On Fences in Need of No Repair Whatsoever

The system is broken.

So they all tell us. Obama won an election on it, but McCain’s rhetoric was similar. So was Sarah Palin’s, and she will probably try to win her own election on it in a few years. Scott Brown just did. The exact context of the statement might vary—it might refer to immigration or education—but its most frequent target is Washington itself. The whole city, apparently. It’s a cheap campaign line, but there appears to be remarkable bipartisan consensus on it. Self-proclaimed conservatives join liberals and point like sheep at the tempting fields outside the farmyard fence, and blame the fence for failing to get them there.

I once heard a congressional librarian explain the nuts and bolts of lawmaking to a group of D.C. interns. She told them flatly, “The legislative system does not exist to pass laws. It exists to prevent laws from being passed.” The interns, like the politicians, shook their heads sadly at the great travesty. But the librarian was not condemning the system: she was doing something that is rare in 2010, and praising it.

The people who built the farmyard fence did so on the conviction of what they believed to be a permanent truth: that the fields outside the fence were not the sheep’s to reach. The task of the sheep was to eat the grain inside the fence. Madison and the others involved in the writing of the Constitution made it difficult to pass legislation—not by accident, but precisely because they knew future sheep would want to eat more than what was theirs to eat.

So they made the fence high, and strong. It is difficult to pass any legislation in Washington. It is harder to pass unpopular legislation, and still harder to pass legislation that radically departs from legal precedent and cultural tradition. The congressional librarian, who had in her years seen many a politician learn the hard way that he served a constitutional republic and not a democracy, described the fence just as it was designed.

But today’s sheep insist they need to “get beyond” the food they were given (that is, national politics). Each party complains that the other should give up “partisan” interests, and the Progressives want to give up even their own grain to bureaucrats outside the fence. Since the fence allows none of the above, both sides claim that the fence is broken, when what they really mean is the fence is inconvenient. The fence means both sides are locked in with each other, forced to act according to the nature of politics, and muddle through.

In such a farmyard, it is only that frustrating fence that is permanent. The food changes with the times, and so do the sheep. Yet it is the great longing of the sheep to outlast the fence; in fact to be the fence. So they tell each other, and us, that the fence is the problem, and if only we let them remake it in their own image, we will be better off for it.

This is, in fact, the message of nearly every would-be change movement: that it will reshape, or even transcend, politics. Movements as disastrous as communism and fascism made this claim, but so do movements as peaceable as today’s Christian Left and “Porcherism.”

Certainly it is true that over time, the politicians will change, and so will the issues that divide them. But this is precisely why the fence is so necessary. Unlike the politicians, it is permanent, and its nature is to keep them locked in to fight out those issues, so that they won’t agree on anything long enough to unite and break down the fence.

This state of affairs is a good thing, for a society is predicated on continuity, and only the fence can provide it. Breaking down the fence might not be political suicide, but it would be national and perhaps social suicide. Despite the rhetoric, most experienced politicians (especially senators) know this. But most of them play the same tune to the crowd, begging the question: are there any conservatives left?

The system isn’t broken, and today’s politicians are different from yesterday’s in only one respect: neither side is defending the fence.

8 Comments

  • Avatar
    March 7, 2010

    Mark

    To continue your belabored farm analogy, talk about beating the dead progressive horse.

    And how do you keep a straight face while lumping in Porchers with secular utopianists? Seriously. Two thirds of their mantra is “Place. Limits.” How are people who favor less government intervention and prefer more localized politics at all equivalent to socialist ideologues and other over-reachers? Once again, your desire to be polemic (and thus, I presume, to appear relevant) actually manifests itself in just being simply wrong.

  • Avatar
    March 7, 2010

    Mark

    To wit, http://www.frontporchrepublic.com/2010/03/places-limits-liberty-in-that-order/:

    To attempt to “put an end to politics,” in the name of moving the whole conversation forward to some progressive end, would thus appear to be an attack on one of the central purposes of localism, and there something that anyone who writes for Front Porch Republic ought to oppose.

  • Brian Brown
    March 7, 2010

    Brian Brown

    Mark,

    This is my second post in a row that has provoked comments that near (or cross) the bounds of respectful discourse. It is also the second in a row that has produced comments (from, in both cases, the same people) that reveal two things: a defensive desire to protect a favored party, and a careless reading of the passage in question. I will explain.

    How can I “lump” Porchers with the various other groups I named? A review of what I wrote:

    “This is, in fact, the message of nearly every would-be change movement: that it will reshape, or even transcend, politics. Movements as disastrous as communism and fascism made this claim, but so do movements as peaceable as today’s Christian Left and ‘Porcherism.'”

    In other words, however different these two movements may be, they do share one common element: that they claim to be a “third way” that changes the current debate (in FPR’s case, the debate between libertarian types and big government technocrats). I made no claim to any similarity beyond this. But in your haste to defend your favorite blog, you only saw it mentioned in the same sentence as a group you dislike–and neglected to actually consider the narrow comparison being made. Next time you’re deciding how to treat a fellow human being in public, read what they wrote first.

  • Brian Brown
    March 7, 2010

    Brian Brown

    It seems a clarification is due regarding my use of the term Progressive. Several times I have been accused of “obsessing” over it. Look at any Republican politician and see how many times they use the word “liberal”–are they obsessing over it? Of course not; they are addressing one of the dominant political viewpoints of the day, because it is inescapably relevant to political discourse.

    But because Progressivism is a term out of vogue, it strikes the eye when seen so frequently in someone’s writing. To clarify: I use “Progressive” where most people would use “Democrat” or “liberal,” because it is a more accurate technical term for a contemporary political movement–partly because it is in very few senses liberal, and partly because it allows for differentiation between technocrats and, say, Kennedy Democrats or left-leaning FPR folks.

    And, quite frankly, I use the term because I generally consider it polite to call people by their preferred names (e.g. “pro-choice”), and most liberal intellectuals prefer to be called Progressives.

    Any discussion of politics inevitably involves talking about the dominant political class, and that necessitates calling them something. Perhaps, to avoid censure by people for whom “liberal” is an all-encompassing term, I should simply call them “those people.”

  • Avatar
    March 7, 2010

    Mark

    Actually, I first read that sentence in isolation and then went back and read your entire piece to make sure I understood it in context. The context doesn’t help. Your lumping-in concerned the desire to “transcend politics” or, as you said, to be a third way. That’d be nice a comparison were there evidence enough to support it. But there is not. You’ve stretched to make a comparison for a ‘zing’ factor, but stretched too far. I think that’s a fair criticism any man should be able to take without any faux indignation. And while it’s true that I align myself with many of the views espoused on FPR, pointing that out as if to make a counterargument of it is nothing more than a straw man and a red herring. Let’s stick to reasoned arguments.

  • Bryan Wandel
    March 8, 2010

    Bryan Wandel

    Red herrings and straw men … this bucolic business is going on until the cows come home!

  • Brian Brown
    March 9, 2010

    Brian Brown

    The full import of your original comment just sank in. I’m sure the good folks on the Porch would appreciate the suggestion that bringing up their blog adds relevance and a zing factor. I’m less convinced.

  • Avatar
    March 9, 2010

    Mark

    Oh, I see what you did there.