“If democracy deadlocks here, we raise doubts about democracy everywhere.”
Sen. John Kerry made that sobering comment during his farewell address to the U.S. Senate this week. He’s leaving the Senate to become the new U.S. secretary of state, America’s ambassador to the world.
I don’t know about the whole wide world, but I think we have good reason to be concerned about the state of democracy here in America.
We’re fortunate to have serious and experienced people, like Kerry and Hillary Clinton, the retiring secretary of state, in public service. I’m confident that they’re prepared for their heavy responsibilities, and know what they’re doing. I believe Kerry has the discipline to keep his eye on the ball, and not be distracted by hollering in the grandstand.
I believe people like Ms. Clinton and Mr. Kerry understand the importance of taking the long view, that is, considering the impact of our actions ten years from now and 100 years from now.
But generally speaking, I can’t say I have the same confidence about members of Congress and members of our state legislatures. We have many capable people in our legislative bodies. But when they gather together in Congress and the state capitals, they seem unable to focus on what’s important, and impotent to accomplish what needs to be done.
Our elected representatives are hamstrung by institutional corruption and obsolete legislative procedures. They’re mired in a swamp of special-interest money.
“Standing here at this desk that once belonged … that once belonged to President Kennedy and to Ted Kennedy, I can’t help but be reminded that even our nation’s greatest leaders and all the rest of us are merely temporary workers.”
Politicians need to heed Kerry’s reminder that the people’s representatives are temporary caretakers and decision makers.
In my own state of Maryland, political leadership has calcified in place. One four-year term follows another with hardly any change in leadership of the General Assembly. Do the president of the Maryland Senate and the speaker of the House of Delegates have life tenure? Thankfully, we don’t have that problem on the executive side. The Maryland governor, like the president of the U.S., is limited to two four-year terms.
In Virginia, the governor is limited to one four-year term. That seems a little extreme. But maybe it’s time to consider term limits.
Eight years would be too restrictive for the legislative branch. The pool of potential candidates is not unlimited. The average person is neither willing nor able to make the sacrifices necessary to step into the political arena. There’s a learning curve in being a member of Congress or of a state legislature. Experience has value. Term limits in the range of 12 years, or 16 or 20 years, might be a good compromise.
Term limits alone will not reinvigorate Congress. Our political divisions in America seem to be deep and persistent. Wealth is concentrated in a small plutocracy. Many voters continue to be alienated, disinterested, and uninformed. The system is awash in special-interest money.
Democracy can flourish in a society that values people and empowers individual voters and candidates. But our society seems to value money, luxury and entertainment; and to empower wealthy individuals and corporations.
So, is American democracy in danger? Can our political institutions function effectively, or are they in the process of breaking down? Every election now is a test.
— John Hayden
- Richest U.S. Senator, John Kerry, Rails Against ‘Corrupting’ Money in Politics in Farewell Address (weeklystandard.com)
- Kerry Issues Iran Warning as He Seeks Senate Confirmation – Bloomberg (bloomberg.com)
- Brown Won’t Seek Kerry’s Massachusetts Senate Seat – Bloomberg (bloomberg.com)
- Massachusetts gov Deval Patrick appoints African-American, Mo Cowan, to John Kerry’s Senate seat (thegrio.com)