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

Share This Post

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.

Categories Alberta Politics