In the past I have argued against term limits for politicians. I have done so for three reasons:
First, I have stated that the U.S. Constitution provides for term limits: they are called elections. If you don't like the job the pols are doing, "We the People" should have the discipline to vote them out.
Second, even though we Americans like to think that any rank amateur can be a good politician, just as in everything, experience matters. Term limits threaten to create a government of apprentices with no craft masters.
Third, the Founders did not include term limits in the Constitution for good reasons: They believed that the voters had enough sense to vote out bad politicians. "We the People" might elect someone incompetent, but we would never re-elect them once we saw the mess they had made. Moreover, what if a gifted and talented person was elected? Would we really want to put term limits on a James Madison? What about John Quincy Adams, who after one term as President served in the House of Representatives until his death and demonstrated his good legislative abilities? Thus, it was up to "We the People" to throw out the bums by not voting for them, but reward with another term those pols who truly did good work on behalf of the American people.
As sound as I think that reasoning is, I now believe it is time to enact term limits for Senators (two six year terms) and Representatives (six two year terms). What has caused me to change my mind?
First, the Founders were clearly naive to think "We the People" had the good sense to recognize a bad politician when we saw one. We continue to re-elect our politicians no matter what. We complain about career politicians, but we don't really mean all career politicians. In reality we only mean those who are not members of our party, our tribe. We continue to vote for our career politicians while believing the problem is the careerists on the other side of the aisle. Since "We the People" continually fail to exercise voting discipline in each and every election, it is time for the law to enact that discipline for us. Sadly, that means the best pols will have to step aside at some point, and we will not benefit from their experience. However, we will not have to put up with the incompetents forever; and they seem to be doing more damage than the good ones bringing benefit.
The second reason we need term limits is that the American electorate has become uncompromisingly polarized. Voters who belong to the extremes of both parties-- the loony left and the wacky right-- hold the most influence in politics. They have inserted poison into our political and moral discourse. They not only believe "compromise" is a dirty four-letter word, these folks will turn on their own who do not toe the "orthodox" party line. If Congress has become dysfunctional it's because "We the People" have made it that way by treating politics as a blood-sport where no prisoners are to be taken alive.
Third, because of the second reason, most pols are centrally concerned with their re-election and what they say and do is cynically calculated to ensure that re-election. Our senators and particularly our representatives are scared to death of being primaried by someone in their own party if they even hint at compromising with the enemy across the aisle. The main reason that recent presidents have abused the executive order in their power is because Congress has abdicated its legislative responsibilities, focused only on what will give them another term. Thus, presidents know they can get away with abusing executive orders because Congress will let them.
Fourth, it is that focus on re-election that has turned many in the Republican Party into cowardly toadies because they are afraid of Trump's base. They know they need their votes in order to be re-elected, and they also know that the cult-like character of Trumpism makes it impossible to go against anything that the Dear Leader says and does. It is astounding to watch the Republicans who privately acknowledge that Joe Biden is the next president, but refuse to say it publicly because they are afraid Trump's voters will turn on them. All one needs to do is see how Republicans are turning on other Republican officials in Georgia and Arizona only because they will not go along with Trump's continued attempt to subvert the election of 2020. They are willing to do undemocratic things in a cynical, calculating, and a long-shot bid to overturn a free and fair election, just so that when their re-election comes around, they can tell the Trump base they did everything they could to support their Dear Leader. Though that attempt will fail, the damage to our democracy will take years to repair. Perhaps if some of these Republicans were on the way out, they would have the courage to speak up and reject this continued charade. By the way, we should never assume that Democrats are beyond this kind of spineless behavior should the right Dem Dear Leader emerge in the future.
Fifth, and finally, term limits are a way to limit dangerous movements like McCarthyism and Trumpism from getting a permanent hold in the halls of power. Subversive and nefarious movements will always be with us, but the prospect of term limits will hopefully reduce the damage they do when easily persuaded and manipulated followers gather en masse to do its chaotic bidding.
So, I now support term limits, but it will not be easy to enact such legislation. Those who have the largest stake in keeping things as they are will not go quietly into the term-limit night. But if that night does arrive, perhaps a new dawn of "We the People" will arrive.
Time will tell. As Mark Twain famously said, "Politicians are like diapers, they need to be changed often, and for the same reasons."
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