The conservative case against term limits
Insulating individuals from the consequences of bad choices does nothing to promote democratic governance or protect civil liberties. It does not teach voters to make sober, reasoned choices at the voting booths. Only by making poor electoral choices then removing dishonest political actors once their perfidy is revealed and being vigilant against similar situations in future can voters truly ensure the election of a government that promotes and improves the culture of American government.
There is a certain degree of Machiavellian barbarity to any elected government. But Machiavellianism at its heart works on recognition of the innate drive to preserve the self. Hence, to paraphrase the most infamous and most misquoted snippet of The Prince, it is better for a ruler for his people to fear his wrath. This piece of advice is as applicable to a republican government as to a monarchy when one recognizes that the polity is the ruler; elected officials should fear their fury if scorned.
Legislation to limit the number of terms representatives can serve makes the wrath of the voter impotent. It only entrenches the idea that Americans should rely on the federal government to protect them from their own failings. This is contra to the notion of individual freedom and personal responsibility. Term limits are not a conservative policy.
It is discouraging to see former stalwarts of conservative thought, such as Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), so fundamentally mischaracterize the machinations of American political power.
In an op-ed that reads like a bad campaign speech, Cruz and DeSantis make a case based on shockingly paltry rhetoric, using nothing other than a recent poll conducted by Rasmussen which suggests a majority of Americans support term limits. Riding on the pithy banality of President Trump’s promise to “drain the swamp,” they attempt to sell the reform as part of the anti-establishment populist sentiment that dominated 2016. This is a particularly offensive line from Cruz, not only because he casually dismisses the Founders’ case against term limits without examining their argument, but also because of his past history of fiery, intransigent stands against legislation he thought was wrong even though the majority supported it.
It was the “the people want it, so the government must deliver,” rhetoric of the Obama administration that Cruz and his ilk stood so stalwartly against in the past. The moral imperative given to a majority has no bearing on American federalism. The social contract, the true basis of the framework of republican government, is concerned with the protections of rights as possessed, not as exercised.
A government or its officials invested with the rights to discern and legislate on what is fair for individual citizens has the power to define not just what rights people possess but how they may be properly exercised. By nature, this is not a limited government.
Besides, it places the locus of government action not on the quality of actions, but on the quantity. To suggest that limiting terms will automatically improve the class of elected officials and focus their efforts on good policy rather than graft and power-grabbing is the same vein of fallacious rhetoric that gauges effectiveness of Congress by the number of bills it passes annually. This has, at best, a superficial relationship to the merit of its actions.
The nature of power will not change, only the duration with which individuals hold it. The calculus will not change. Careerism will simply be accelerated. If anything, the impetus to push forward serious political solutions will only be further dissipated, as office-holders can shrug off exigent issues and leave them for future members to deal with.
There are obvious downsides to careerism in Congress, but there are also benefits. The mythos of American political culture tends to romanticize the novice politician as Jimmy Stewart in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington — ambitious, pure-hearted, altruistic but hampered by his naivete. In truth, the nation needs professional legislators. It is false and foolhardy to suggest professionalism cannot coexist with principles.
Term limits are not the alchemical solution to America’s deficit in political efficacy. Better representatives can only come through the ballot box, which means Americans need to be engaged, to understand that the only thing standing between themselves and representatives who do their bidding is their vigilance. Congress has ceded much of its authority over the years; this is a problem. But American voters have done the same and become lazy, complaining about the annoyances and aggravations of politics. Congressional disapproval has never been higher, but the rate of incumbents winning re-election continues to rise. There is a fundamental disconnect between voters and their understanding of their responsibility for political woes.
Term limits cannot reinvigorate the laziness of America, either in the polity or in government; they woo voters with the false romanticism that there are shortcuts to accountability beyond the wrath of a scorned polity on election day.
Originally published at The Politics of Discretion.