In the early American republic, there was a great deal of turnover in most political offices. Presidents, by tradition, only served two terms in honor of the example of George Washington. Many districts, like Abraham Lincoln’s congressional district, featured far more politically ambitious individuals than there were offices suitable for their ambitions, leading to the swapping of terms so that each person would serve in office for one term. The need for leaders to ensure their own financial security through careful management of their estates encouraged people to spend years on their own farms managing their own affairs because public service was not an activity that one did to be wealthy. The combination of the lack of remuneration for public service and the need to balance the spoils of office to a large political elite within states led to frequent turnover in the highest offices.
It is little surprise that there is little example of that turnover nowadays, except in those few swing districts that move between parties, or where a longtime political leader suffers a shock defeat in a primary. Within the United States, official corruption, where it is not a crime for congressmen to participate in insider trading, and where longtime senators and representatives frequently find themselves significantly enriched by their time in office, has made this turnover less and less prevalent, except among those who resign from offices because they have obtained higher offices or those who suffer shock defeats. While our nation has increased in population some ten times from the days of Abraham Lincoln, arguably our political elite is smaller now than it was in that period of antebellum politics where there were enough leaders of the same party in the same district that three of them swapped the House of Representatives seat among themselves by a gentleman’s agreement. Instead, leaders routinely serve for decades, where only massive scandal, the threat of jail, or death opens up offices for the next generation of leaders in many cases.
And if this is true in the United States, it is even more true in other countries. Reading the election returns from most of the world’s nominal democracies can be a depressing task. On April 10, 2016, Chadian President Idriss Dèby won his fifth straight term by a margin of nearly 50% over his nearest competitor. On April 8, 2016, Ismail Omar Guelleh was re-elected for a fourth term of President of Djibouti, receiving over 87% of the vote. On February 21, 2016, incumbent president Mahamadou Issoufou of Niger won re-election with 92.49% of the vote. After revising the constitution to get rid of term limits, president Denis Sassou Nguesso of the Republic of the Congo won re-election by receiving 60.19% of the vote. In Uganda, incumbent president Yoweri Museveni won re-election with more than 60% of the vote, retaining his position of power that he has held since 1986. Nor is this phenomenon limited to Africa. In Iceland, historian Guoni Th. Jóhannesson was recently elected president and was the first new president that country has known in twenty years, as his predecessor served five terms and chose to step down. In many other countries, including our own, term limits are about the only way to release the cold grip of the corrupt and incompetent from the highest offices. All too often, once someone achieves the highest offices, they retain their grip on offices so long as they wish, since only death or a coup can overthrow them in many cases .
Let us not be fooled into thinking that these people continue in office because they are doing a good job. Iceland, for example, is a small nation and one with a proud tradition of independence, but in the midst of the last economic crisis only a few years ago it owed ten times its modest Gross Domestic Product due to financial reversals. The state of African nations is even worse, as Chad, Niger, the Republic of Congo, and Uganda are among the most miserably poor nations on the face of the earth. Surely their leaders are not re-elected over and over again because they are doing a good job, because they are doing a horrible job at improving the lives of their masters, the people, and only doing a good job at staying in power. To be sure, this is an accomplishment, but rather of the sort that missish young women in Jane Austen novels are given credit for, merely for painting screens and being able to plunk out some notes on the pianoforte, or controlling the state-run press and election machinery. In some countries, like Thailand, there has been a great deal of turnover in office because the corrupt military cannot accept the repeated verdict of democracy, tossing people out of office and managing the country’s affairs for a while before the next election brings the same precise sort of people to office once again.
What is needed for a country to be a successful democracy? Success, after all, not only means the ability to conduct consistently free and fair elections that reflect the will of the electorate, but also that lead to the well-being of those people through the behavior of those who hold elective and appointive offices. This is not an easy standard to meet, because there are many who (usually wrongly and self-servingly) think that they know better than the people, and because people often elect leaders who do not act in ways that actually serve to benefit those who elected them, and support ideologies and worldviews that lead to sure and consistent disaster. So much has to go right for a republic to work—good laws, wise rulers, a moral and knowledgeable and active populace willing and able to serve others themselves—and where any of these qualities are missing, a nation will eventually go to pot. It is little wonder that so many nations of the world engage in one person, one vote, one time and make a mockery of democracy. It is a great wonder that any nation is able to long endure with a genuine respect for the wishes of its electorate, and where that electorate is worthy of the honor of having their wishes respected in the first place. But who will educate the people to their rights and responsibilities, develop wise leaders, and craft wise laws and constitutions where they have fallen into ruin and disrepair? We cannot, after all, save the world or any portion therein unless we are saved ourselves.
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