08 August 2011

Are term limits the solution to partisanship?

American anger at politicians isn't likely to abate anytime soon, especially not after global governing body Standard & Poor's blamed politics to a large extent for its downgrading of the U.S. credit rating. Whether this anger will amount to anything depends on whether it can be concentrated, or whether angry Americans are capable of concentration. We know they're angry at politicians in general. We know they're angry at partisanship. But the relation between the two may remain elusive to many angry observers. Here's a sincere though naive outcry from the phone-in comment column of yesterday's Record out of Troy, N.Y.

It's not the Democrats; it's not the Republicans, it's both parties that are at fault. If they truly held America's interests at heart, we would not be in this mess that we are currently in. Let's enact an amendment for term limits. No more 30-40 year careers in Washington, D.C.

This is a common sentiment of the moment, but the analysis is vague. The caller recognizes that "both parties...are at fault," but it's unclear whether the caller means that they're at fault as parties, that partisanship as such is fundamental to the problem, or whether the parties are equally at fault only because both are equally populated by career politicians. We might infer the latter from the caller's call for term limits, which can only curb the power of individual politicians. The assumption may be that short-term "citizen politicians" will have less vested interest in partisanship because they lack a strong interest in re-election. If so, then short-term politicians might be expected to legislate and govern in a more responsible, non-partisan fashion regardless of which party line they were elected on. They might be expected to "truly h[o]ld America's interests at heart" as long as they have no personal interest in retaining political power.

But such a folk analysis doesn't give enough credit, if that's the right word, to ideology. The frightening thing about the Tea Party is that you can bet that they do truly hold America's interests at heart -- it's just their definition of America's interests that cause all the trouble. While someone like Senator McConnell is presumed to be motivated cynically by a partisan desire to see a Democratic President fail, Tea Partiers also want to see Obama fail, but because they feel with insane sincerity that he's an existential threat to the country. Once you allow ideology into the discussion, you have to take parties into account as a force unto themselves, because parties are the continuity of ideology. If ideology transcends the personal interests of any given politician, so will partisanship. So long as parties are governed by ideology, term limits will only result in the replacement by each party's ideological base of primary voters of one uncompromising fanatic with another. Even if you minimize ideology as a corrupting factor, a political party has a self-evident interest in its own perpetuation that is certain to be shared by any partisan nominee. Even if term-limits eliminate a politician's personal interest in his own re-election, he'll be governed by an institutional or ideological interest in retaining his seat for his party. As long as reforms place no limits on partisanship, term limits are unlikely to have the effect their advocates hope for. The only place where reforms might loosen parties' grip on elections without violating freedom of association is on the ballot, which need not be organized on party lines. Term-limit advocates are groping toward reforms that would enable Americans to elect more representative and responsible people to their legislatures. They can't be reminded often enough that partisanship is as much an obstacle to their cause as careerism -- and possibly the ultimate obstacle. If "both parties are at fault," then let's deal with the parties as well as the politicians.

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