One of the issues that has wide appeal among the public – but not so popular with our political leaders – is the concept of term limits. The idea of forcing political leaders to relinquish their office after a few years of service has been debated for years.
Opponents argue that in a democracy we should allow the people to decide in the voting booth. Except we are not a pure democracy, but a democratic republic – which means that we the people do not decide all issues—we elect people to represent our interests. That is an important distinction because in the republican form of government, authoritarian influences can arise and take over. The more entrenched the power structure, the existential is the threat to our freedoms.
That became obvious when President Franklin Roosevelt broke the two-term tradition established by President Washington and was able to win four consecutive elections – serving until his death in 1945. FDR became so powerful that he was actually dubbed America’s first dictator.
The danger to the small-r republican form of government was so great and so obvious that shortly after Roosevelt’s death, the Congress passed the 22nd Amendment to the Constitution limiting future presidents to two terms. It was subsequently ratified by the states.
Opponents also argue that limiting the terms of our legislators denies our legislative bodies the collective “institutional memory.” It does, and that is term limits’ greatest benefit because it is institutional memory that enables lifetime legislators to manipulate the system to maintain control. Think about it. If you have no possibility of maintaining office for a lifetime, you have no motivation to rig the system.
Term limits is largely a partisan issue among the politicians — with Republicans generally in favor, and Democrats opposed. Among the public, they have bipartisan support, with Republican, Democrat and independent voters favoring them by wide margins.
Particularly disappointing is the opposition by a lot of black Democrat legislators. I single them out because of what term limits might have meant to the civil rights movement – and what still could mean in addressing the current racist policies of the Democrat machines in our cities. But then again, a lot of those black legislators are part of those urban political machines.
It can be well argued that had America had term limits following the Civil War, racial justice might have arrived a lot sooner in America. It may well have avoided that century of segregation following the Compromise of 1877 that removed federal troops from Dixie and led not only to the Democratic Party’s brutal racist authoritarian rule over the old Confederate States, but gave southern racist members of Congress enormous power over the most important committees as well as the national political scene.
Their power was derived from the fact that the southern Democrats were able to win one re-election campaign after another – serving in Congress for decades, even lifetimes. Because Congress had no term limit rules on committee chairmanships until Republicans took over the House in 1994, those long-serving racist southern Democrats held on to the powerful chairmanships for decades. They were known as the “solid Democrat bloc.” Of course, when Democrats regained the house, they went back to the old seniority system.
Because of their enormous political influence within the Democratic Party, the solid Democrat bloc was the tail that wagged the dog. They were the reason that Democrats nominated and elected such racist white supremacists as President Woodrow Wilson and FDR. They were the reason that the New Deal was constructed by southern racists to actually take jobs away from Negroes. They were the reason that Ku Klux Klanners like Hugo Black were appointed to the Supreme Court. They were the reason that Roosevelt and the Democrats defeated several congressional Republican efforts to pass anti-lynching legislation that would have made it a federal crime. They were the reason that black children were denied education in those “separate but (so-called) equal” school systems in the south (and in the major Democrat-controlled cities, for that matter). They were the reason that oppressive segregation survived in the south for more than 100 years after the Civil War.
The power of the southern Democrats was evident in the fact that a southern Democrat had to be on the presidential ticket virtually every year – as President, Vice President or both.
What would have happened if term limits were the law of the land in those days of institutional racism? Democrat members of Congress, like those with whom former Vice President Biden could deal – Mississippi Senator James Eastland (37 years in office) and Georgia Senator Herman Talmadge (24 years), by name – would have long been retired.
In fact, so would have been Virginia Senator Harry Byrd Sr. (32 years), Senator Richard Russell (38 years), South Carolina Senator Strom Thurmond (48 years), Mississippi Senator John Stennis (48 years), Alabama Senator John Sparkman (33 years) to name just a few. And so would have been West Virginia Senator Robert Byrd, the last member of the Ku Klux Klan to serve in Congress – and he was there for 51 years until his death in 2010
In terms of the House, there are just too many of them to list, but you can be sure that the southern Democrats were just as powerful in the lower chamber.
Had the aforementioned faced a two-term limit for the Senate (and six for the House), the rotation would have brought into power – chairmanships — senators from other regions of the country – senators without the rabid racism of the southern Democrats. It is arguable that with term limits the civil rights movement may have succeeded in the late 1800s – and most certainly in the early 1900s. It would have changed everything. The malignant racist faction of the Democratic Party would have been denied the power it enjoyed for too many years.
The conflict between wanting to allow voters maximum choices and the need to protect the Republic from authoritarian influences was best expressed by former Congressman, former White House Chief-of-Staff and two-time former Secretary of Defense Don Rumsfeld, who said, “It is a bad idea that’s time has come.” Actually, it is not a bad idea – and its time has come.
So, there ‘tis.