The LA Daily News reports that a few more congressmen have joined up with a bid to repeal the 22nd Amendment’s two-term limit for presidents. Doesn’t seem to have a chance, and it’s hard to get worked up over one way or the other, but I do think the country would be a hair more democratic without the amendment. I generally think it’s a good thing for us to have social norms against third terms of the kind that already existed before 1947, but that’s a decision for primary and general election voters to make for themselves (or, in the case of FDR, not to) in each election year, not one for another generation to make for us. And it’s a norm individual voters should each decide to uphold or reject in their own selections, not grounds for a current or past majority to deny members of a minority or future majority the chance to vote for the candidate of their choice (same goes for the far less sympathetic ban on foreign candidates, especially in an era when the ostensible threat some English prince using his wealth and residual pro-British-empire sympathies as a springboard to the Presidency is that much less of a reasonable concern…). As Aaron Sorkin once wrote, when the system works, “we have term limits in this country: they’re called elections.”
The real implications of term limits are far greater here in Mexico, where elected officials at all levels are government are limited to single terms. I heard a convincing lecture here at UDLA last week echoing what some political scientists in the US have warned about term limits: they shatter the already-fragile subject-agent relationship between voters and candidates, in which voters do their best to evaluate the performance of their representatives and reward or punish them at the voting booth. That’s why the conventional wisdom we’ve heard repeated non-stop recently is that your first term as President is for re-election, and the second is for history – a charming idea, maybe, but not a very democratic one. And it becomes much worse when no one’s term at anything is concerned with getting elected again. Defenders of the term limits I spoken to here argue that in a parliamentary system where voters are choosing parties rather than candidates (a set-up the lecturer is opposed to as well, though I’m not), this makes little difference, even holding voting based on parties constant, in a scenario without term limits voters have the chance in party elections to reward or punish incumbents, and if those incumbents make it to the top of the party’s list, then all voters get the chance to take performance into account. This professor isn’t the only Mexican I’ve spoken to here who identifies term limits as one of the reasons they feel ignored by their elected leaders, who are looking ahead not to re-election but to currying favor with party elites to make it onto the ballot for a different office (Mexico also seems to provide support, incidentally, for another hypothesis about term limits: that they reduce institutional conflict between different branches of government as you see more of the same people cycling through different offices). Of course that concern is also heightened by the overwhelming perception of party corruption, which is itself the main argument I’ve heard from Mexicans for keeping term limits in place. So earning faith that the system works seems the first step here towards convincing voters here that elections are term limits enough.
Three thoughts after watching the last two West Wing episodes last night:
These were, I have to say, better than the last several have been, and much better than the lowest points of the post-Sorkin era. Still an embarrassing shadow the show’s former brilliance, but I have to say I will miss it over this hiatus. There were even some lines I laughed at. And the actors are still great, especially when they look less like they’re embarassed to have to recite the dialogue they’re being given. Or maybe that was just projection…
Along with all the more substantive faults in the current show, I have to say as a longtime viewer I feel personally snubbed by the current producers’ little sleight of hand which skipped a year of the Bartlett Presidency, which is made all the more irksome by their comments to the press that in focusing the show on Presidential primaries they’re just bowing to the reality that Bartlett only has one year left by the show’s own timeline. False. Bartlett’s presidency started two years before George Bush’s, in 1998. He was re-elected the same week as our awful 2002 elections. So his term ends in 2006, not 2005. Trying to skip a year gives the sense that they don’t think anyone is watching. Which may be true…
Last, more substantive, less self-parodying point: One of the more clever (yes, clever) pieces of last week’s episode was a controversy over a magic trick Penn and Teller perform in the East Room in which they appear to burn a flag wrapped in the Bill of Rights, which is left intact (some of my thoughts on flag burning in general are here. Press and politicians begin demanding to know whether the flag was actually burned or whether it’s still intact. Which begs the question, implied but never stated by the writers: What’s the difference between a symbolic act, and a symbol of a symbolic act? If the one can be banned, why not the other?
Tonight’s episode of the West Wing, from what I caught (admittedly, since the writing’s tanked I find it too painful to really concentrate on the show for a full hour), was about the conflict between two positions:
Well-meaning, bleeding-heart “anti-traders” want to protect the jobs of Americans who have them now because they believe Americans are more important than poor people in the third world, and that having jobs today is more important than having jobs in a generation, and because they want unions to vote for them.
Rational, thoughtful free-traders care about everyone’s jobs everywhere and recognize that millions of Americans may need to lose their jobs to outsourcing in the short term, and it hurts them more than it hurts the unemployed, but they have the moral leadership to do the hard thing by pursuing the policies which will rain down wealth on everyone around the world in the long-term.
Needless to say, no discussion of the benefits to workers around the world from “raising the floor” of wage standards and working conditions, or the threat to workers in this country and every other from a corporate race to the bottom spurred on by neoliberal trade policy designed to maximize short-term profits for transnational elites. Instead, the free-traders learned that they should respect the “anti-trade” folks because they mean well even though they’re wrong, and the “anti-trade” folks learned that they’re wrong.
Do people really still see The West Wing as part of that ubiquitious, malignant liberal media we’ve all heard so much about?
There’s no way I would have been watching The West Wing this season if not for a perhaps perverse sense of loyalty to what it was back when it was Aaron Sorkin’s show. The writing, as many have observed, has tanked, and everything else has gone down with it. Tonight, however, may have been a new low. Whereas Sorkin could actually (and did) make the census riveting television, this season’s writers have made the policy discussion so dry and so trite that the one clever line of the show was when Leo responds to the President’s monologue by asking the others whether they were taking notes. And the character development may actually be worse. It was only in the last minutes of the episode, however, that I was offended in a way I can’t remember ever (despite often coming down pretty far to the left of the positions advanced there) being offended by the show.
President Bartlett has rightfully chosen to take a strong stance against mandatory minimums in drug sentencing and has commuted the sentences of thirty-some first-time non-violent drug offenders stuck with outrageous sentences under mandatory minimums. After the State of the Union, he’s introduced to a Black woman who’s one of the thirty-plus just released and expresses her gratitude. At this point Bartlett launches into a lecture on how lucky she is to be getting a second chance, how dire the consequences if she screws up again, how much the futures of other prison inmates are riding on her behavior, and how important it is that she appreciate her freedom. The sight (fictitious or not) of a white Nobel Laureate/ US President born to privilege taking the opportunity of having taken small steps towards ameliorating awful, punitive, and racist policy lecturing a Black woman who’s just made it out of years of humiliating and unjust punishment for a non-violent offense on how grateful she should be to him and how if she played by the rules he might be more magnanimous to others of her kind was offensive to the point of being difficult to watch. And that the woman simply smiles, blushes, and thanks him again for his kindness is absurd. I expected better.