The People's Limits: that's Democracy for Ya

Though it was the tense atmosphere and the booing and heckling from the crowd at Arlen Specter's town hall meeting in Lebanon, PA that grabbed headlines on Tuesday, the exchange that caught my attention had nothing to do with the heated discussion of health care reform. One attendee suggested to the Senator that he "go back [to Washington D.C.] and propose a bill for term limits." Specter's response: "The people of Pennsylvania can impose term limits anytime they want to. That's democracy." This, of course, holds true for every state and district in the Union. However, it would not be an exaggeration to say that Pennsylvanians have little experience in this aspect of democracy, at least so far as Specter is concerned. Elected in 1980, he is the longest serving senator in the history of the state. However, the problem posed by the power of incumbency is not confined to Pennsylvania. This is a puzzling issue for anyone interested in strengthening and expanding the scope of representative government beyond the limits imposed on the people of the United States by the Republican and Democratic Parties: why do Americans continue to elect and then re-elect professional politicians whom they despise?

This is a difficult question precisely because it admits of so many different answers. Many Americans simply vote for the candidate they perceive to be the lesser of two evils; perhaps they are more comfortable with the devil they know than the one they do not; or maybe they are simply deferential to power and experience; or they are disillusioned and apathetic; perhaps their consent has been manufactured by professional propagandists; maybe they take their political cues from parties who have an interest in maintaining the political status quo, even if it is not in their own best interests; or maybe they simply feel powerless, convinced that it is impossible to change our political culture. Whatever the answer may be, one result of the paradox is the desire on the part of voters for the imposition of rules that would effectively take the decision, and the responsibility for it, out of their own hands – term limits for instance. Another example is provided at Fort Hard Knox in a post arguing for national referendums and provisions for recalling federal officials:
This is about the people’s right to force dishonest elected Federal Representatives out of office before they are allowed to suborn the Constitution. Currently no State permits recall of Federal Officials. This right was denied voters early in the history of this Republic by Progressives of the late 19th and early 20th Century. It is about time the people took back this right. We all know politicians lie. Right now the only option for the voting public is to wait until the next election cycle but by then it becomes a choice of the lesser of two evils. We the people must be able to control our own destiny and recall elections is one tool that has been removed from our arsenal. [Emphasis added.]
The problem with any effort to impose such measures, however, is that they always come to the same impasse: they are not in the interest of the careerist legislators and officials who would be tasked with writing them into law and executing them. Consider the fate of the term limits law in New York City. The law was passed by voters, twice, in 1993 and 1996. Yet Mayor Michael Bloomberg successfully lobbied the city council to gut it. From Wikipedia:
In the fall of 2008, Bloomberg successfully campaigned for an amendment to New York City's term limits law, in order to allow him to run for a third term in 2009. On September 30, 2008, reports emerged that Bloomberg was seeking to amend the law, and on October 2, 2008, he announced plans to request the removal or extension of term limits for elected officials. On October 23, 2008 the New York City Council voted in favor of extending the term limit for elected officials to three consecutive four-year terms, thus allowing both Bloomberg and other council members to run for office again.
But, to quote Specter again, the people can impose term limits any time they want, that's democracy. As Scott Robinson writes at Political Derby:
The time has come to stop voting for the “lesser of two evils”. Rather, we must stand for something; we must elect people whose values are compatible with ours. If there is no such person available, now is the time for us to run.


Samuel Wilson said...

Robinson has the right idea, whatever his ideology might be. If the goal is to get representatives "whose values are compatible with ours," how is that more likely to be done? By choosing from candidates selected by others or by gathering together to choose candidates ourselves? That might mean learning to cast write-in votes or other chores, but if people are serious about their alienation from career politicians they're going to have to figure out how to win elections without them.

d.eris said...

On that note, I've been meaning to link to Michael O'Connor's new site for the slate of independent conservative candidates that have come together in Rotterdam, NY: the No New Tax Party




Michael said...

Thanks, Damon. We are filing our independent petition Tuesday. Our last big push for signatures is Saturday, August 15th to add an unchallengeable cushion. The effort is building incredible momentum now - volunteers from like-minded organizations, etc.

The truly amazing thing, however, is the response from the people. They are anxiously awaiting the new alternative our ballot line will give them. Win or lose, we've succeeded in making the impossible task possible and that may be our biggest victory no matter what else happens.

When I get a breather, I'll write something up as a guest post that captures the experience to this point.

d.eris said...

It sounds like things are going well. I'm looking forward to an update.