Creating a Democracy Without Limits, Through Term Limits

By Colby Hess

It could reasonably be said that whenever three or more people are engaged in any kind of joint decision-making process, politics will be involved. They are an inevitable part of human interaction and a seemingly unavoidable element of the power structures that go hand in hand with governance. It could also be said, without irony, that the biggest problem in our current political landscape is in fact, politics.

The gridlock, inaction, and partisan bickering that characterize the state of our elected officials in Washington, DC are largely a result of the pressures they face in constantly worrying about their next reelection. In the 2008 presidential campaign, the ballots had scarcely been tallied before the political wrangling for the 2012 elections had already begun. When it comes to congressmen, who serve for only two years at a time, and who, over the last forty years, have had an average reelection rate of over ninety-percent, their time in office is one never-ending campaign. How can our politicians be expected to do their jobs and focus on governing when their primary focus is on their own political survival?

The simple fix to this dilemma is neither novel nor sexy, but if enacted across the board, it would revolutionize the entire political process in America. That fix is called term limits. Imagine if a president could only serve for one term before handing off the reigns to give another citizen a chance to lead. What if serving in Congress meant taking a hiatus from your career to go and work for the public for a few years before returning to your normal employment and getting on with life?

Just think what this would do to politics as we know them. No longer would the reelection campaign kick into gear before the seats in the inauguration grounds had even grown cold. No longer would candidates be beholden to powerful special interests and their paid lobbyists who, at any time, can threaten to withdraw their support and thus destroy the candidate’s livelihood. No longer would our legislative and executive branches be dominated by career politicians who have next to nothing in common with the average working citizen, and who become increasingly susceptible to corruption the longer they remain in office.

The usual counterarguments to term limits are that they are said to take away the people’s right to choose for themselves, and also, that they artificially limit benign legislators’ abilities to do good by forcing them to step aside when their work has only just begun. In reality though, with the way it is now, the incumbent enjoys a massive, unfair advantage (mostly name recognition and simple inertia caused by voter apathy) such that it is hardly a level playing field for any challenger – regardless of the virtues or ineptitude of the current officeholder. Furthermore, in a nation of over three hundred million individuals, it’s inconceivable that there should be any shortage of competent and qualified candidates. Term limits would give far more of them the opportunity to run and prove their worth. As for the previous holder of the position, if the option to run again were completely taken off the table, then any possible merit to be had by an additional term would become a moot point, as every campaign would be a face-off of fresh candidates for whom the outgoing politician would be free to advise or offer support as he or she sees fit.

This system need not be set in stone for all time either. Democracy is, after all, an experiment. Depending on how well it worked, the term limit rules could be modified by a later congress so that, for instance, the length of a single term could be increased to say, five or six years for a president, and a politician could run again after sitting out for at least one election cycle, with perhaps a lifetime cap on the total number of terms one can serve in any given office. Such was the way of the cursus honorum of ancient Rome (from whence we derive much of our modern legal and political system). This system worked remarkably well, corrupted only by the fact that its strictures were often ignored by men of wealth and privilege. With our constitutional system of checks and balances and the vigilance of an informed public, these problems could be safely contained (or at least be no worse than they are now).

Together with campaign finance reform, which could give any ordinary citizen a fighting chance at being elected, limited only by their ability to excite enough people with their agenda, setting term limits would revitalize our democracy in a way not seen since the writing of the Constitution. This one minor modification to how our government is structured would reinvigorate the phrase “of the people, by the people” and help to ensure that those who are elected to government would be working, not for the interests of massive corporations who give them the millions of dollars necessary to run a campaign under the current system, but for the people in the districts they represent – especially those who actually turn out and vote.

Although term limits have been proposed by members of both parties at various times in our nation’s history (usually by whoever’s in the minority), the idea has never met with much success as soon as a majority is gained. It will therefore take a massive clamor by the citizens to demand the instituting of term limits, as it’s not going to happen on its own when it’s directly against the vested interest of the only people who can change it, but it doesn’t seem like so much to ask for considering the huge amount of good it would do. Like the Roman, Cincinnatus, who, after leading his city to victory against foreign invaders, declined the lure of remaining in absolute control by instead immediately relinquishing his symbols of office and returning to his farm – our leaders would be drawn from among the citizenry, aiming to please no one but their constituents, and untainted by a lust for continual power. It’s not often that one simple fix has the potential to do so much, but by instituting term limits, we could turn the tide against plutocracy and ensure a thriving democracy for generations to come!


Originally published as:

Creating a Democracy Without Limits, Through Term Limits” on January 4, 2012 by Addicting Info >

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