’t come as a surprise that there exists a movement to do just that. The National Popular Vote Interstate Compact is a legislative proposal that would allow a state to allocate its electoral votes to the winner of the popular vote once a critical mass of other states has passed the measure (i.e., states whose electoral votes add up to at least 270). What may come as a surprise, though, is that eight states and the District of Columbia, commanding 49% of the electoral votes needed to win the presidency, have already endorsed the Compact. All it would take to go into effect is for some combination of states with 138 electoral votes to pass the bill. In other words, there’s actually a chance it could happen.

To its supporters, the National Popular Vote (NPV) is especially attractive because it appeals to a core American value: majority rule. And to its detractors, it’s especially threatening because it appeals to only one of America’s core values, ignoring (among other things) the foundational commitment to preserving the states as consequential political entities. Moreover, proponents of the NPV seem to think that the Electoral College is little more than a vestige of a bygone era and can be excised from the constitutional order with no ill effects. And the polls suggest that the rallying cry of democracy might well drown out the dissenters’ urgings that before going down that road, we ask about the fence that now stands in the way.

So what’s to be done? The conservative response Chesterton offers—“Go away and think”—may not go over so well, to say nothing of its efficacy. But elsewhere he offers guidance for an altogether fitting reply. Again, it involves a fence:

But all conservatism is based upon the idea that if you leave things alone you leave them as they are. But you do not. If you leave a thing alone you leave it to a torrent of change. If you leave a white post alone it will soon be a black post. If you particularly want it to be white you must be always painting it again; that is, you must be always having a revolution. Briefly, if you want the old white post you must have a new white post.

For those who see the value of the fence posts that uphold the political order, or for those willing to entertain the notion that there could be unintended consequences to tearing them down, it may  well be time to get out the paint and begin adding a fresh coat.

4 Comments

  • Avatar
    December 22, 2011

    william wallace

    Signposts do have a value / its worth their upkeep
    as do house numbers and street names as names
    of ice hockey teams. // Football teams // as political
    parties // the varied names numbers / causing less
    confussion. As does differing names of people / in
    differing names /physical appearance /helping one
    identify a individual thus in causing less confussion.

    Gates are also of value they allow one a means of
    access as departure from a closed property / gates
    signposts / do have value / are worthy in upkeeping.

  • Avatar
    December 22, 2011

    thedrpete

    It seems that the study of constitutional law at the University of Chicago does NOT include study of the Constitution. Nor must it include study of the Declaration of Independence, the predicate for said Constitution.

    Somewhere the author of this essay also missed that it was America’s third progressive prexy, FDR, who in his first campaign speech flipped language on its head, absconding with the label “liberal” (from liberty), the moniker of what are now called “conservatives” and “libertarians”, along with obfuscating the term “forgotten man”.

  • Avatar
    January 2, 2012

    Eli

  • Avatar
    January 3, 2012

    thedrpete

    When Ewing posits that “conservatives” favor “preservation”, it flies in the face of everyday experience. While “conservatives” argue for USING the environment, employing it, it is liberal-lefties arguing to preserve it. While “conservatives” argue for tearing down old buildings to make way for better and new, it is liberal-lefties arguing to preserve it.

    What “conservatives” argue to preserve is the rule of law with the Constitution — as written, original meaning — as supreme law of the land, rather than the rule of man making up new rules ad hoc, that to plunder the unalienable right to liberty.