Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Elections Are Good

On the flap about Virginia, Governor McConnell, and the Confederacy (Yglesias is excellent, TNC even better), Jonathan Chait makes an excellent point:
Of course this is an inherent problem with Virginia's cockamamie system that limits governors to one term. Not only do you lose the ability to retain a competent governor -- and Virginia has had two straight -- but you give every incentive for a candidate to feint to the center and then govern from the extreme once in office. Lots of people supported McDonnell because he insisted he was not a social issues warrior. Once he's in office, it's obvious that he lied, but the voters can't do anything about it.
I'm okay, with a lot of hesitation, with the two-term limit on the presidency.  The dangers of the things that a president-for-life could do seem to me just barely sufficient to override the dangers of a president no longer accountable to the voters, although I'm willing to listen to arguments the other way.  But for pretty much every other office, and certainly for governors, Members of Congress, and state legislators, term limits are a lousy idea.  

Good government types tend to believe that if only pols were freed from re-election constraints, they would do the right thing and serve the public interest.  The obvious problem with that* is that sometimes what a pol really believes has nothing to do with the public interest; it's just what he happens to believe.  Elections -- the incentives involved in re-election -- are the mechanism that democracies use to ensure that pols serve the public interest, because...and this seems beyond the goo goo mentality to understand -- voters are the public.  Yes, yes, sometimes voters can mistake short term gimmicks for long term effects, and sometimes voters actually want things that other observers think are foolish, but in general, a politician who keeps voters happy is doing so because she is representing them well.  Which is, you know, good democracy in action.

*Outside of all the other perverse incentives term limited pols face such as the likelihood that they'll be especially responsible to those who might employ them in the near future, the lack of experience that term limited pols bring to their jobs, and the selection effects of disqualifying those who can't or won't serve for a short time.


  1. Hi Jonathan, found your blog when you guest blogged for Sullivan.

    A great example of the limits of term limits is our neighbor to the south. I'm an Americanist interested in Congress, but my wife is a comparativist and we usually end up discussing about how term limits affect Mexican politics. The problem is that [Mexico's] Congress changes entirely every 3 years, so there is no continuity of policies, particularly in the current era of divided government. As such, there is also no expertise and very little development of leadership that can counter the power and stature of the President (who is term limited as well).

    Moreover, [Mexican] Members are bound to parties and responsiveness to constituent (district) interests is low.

    Interestingly Mexican pundits tend to focus on the power of the President, whether he has too much or too little, and the calls for reforming the system center on the executive, some calling for more others for fewer powers. Why? Mexicans have been bombarded with anti-reelection propaganda their whole lives and reelection is culturally unacceptable even though it could help empower the people.

    In the same way, Americans in favor of term limits think in the short term and higher turnover but ignore the costs of doing so, as you said.

  2. The idea that term limits are an essential element of preventing 'president for life' kind of situations is one that (as someone from a country without such a rule) I find quite difficult to understand.

    I guess the main difference you can point to with Australia (and any other Westminster/Washminster style country) is that our Prime Minister gets the job because his/her party has the majority of seats rather than being directly elected but, in reality, people simply don't vote for a party if they don't like the leader. The same goes for our state governments.

    In general, I think term limits don't really give enough credit to the ability of a robust democracy to clear out the dead wood every once in a while. People simply get sick of a particular governing party after a while - in Australia it's usually at the third election that Governments start having to fight the 'it's time for a change' sentiment - and unless the governing party has a reasonable succession plan they'll tend to be voted out. I really can't understand why it's necessary to deny voters this choice.


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