Term Limits

The Federalist Papers are a collection of essays written by James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay. They were an attempt by these men to persuade the citizens of New York to ratify the Constitution and the book is generally regarded as the best collective statement of the meaning and purpose of the document they wanted New York to ratify. Madison is usually credited with writing the 55th Paper. In that Paper the shows how the Founders simply assumed that the members of the House of Representatives would change every two years. They thought that a good thing — new blood and folks elected because they more closely represented the wishes of their constituency than did the Senate which was to be chosen by the several State Legislatures. There are other assumptions at work in this paper, as they are throughout the Federalist Papers as a whole. One of the assumptions had to do with the “virtue” — which at that time meant “civic virtue” of the ordinary citizen who would always attempt to do what was best for the country at large. In response to the critics who had their doubts about the virtue of the citizens,  or indeed those who represented them, Madison had this to say:

“I am unable to conceive that the people of America, in their present temper, or under circumstances which can speedily happen, will choose, and every second year repeat the choice of, sixty-five or a hundred men who would be disposed to form and pursue a scheme of tyranny or treachery. . . . I am equally unable to conceive that there are at this time, or can be in any short time, in the United States, any sixty-five or a hundred men capable of recommending themselves to the choice of the people at large, who would either desire or dare, within the short space of two years, to betray the solumn trust committed to them. . . .Were the pictures which have been drawn by the political jealousies of some among us faithful likenesses of the human character, the inference would be that there is not sufficient virtue among men for self-government; that nothing less than the chains of despotism can restrain them from destroying and devouring one another.”

What we have here, by contemporary standards, is eighteenth century naiveté. Madison shows himself convinced that the citizens of this country have sufficient virtue to select the very best legislators and that those same legislators would commit themselves to the common good — since they are in office for only two years — or they would be dismissed from office and replaced by those who would more nearly reflect the views of those who elected them in the first place.

What has come about, as we all now know, is a government of extremely well-paid professional politicians who are elected again and again and who cling to the offices they are elected to the way a drowning man clings to the life raft that will save his life. The citizens have shown themselves bereft of “virtue” to the extent that if they vote at all they vote for individuals who represent the interests not of the citizens at large, but of the corporations that put up the money to have them nominated in the first place. The allegiance of those elected officials is, naturally, to those very corporations they are bound to and not to the people whom they supposedly represent.

What it all boils down to is that term limits would be the only thing at this point that would restore this government to a shadow of the image the Founders had in mind when they wrote the Constitution. The basic concept that comes through loud and clear on nearly every page of the Federalist Papers is that of a well-informed citizenry that would insist that their representatives work for them or they would be summarily replaced. This will not, it cannot, happen today as long as members of Congress are allowed to hold office interminably. We have term limits for the President and there should be term limits for members of Congress. Otherwise, we shall have the continued boondoggle that passes for representative government in which representatives pursue self-interest (which is identical with corporate interest) and not the best interest of their constituents or their country, a country in which the citizens are currently bound by the “chains of despotism” if you will.

The Demagogue

I attach here a portion of a most interesting opinion piece from the Washington Post that is making the rounds on the web. It is by Michael Gerson and the title is “Trump is the Demagogue our Founding Fathers feared.” It is most interesting.

In a dangerous world, fear is natural. Cynically exploiting fear is an art. And Trump is a Rembrandt of demagoguery.

But this does not release citizens from all responsibility. The theory that voters, like customers, are always right has little to do with the American form of government. The founders had little patience for “pure democracy,” which they found particularly vulnerable to demagogues. “Men of factious tempers, of local prejudices, or of sinister designs,” says Federalist 10, “may, by intrigue, by corruption, or by other means, first obtain the suffrages, and then betray the interests, of the people.” A representative government is designed to frustrate sinister majorities (or committed pluralities), by mediating public views through “a chosen body of citizens, whose wisdom may best discern the true interest of their country.”

Trump is the guy your Founding Fathers warned you about. “The question is not ‘Why Trump now?’ ” argues constitutional scholar Matthew J. Franck, “but rather ‘Why not a Trump before now?’ Perhaps some residual self-respect on the part of primary voters has driven them, up to now, to seek experience, knowledge of public policy, character, and responsibility in their candidates. The Trump phenomenon suggests that in a significant proportion of the (nominally) Republican electorate, this self-respect has decayed considerably.”

With the theory of a presidential nominee as a wrecking ball, we have reached the culmination of the founders’ fears: Democracy is producing a genuine threat to the American form of self-government. Trump imagines leadership as pure act, freed from reflection and restraint. He has expressed disdain for religious and ethnic minorities. He has proposed restrictions on press freedom and threatened political enemies with retribution. He offers himself as the embodiment of the national will, driven by an intuitive vision of greatness. None of this is hidden.

The founders may not have imagined political parties as a check on public passions, but that is the role the GOP must now play — as important as any in its long history. It is late, but not too late. If he loses in Ohio and Florida on March 15, Trump may well be held below a majority of delegates at the Cleveland convention. And then this chosen body of citizens should play its perfectly legitimate role and give its nomination to a constructive and responsible leader.

The reference to the “wrecking ball” has to do with what Gerson says Trump is: the “Republican electorate’s” tool to destroy the “old political order.” But anyone who believes that the Trump phenomenon is all about folks who are sick of politics as usual, and that’s it, are fooling themselves. He has shown us the ugly underbelly of this nation, folks who have been afraid heretofore to shout out their hatred and bigotry in public. This man has made it not only acceptable, but even admirable. It’s no wonder the rest of the world is looking askance at this country and the hatred and even violence that has clouded this election thus far.