America prides itself on being a shining model of democracy. Justifications for sending young men to die on foreign battlegrounds is often couched in terms like “keeping the world safe for democracy.” In most cases, American government does work on democratic principles. The system used to elect, change and maintain the single most powerful position in that government, however, has nothing to do with democratic process.
Imposing limits on the number of a terms that President can serve is a betrayal of American ideals because it is an aspect of the distinctly anti-democratic Electoral College-based procedure for overriding the will of the majority and a new Amendment to the Constitution should be ratified that abolishes both the Electoral College and limitations placed on the number of terms a President can serve.
The Founding Fathers who framed the Constitution can bear most of the shame for an invention that took only four elections to reveal its absurd lack of all logic—the Electoral College—but at least they can’t be blamed for putting term limits into the Constitution. That two-term limit placed upon every President who was successfully re-elected was nothing more than a shared tradition until that tradition was broken by Franklin Roosevelt. Only in the wake of FDR’s four-term Presidency cut short by death did the two-term limit become law with the ratification of the Twenty-Second Amendment (Korzi 2010). The framers of the Constitution may have been exhibiting symptoms of mental illness in founding the Electoral College, but the fact that they rejected a term limit for the Chief Executive should some bear some weight on the issue. Perhaps, in fact, the rejection of limits upon the length of time a person could be President was their way of counterbalancing the forced anti-democratic foundation of the Electoral College: term limits also lack any “redeeming pro-democratic virtue; if a majority of voters wanted to replace experienced incumbents with newcomers, they could do so without term limits. Just vote the bums out” (Elhauge 1997).
Those Founding Fathers of America were also constructing a document during a period when politician was not viewed as a lifelong career. The tradition of stepping down after two terms is directly connected to the fact that those who created the American government lived in a time before there was such a thing as a “career politician.” They were creating a process for electing representatives of the people who actually made their living doing something else: lawyers, farmers, publishers, soldiers and others who would be moved by circumstances to become active in the political system and move on after either succeeding or failing at their specific agenda. Even Alexander Hamilton—probably as close as there was to such a thing as a career politician at the time—likely never imagined the potential for people elected officials like Senator Robert Byrd or Rep. John Dingell to retain their seat in Congress for over fifty years (Roberts 2013). Re-election has become the primary goal of most members of Congress and many actually do wind up spending most of their lives wielding power. One of most irrefutable arguments against term limits for Presidents comes down to a single question: why should someone elected by a few hundred thousand people West Virginia have a longer influence upon American policy than a person whom tens of millions of voters spread throughout every state in the union would vote choose to send back to the Oval Office for a third term but can’t because their democratic right to choose their leader has been denied? The answer, of course, is that President have term limits, but members of Congress don’t. And so once again the system praised as a model of democracy is revealed to be inherently obstructive to the will of the majority being recognized.
One of the arguments used by those who support term limits is that any President who wins a second term gets four years to implement policy without having to worry about the prospect of getting re-elected. In theory, this freedom should exert a strong influence to tackle programs that may be unpopular, but in the best interest of the country. The refutation of this argument is one that has been proven again and again: an outgoing President still has to worry about his successor as the party’s nominee getting elected and more often than not that successor stands a very good chance of being the Vice-President. Also undermining this argument: trying to come up with a second-termer who ever actually took advantage of this alleged freedom.
Other supporters of term limits insist that it limits the potential for tyranny in the case of a leader who might wish to manipulate his popularity and exploit the democratic system in order to engage in actions and behavior more suitable from a tyrannical despot. Current circumstances are enough to disprove such notions of security when the President’s party also happens to be in control of the Congress, the Judiciary and most state legislatures.
Finally, there is the argument which is most difficult to refute and which has plenty of evidence from foreign countries backing it up. Every four to eight years a new crop of candidates show up to toss their hat into the ring and launch a candidacy for the White House. This crop is almost always severely reduced or even eliminated within the party of the incumbent seeing re-election. If the incumbent was running for a third or fourth term, it is actually conceivable that an entire generation could pass without American voters getting the exposure to unfamiliar politicians who might one day make a serious run for President. Term limits have the power to cultivate a continuing crop of new candidates that would certainly not exist in the same number if term limits were not in place. This is a strong argument and worth serious consideration except for one fatal flaw in the reasoning. If the incumbent after eight years is office enjoys so support so robust that nobody wants to mount a serious challenge for his party’s nomination, doesn’t it stand to reason that members of the opposition party would feel the same? The real argument here is not that term limits negatively impacts cultivation of successors, it is that term limits negatively impact the cultivation of successors of the incumbent’s party. Any action which can prompt politicians to put the country ahead their party should be deemed worthwhile.
Many believe that term limits prohibiting Barack Obama from seeking four more years directly led to the disaster-in-the-making known as Pres. Trump. Of course, others will argue that the election of Donald Trump is a strong case in favor of term limits since it kept America from another four years of Barack Obama. Then, of course, there is the future potential: the Electoral College could be Trump’s savior from ever-widening popular vote losses in 2020…and 2024. A lack of limits might have kept Trump from getting at least one term as President, but could it not also just as likely ensure a third term? Common ground can be found on this issue not by engaging specific examples subject to partisanship, but by reminding voters that their voices are not being heard and the majority’s will not being mandated.
Twice in the sixteen year the will of the majority was overruled by the minority. If any other country in the world announced that the winner of the election for the position of its Chief Executive was awarded the candidate who collected the second-most votes, there would laughter at best and outrage at worst. America is, in fact the only democracy in the history of the world where the runner-up in votes can actually be become the leader of the country. The Electoral College is not just a joke, it is anti-democratic. The imposition of term limits essentially tells voters that even if they are reaping the benefits of the most effective and efficient elected leader in history, they have to allow someone else to take his place after the end of his eighth year in office. That’s not democracy. That’s not even representative democracy. America has sent soldiers off to fight in foreign lands around the globe to keep the world safe from democracy. Now is the time to keep democracy safe America by organizing a movement calling for the abolition of the both the Electoral College and term limits. Only when the President of the United States is always—and only—elected to office by the will of the majority until that majority decides they want someone different or the President decides on his own not to run again will American finally earn the right to keep referring to itself as a democracy.
Elhauge, Einer. “Are Term Limits Undemocratic?” The University of Chicago Law Review, vol. 64, no. 1, 1997, p. 83., doi:10.2307/1600199. Accessed 24 Feb. 2017.
Ginsburg, Tom, et al. “On the Evasion of Executive Term Limits.” By Tom Ginsburg, James Melton, Zachary Elkins :: SSRN, 29 Sept. 2010, papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1683594. Accessed 24 Feb. 2017.
Korzi, Michael J. “Development of the Presidency, 1787—1945.” A History of the U.S. Political System: Ideas, Interests, and Institutions, edited by Richard A. Harris and Daniel J. Tichenor, vol. 1, ABC-CLIO, 2010, pp. 293-311.
Roberts, Amy. “By the Numbers: Longest Serving Members of Congrss.” CNN, Cable News Network, 7 June 2013, http://www.cnn.com/2013/06/07/politics/btn-congressional-tenure/. Accessed 24 Feb. 2017.