What the hell is going on at Duke University that a professor of public policy, drawing on the hard-won wisdom of a junior, could write a New York Times op-ed piece that lacks even a junior-high civics-class familiarity with the U.S. Constitution? And who’s minding the rear gate at the Grey Lady’s opinion section that the paper would publish something so shoddy?
You’ll be asking yourself these and other questions after reading “Cancel the Midterms,” a passionate call to return the former (and future?) British colonies in America to a more kingly state. The piece is by Duke professor David Schanzer and student Jay Sullivan (2016).
The title of the piece is just clickbait for a piece about an election that has Democrats trembling, but Schanzer and Sullivan have a proposal that’s more inane than simply canceling Tuesday’s vote. They want to eliminate the gross injustice of having members of Congress justify their jobs every two years. “There was a time,” they write, “when midterm elections made sense — at our nation’s founding, the Constitution represented a new form of republican government, and it was important for at least one body of Congress to be closely accountable to the people. But especially at a time when Americans’ confidence in the ability of their government to address pressing concerns is at a record low, two-year House terms no longer make any sense.”
Leave aside the lame and unspecific claim that humanity has evolved in some fundamental way in a mere 200 years. (You get no credit for guessing that “hyper-accountability” has been called into being by a magical threesome of buzzwords: “Twitter,” “video cameras,” and “24-hour cable news.”) Instead, parse the logic a little: Schanzer and Sullivan are saying that because voters don’t have enough confidence in their government, they should be given even less control over it.
That would seem to be a problem if you think the country should be serving its citizens. But the professor and the junior don’t actually care about the voters. Their concern is for the leader:
The main impact of the midterm election in the modern era has been to weaken the president, the only government official (other than the powerless vice president) elected by the entire nation. Since the end of World War II, the president’s party has on average lost 25 seats in the House and about 4 in the Senate as a result of the midterms. This is a bipartisan phenomenon — Democratic presidents have lost an average of 31 House seats and between 4 to 5 Senate seats in midterms; Republican presidents have lost 20 and 3 seats, respectively.
The realities of the modern election cycle are that we spend almost two years selecting a president with a well-developed agenda, but then, less than two years after the inauguration, the midterm election cripples that same president’s ability to advance that agenda.
The factual premises of Schanzer and Sullivan’s argument are wrong: Incumbent reelection rates are higher than 80 percent for both chambers of the federal legislative branch. As of 2010, members of Congress got reelected 87 percent of the time, while senators got reelected 84 percent of the time. At best, the proposal to “extend the term of House members to four years and adjust the term of senators to either four or eight years” would change the safety of incumbency by a few percentage points. And it would do nothing to curtail the legislative branch’s heretofore unnoticed power over the presidency, an office whose power has vastly expanded in the last century. The idea that too-frequent elections cause an excess of accountability is simply false. (And by the way, strictly speaking, Schanzer and Sullivan are also wrong that the president is “elected by the entire nation.” In a constitutional nicety that is still with us, the president is elected by the Electoral College.)
The balance of power in the federal government went through an important change just over 100 years ago, though these constitutional experts can’t find room to mention it. In 1913 the Seventeenth Amendment radically restructured Senate elections, taking that authority away from state governments and moving it to a direct vote. Schanzer and Sullivan never consider why the House of Representatives was subject to direct, and more frequent, approval by the voters in the first place, nor do they provide any evidence that subsequent changes to the government have made it necessary to change that — because if they did they would find that subsequent changes have made frequent House elections even more important. According to Federalist 52, the House was designed to be the “branch of the federal government which ought to be dependent on the people alone.”
Duke is not the Harvard of the South (that’s Vanderbilt), so we can’t expect a junior to have much familiarity with Federalist 52, which is attributed to James (or maybe Dolley) Madison. But you would expect the professor to have repaired to the basic documents of American governance. Sure, Schanzer would have had to plow through a lot of old, boring, pointless stuff about old, boring, pointless people who wore wigs. But he would also have found material bearing directly on the case he is trying to make: specifically, that the House was designed the way it was because it was intended to be the most powerful part of the government (i.e., the one that controls taxing and spending), and thus its authority had to be restricted by both frequent elections and openness to “merit of every description, whether native or adoptive, whether young or old, and without regard to poverty or wealth, or to any particular profession of religious faith.”
Madison also addressed Schanzer and Sullivan’s specific concerns about why the voters (who, it bears mentioning, had to go through much more physical inconvenience to vote in the 1780s than we do today) should be subjected to biennial polling: because history furnished numerous proofs that less-frequent elections make it easier for despots to seize more power for themselves:
As it is essential to liberty that the government in general should have a common interest with the people, so it is particularly essential that the branch of it under consideration should have an immediate dependence on, and an intimate sympathy with, the people. Frequent elections are unquestionably the only policy by which this dependence and sympathy can be effectually secured. . . .
From these facts it appears that the greatest frequency of elections which has been deemed necessary in [Britain], for binding the representatives to their constituents, does not exceed a triennial return of them. . . .
It is a received and well-founded maxim, that where no other circumstances affect the case, the greater the power is, the shorter ought to be its duration; and, conversely, the smaller the power, the more safely may its duration be protracted.
In eliding these points, “Cancel the Midterms” is in tune with contemporary political speech that redefines “checks and balances” as “gridlock,” prejudices any attempts to rein in state power, and denies the existence of arguments against what Schanzer and Sullivan call “the ability of their government to address pressing concerns.” But the piece does provide a useful glimpse at how little regard contemporary political science has for the basics of representative democracy.
This article is obviously the sad product of a classroom colloquy (or “rap session,” as the kids say these days) wherein a stupid question (and there are plenty of stupid questions) inspired the teacher to shop a piece to the destination media and include the student in the byline to appeal to hypothetical Millennials. The 2014 election silly season is drawing to a close, so increasingly loony arguments are to be expected. But in the Richelieuesque purity of their case, the professor and the junior reveal something essential about contemporary good-government types. They don’t want government to be more accountable to the people, because they believe the people are the problem.