In Praise of Midterms

On the day of midterm elections, it is worth taking the time to admire the Founders’ design. Gratitude does good for the soul at any time, but it is particularly warranted now, when a number of progressives have argued that midterm elections are a mistake, principally because they get in the way of powerful Presidencies that can transform American society through national politics.

The Framers kept government on a short leash because they were more realistic about what federal politics could accomplish and more pessimistic that any particular idea of national reordering would be good. They built a system of checks and balances to constrain the dangers from  excessive power. Those restraints in turn protected other forms of more decentralized political ordering like the market, voluntary associations, and state and local government.

An op-ed in in The New York Times yesterday argued  that it would be a good idea to eliminate the midterms and the amend the Constitution in favor of longer terms for members of Congress.  They analogize the federal offices to state and local offices, like school boards, which have longer tenure. This argument gets things perversely backwards. We put checks on the power of the federal government in part to make it harder for the government to displace the more local ordering of state officials, thus preserving federalism.  The more  potentially powerful their political agents, the more opportunities the people need to check them.

The authors of the op-ed also argued that the President needs sufficient time to pursue his democratic mandate with a sympathetic Congress.  This point ignores the weakness of any Presidential mandate in the first place.   As Ilya Somin emphasizes in an excellent recent book, most voters are rationally ignorant of politics and do not have a strong grasp of the specific program of the candidate for whom they vote. Moreover, the vote takes place at a particular time with a specific mix of issues that may soon change. Often the vote is so close that the difference amounts to no mandate at all. Think Bush-Gore. Sometimes the result would have been different if the election had happened a week later. Think Carter-Ford. It is precisely because any election is only a blurry snapshot of democratic sentiment that it is essential to take more pictures.

And government is not only about grand visions but about competence and honesty that need continual monitoring. Perhaps the Iraq War was a good idea, but President Bush’s incompetence in assuming the completion of a mission that had just begun warranted a rebuke in 2006. And untruths can often be revealed for what they are only in the midst of an unfolding program. A case in point of course was the current President’s claim that if you like your health care plan you can keep it.

Midterms are often lambasted because they allow more spending on yet more elections. But another perspective is that midterms provide an opportunity for people who do not influence politics for a living to band together and try to persuade their fellow citizens about which candidates and policies are better. It takes money to get out their message.  But the alternative is  a much more insular politics, shaped to an even greater extent by the symbolic class of the media and academics, a class that leans sharply to one side of the political spectrum. Not surprisingly most of the voices for curbing the midterms come from this crowd of the like-minded.

Besides celebrating the victory of any favorite candidate this evening, take some time to celebrate the Framers’ design. It permits citizens to better control their rulers and protects decentralized social ordering from evanescent passions.