Wednesday, December 4, 2019


Civil order is upheld by citizen rule, and democracy is citizen rule. Undermining democracy is a threat to civil order and the capacity of government to contain violence and, right now, democracy in the U.S. is under attack. This attack on democracy is systematic and pervasive, has been going on for many years and, in spite of the safeguards and guardrails built into the Constitution, democracy is faltering.

Democracy is an in-progress experiment that continuously needs defense, corrections and amendments, because it is inherently fragile. It is important to defend democracy and all of its foundational principles, one of which is renewal: renewal of elites, renewal of ideas, renewal of leaders and of institutions; but people in power do not want to get renewed. The natural tendency of people in power is to try and stay in power, whether political or economic, so they will use and manipulate weaknesses of democracy and its tools itself to undermine it. And the biggest institutions with influence and power in our system are political parties and their entrenched interest networks.


In the book Pathways to Freedom[1], Shannon K. O’Neil, Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, dedicates a section to Mexico. In Mexico, by a century old law, no elected representatives, from the president down to local city council members can remain in office beyond one term. Dr. O’Neil argues that reelection makes public office holders more democratic because this mechanism is an incentive to make these elected officials more willing to listen to constituents than would otherwise be the case; thus prohibiting reelection runs contrary to democracy. Her argument opposing the reelection ban is:

“Perhaps designed to limit control of caudillos this legislation makes politicians dependent on party bosses… and less accountable to voters, who will not get an opportunity to vote for them again…
…The country remains weighed down by the legacy of no reelection, which gives politicians incentives to be responsive to their parties first and their constituencies second.”­

Two hundred and twenty five years before Dr. O’Neil’s words, Alexander Hamilton weighed in on the matter, forcefully advocating unlimited reelection in his arguments in favor of the Constitution being discussed for adoption. He argued that reelection was not only a mechanism for a more responsive democracy, but a way of keeping experience and wisdom in office. Having dismissed already the notion of a quickly removable executive (a Prime Minister) by the “whims” of society or a fraction of the legislature[2] to argue a fixed term of office, proposed as four years, he addresses the issue of “re-eligibility.” On this he says it is “necessary to enable the people, when they see reason to approve of his conduct, to continue [the president] in the station, in order to prolong the utility of his talents and virtues, and to secure to the government the advantage of permanency in a wise system of administration.”[3] He goes on to point out three major “ill effects” to bolster his argument:
  1. “One ill effect of this [temporary or perpetual] exclusion would be a diminution of the inducements to good behaviour.”
  2.  “Another ill effect… would be the temptation to sordid views, to peculation and… usurpation. An avaricious man… looking to a time when he must yield the advantages he enjoyed, would feel the propensity… to make the best use of the opportunities, while they lasted… to make the harvest as abundant as it was transitory… An ambitious man too… would be much more violently tempted to [attempt by every means] the prolongation of his power.”
  3. “A third ill effect… would be, the depriving the community of the advantage of the experience gained by the chief magistrate in the exercise of his office.”
In 1789, shortly after writing those words the Constitution, having been ratified by the required two thirds of the states, became the document by which the United States governs itself, including unlimited reelection of federally elected officers. State legislatures promptly modeled themselves after this mechanism, allowing reelection of legislators and most executive officers. Then, in 1796, George Washington, after serving two terms as president, delivers his farewell address attempting to establish, by custom, the two term presidency convention. The second president of the United States, John Adams, ran for reelection and lost to Thomas Jefferson. Eight years later Jefferson, who did not believe in third or endless terms, despite his successful and popular presidency declined to run.

Much is said about the wisdom of the framers, and on this issue Hamilton favored unlimited reelection and Jefferson opposed it. In the ratified constitution Hamilton prevailed but Jefferson, despite having favorable odds for reelection to a third term, argued: “General Washington set the example of voluntary retirement after 8 years. I shall follow it. And a few more precedents will oppose the obstacle of habit to anyone after a while who shall endeavor to extend his term. Perhaps it may beget a disposition to establish it by an amendment of the Constitution.”[4]

In 1951, only 146 years after first proposed by Jefferson the 22nd Amendment, the one limiting presidential terms to two periods, was ratified. The debate on term limits has raged since the founding of the republic, and here we are. An amendment that limits the term of the presidency to ensure that power does not excessively accumulate in one person to weaken the other branches of government, as feared by some; and a notion that term limits are a useful way of curtailing such power.


The thing about power is that it exists. It can be distributed or accumulated but, like dough, squeezed on one side, it will surface on another. That is why checks and balances that identify, stabilize and control power are important. As Dr. O’Neill said, reelection has its place in democracy but experience has shown that a strong presidency, if allowed to have unlimited terms, will eventually destroy separate powers, a key component to a republic, as we have seen in other democratic experiments around the world and Jefferson forewarned. On the other hand, Hamilton’s warning about an avaricious and ambitions man, seeing a defined end to his term, using all the powerful tools of the presidency to benefit his future self –or even to seek to circumvent his limited term and stay in power by violence— is foreboding. Character matters, whether term limited or not.

Term limited legislative representatives do not have the power of the presidency. That is why in their case, as Hamilton pointed out, they will be tempted to use their limited term “… to make the best use of the opportunities, while they lasted…” and prepare themselves for a future life, first favoring and then joining, special interests represented, typically, in lobbyists or party bosses. If the US Congress were to have limited terms, the power of the presidency, party and lobbyists would overwhelm that branch of government more so that it has now.

In states where representatives have limited terms, government rotates into the hands of easily swayed greenhorns, making power shift to special interest factions; it also hems in the state executives. This is not to say that self-interest of elected officers is the only driver of political life, but it is a human trait that influences behavior, and in many cases prevails. An example of power shifted away from elected representatives is the case of Marion Heller. Her influence as a long term lobbyist for the NRA in Florida can be traced to the term limits of the state’s legislature, making her one of the most powerful persons in the capital, Tallahassee, repeatedly bashing newbies to impose her own committee assignments and legislative agenda. She has more tenure in the halls of Tallahassee than any elected individual.

The apex of political power in the US is the presidency, and the president is the leader of his or her party. Over the years, the accumulated power of party has increased substantially partly because of a deadly poison to democracy: gerrymandering. Gerrymandering is a combination of the worst of secured tenure and term limits. Establishing “safe districts” for either party has created a system that allows parties to accumulate power. That power accumulates in their interest (or of a dominant fringe of the party), as opposed to the district’s constituencies. The biggest electoral threat to an incumbent is to be “primaried” by a new party favorite designee. The actual person holding office is not what matters, it is the party that keeps the seat that does. And the leader of the party, the biggest party boss, is the president who can thus manipulate the legislative and, in consequence, the judiciary. Party Rule.

A few years ago I had a friendly argument with an old high school buddy who has since passed away. He insisted that democracy in the US was a sham while I argued that, despite its problems, the US has a system that favors democracy. I still believe that to be the case, but he was right also. Democracy is in trouble, and that is because democracy is fragile. The accumulation of party power through gerrymandering and its consequential concentration in the presidency is a threat to democracy, liberty, peace and prosperity.

The ascendancy of party over country was forewarned by Washington:

“The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge, natural to party dissension, which in different ages and countries has perpetrated the most horrid enormities, is itself a frightful despotism. But this leads at length to a more formal and permanent despotism. The disorders and miseries which result gradually incline the minds of men to seek security and repose in the absolute power of an individual; and sooner or later the chief of some prevailing faction, more able or more fortunate than his competitors, turns this disposition to the purposes of his own elevation, on the ruins of public liberty.
Without looking forward to an extremity of this kind (which nevertheless ought not to be entirely out of sight), the common and continual mischiefs of the spirit of party are sufficient to make it the interest and duty of a wise people to discourage and restrain it.”[5]

Hamilton also talked about human nature and its tendency to overrule legacy and continuity: “To undo what has been done by a predecessor, is very often considered by a successor, as the best proof of his own capacity and desert …warranted in supposing that the dismission of his predecessor has proceeded from a dislike of his measures and that the less he resembles him, the more he will recommend himself to the favour of his constituents”[6]. By the same token if a president were to be reelected, he or she would reasonably believe it is an approval of “his measures.” Hamilton, of course, was presupposing unlimited reelections under this premise, but in our modern times this applies to party more than person.

The political and constitutional crisis underlying the governing of the US has come to a head with the galvanizing figure of Donald Trump as president. It is not, however, Trump that created the crisis, it is the elevating of party over nation that has brought us upon this crisis. When Republicans are seen to be or accused of protecting the President, in reality what they are protecting is Party Rule. The crisis is a consequence of the increasing power of parties deciding who gets elected to what office, regardless of the reality that each state, each district and each precinct, is not made up red or blue base members but made up of citizens—who seem not to matter to party. Conversely such indifference makes those citizens skeptical at best and violent at worst against the political system that governs over them. This situation is deeply rooted and goes beyond figureheads or political boogeymen.

The clear and present reality that any candidate, Democratic or Republican, can be equally polarizing to the nation is with us and the consequences to civil order may be dire. When any party rules without controls, democracy flounders. There will be interests favored or disfavored by a party rule system and they will try to curtail democracy and its renovation at every turn. Gerrymandering has made parties and factions increasingly adopt more extreme positions, eventually becoming enemies rather than adversaries. A similar unfettered antagonism in the past eventually led to the Civil War and such danger is not to be ruled out in our time. 

There may still be time to avert such an outcome, but time is running short, and prescient leadership even more so. Corrosive sectarian brinkmanship can be dialed back; challenges to gerrymandering in the Supreme Court may prevail eventually when submitted with a less partisan standard; the National Popular Vote Compact may eliminate the telegenic, divisive and mentally numbing notion of Blue and Red states. These and other measures to strengthen the role of citizens in a democracy, including protection of voting, elections and voting rights, may be too little too late but true believers in democracy and the republic must champion these as long as they can and are able to uphold citizen rule. Party Rule is not citizen rule, and Party Rule makes the country a weak union, a weak democracy and a weak nation.

Carlos J. Rangel books include "La Venezuela imposible", on the long term structural political and economic issues that led to the Venezuela crisis, and "Campaign Journal 2008" on Barack Obama's successful run for the presidency that year.

More on representative democracy and voting: THE BIG NULLIFICATION
More on reasons and consequences of impeachment: WE'LL SEE WHAT HAPPENS....

Photo and illustration, copyright their respective owners.

[1] Pathways to Freedom, Coleman, I. and T. Lawson-Remer eds. CFR, 2013
[2] “It is a just observation that the people commonly intend the PUBLIC GOOD. This often applies to their very errors.” Federalist No. 71
[3] The Federalist No. 72
[4] Letter to John Taylor, Jan. 6, 1805
[5] George Washington’s Farewell Address, 1796
[6] The Federalist No. 72


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