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.
Brian Brown loves building the environments, habits, and networks that make people thrive. He is the founder of Humane Pursuits, where he writes a featured column and edits the Give channel. He started his consulting company, Narrator, to help great mission-driven organizations modernize and grow. He lives with his wife Christina and son Edmund in Colorado Springs, where they mix cocktails, hunt for historic architecture, and see how many people they can squeeze into their house for happy hour.