Just say no to term limits! They’re fundamentally undemocratic and that’s why the right likes them

Posted on October 19, 2016, 1:09 am
9 mins

PHOTOS: Given the alternatives, most of the world would be delighted if this scene could be repeated, don’t you think? Probably most Americans would be too. Below: Four-time presidential winner Franklin D. Roosevelt and other presidents who contemplated third terms, but were thwarted for on reason or another, Ulysses S. Grant, Woodrow Wilson and Grover Cleveland.

As recent events clearly illuminate, our American cousins really ought to reconsider the 22nd Amendment to their Constitution. Surely by now the rest of the world heartily agrees.

“If only, if only the Obamas could be our President and First Lady for the next 4 or 8 years,” someone named Nan Socolow commented under Frank Bruni’s column last Saturday in the New York Times.

rooseveltI’m sure Ms. Socolow speaks for millions of Americans, and perhaps tens or even hundreds of millions of citizens of the world, as they bleakly contemplate the two most likely winners among the politicians now running to replace the current U.S. president, the aforementioned Barack Obama.

Only Conrad Black, bloviating from his rapidly crumbling pedestal at the National Post, seems reassured by the character of both the principal candidates for the job, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. Mr. Black’s views on a variety of topics are well known, so that in itself should probably be taken a warning flag. However, je digresse …

Just to be perfectly clear, as Richard Nixon used to say, I’m talking about the Twenty-second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. For Canadian gun nuts about to work yourselves into a full-blown swivet about that, it’s the Second Amendment you care about. Just sayin’. The 22nd is the one that limits U.S. presidents to two four-year terms in office.

grantNotwithstanding the worries expressed by Thomas Jefferson – second president of the United States and admittedly a fellow whose advice is worthy of at least second glance – that allowing presidents to serve more than two terms would open the door to chief magistrates remaining office for life (he had in mind the sort who would be monarchs) there is no evidence in American history through Civil War, Great Depression or World War his fears were justified.

George Washington, No. 1 himself, prudently decided against a third term, setting a precedent not unlike a Parliamentary convention that has been observed by most American presidents. Those few thereafter who considered the option (for example, U.S. Grant, Grover Cleveland, Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson) were disavowed of the notion by their own parties or by voters themselves.

It wasn’t until Franklin D. Roosevelt was successfully elected to an unprecedented third term in 1940 and a fourth one in 1944 that any president managed to surpass America’s unwritten two-term limit. FDR died in office in April 1945, so in that regard he fulfilled President Jefferson’s grim prophecy that multiple presidential terms were for life. But despite the exigencies of wartime governance, he was always put there by the sovereign voters of America.

wilsonI very much doubt the people who championed the 22nd Amendment – which became part of the U.S. Constitution in 1951, not very long after Mr. Roosevelt’s death – would have been quite so enthusiastic about it if it had been someone like Ronald Reagan who had been in office. Indeed, years later when Mr. Reagan was president, lo and behold, there was serious chatter in the same quarters about the need to repeal the amendment.

Nowadays, of course, we hear no such thing from the folks who enjoy the freedom of the press just because they happen to own one. It’s hardly a coincidence that it was the success of the president who brought in the New Deal – which the Republican right wanted to dismantle then and has been trying to dismantle ever since – that motivated the push to constitutionally limit the terms of American presidents.

Republicans led this effort, and they did it to limit Democratic (and democratic) power. They did it to undermine FDR’s legacy.

The idea of term limits, it goes without saying, is fundamentally undemocratic on its face. It prohibits politicians who are popular with voters from running, and it prevents voters from voting for the leaders they want.

That’s almost certainly why the drafters of the U.S. Constitution didn’t include it in the original.

clevelandThe best that can be said of it this undemocratic idea is that it meshes fairly seamlessly with the U.S. style of presidential government – and hence the United States is nowadays lousy with term limits at every level of government. Readers will note this is doing nothing whatsoever to alleviate that country’s growing democratic malaise.

On this side of the Medicine Line, it goes without saying, there is a clamour for term limits whenever progressive politicians are in power – any old port in a storm for conservatives, one might say – and deafening silence on the right when an authoritarian right-wing ideologue like Stephen Harper is hunkered down in Ottawa or a provincial capital.

With Prime Minister Justin Trudeau apparently so popular he may be able to remain in power for – who knows how long? – we are bound to hear a resurgence of cries on the right for American-style term limits by all the usual suspects. (Viz., the same ones screeching for a national referendum to blockade electoral reform.)

Do you doubt me? Mr. Trudeau just attracted a crowd of more than 2,000 people in the streets of Medicine Hat, one of the more conservative towns on the Canadian Prairies, for heaven’s sake!

Indeed, this is how we Canadians got a raft on unworkable fixed-election date laws unnaturally affixed to our Parliamentary system as part of an institutional effort to hobble progressive policies by conservative politicians who feel free to ignore them themselves, as did the federal and Alberta Conservatives, when their own mandate appears threatened.

Well, it’s too late now for citizens of the United States to do anything about the electoral choice they face. As much as they might like to, there’s nothing they can do to fix this in three weeks.

I don’t think there’s much doubt that, given the options they have now, they’d re-elect Mr. Obama in a minute if they had the option.

We Canadians need to just say NO to term limits. That shouldn’t be too hard if we just think about who always brings up the idea.

The perennial Canadian advocates of political term limits will be back again very soon. We should tell them to please just shut up.

This post als9o appears on Rabble.ca.

5 Comments to: Just say no to term limits! They’re fundamentally undemocratic and that’s why the right likes them

  1. Eric Cameron

    October 19th, 2016

    The Americans seem to be experimenting with ways o get around the term limit thing at the presidential level. Father and son presidents (Bush). Husbands and wife presidents (Clinton). Michelle Obama is young enough to run 2020 or 2024.

    Reply
  2. David

    October 19th, 2016

    I can understand the particularly American concern arising in revolutionary times about a president becoming monarch like after being in power for a long time. Washington may have been trying to set a good example, but perhaps we was just at the age of retirement at the end of his second term. In any event, I am not sure that term limits are a good solution.

    First, in a democracy one could argue it should truly be up to the people to decide.

    Second, in this current US election there is a lot of despair about the quality of the candidates, while a fairly popular and competent President can not run again because of term limits. So this is at least one obvious flaw with term limits – the best candidate can be barred from running.

    Third, there are several ways around term limits (have a spouse run or has been done in other countries have a friendly ally serve a term or two and then come back as President later). Like many detailed rules, it often serves to dissuade those with more integrity, but those clever enough to get around it because they are more focused on their self interest are not necessarily stopped.

    Lastly, I would say Canada’s (and the US) experience with long serving leaders has actually been fairly good. Our longest serving Prime Minister – William Lyon Mackenzie King had a lot of personal quirks, but seems to have led the country forward fairly well. He is well regarded by most historians. Of course President Roosevelt successfully led the US through World War II. Imagine, if he had to step down in the middle of it and the candidates running to replace him were of the quality of some current candidates. The distraction and results could have been disastrous for the US and for the world. Some may overestimate the dangers of entrenched power and underestimate the danger of lack of experience or competence.

    I am not sure there is a such an advantage of incumbency in a functioning democracy that term limits are needed. If some one is doing a good job – keep them as long as possible. If someone is not, then the voters can decide that too.

    Reply
  3. Tom in Ontario

    October 19th, 2016

    At the state level in the U.S. term limits can be a Tea Partier’s dream. In Michigan, state senators are limited to two four year terms and house members to three two year terms. The fact that the entire state has been gerrymandered by Republican legislators and governors makes the problem even worse.

    The popular vote favours Michigan Democrats but the legislature is overwhelmingly Republican. Tea Party tax fighters continue to reduce state taxes and why not? “Let the next bunch worry about shrinking state funds. I’m term limited outta here.”

    The result has been chaos. Michigan’s roads are among the worst in the nation, schools frightfully underfunded and state social programs in disarray. The worst example is the Flint water crisis where contaminated water from the Flint River poisoned hundreds, leading to dozens of deaths from secondary bacterial infections. The ramifications will be felt for years to come.

    Reply
    • Bob Raynard

      October 19th, 2016

      And I bet popular phrases in Michigan include ‘do more with less’ and ‘we don’t have a revenue problem we have a spending problem’.

      Reply
  4. TC

    October 21st, 2016

    While I’m also against any term limits, I disagree with two arguments the writer presented:

    One, I disagree with the argument that the right likes term limits. The writer cited the example of the 22nd Amendment of the US Constitution, proposed in 1947 and adopted in 1951, as an example. While it could be argued that a Republican-controlled Congress wanted to downplay FDR’s legacy, the delineation between Democrats and Republicans much less clear-cut than today. At that time, much of the American South is dominated by Democrats, as the Republican was still remembered as “the party of Abraham Lincoln”.

    Moreover, France could be considered to be a left leaning country. This country’s constitution also imposes a term limit for its President, too. So, I’m wondering if this is really something exclusively liked by the right. To people on the left, you should be thankful for the 22nd Amendment when Ronald Reagan and George W Bush were President. I also heard some in the left talking about term limits in Canada when Stephen Harper was Prime Minister.

    Second, in being a devil’s advocate, one can make a case that term limits is democratic. A term limit allows everyone a better chance to participate in the political process. Furthermore, mandating a transfer of power prevents it from being too concentrated to one person, and risking the country into a dictatorship. There are many countries who impose more restricted term limits on their presidents. Mexico and South Korea constitutionally restrict their presidents to a single term of five and six years, respectively. These were countries that experienced dictatorships in the past.

    So, I’m totally agree with the first statement of the title. I simply want to see better arguments.

    Reply

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