Making America Great Again–Term Limits

President-elect Trump wants to impose term limits on Congress–that would take a highly unlikely constitutional amendment but highly unlikely things do happen occasionally. Even if not imposed, the renewed demand for term limits provides further evidence for the conflict theory of term limits (and here).

Imagine that there are two rival coalitions in a region and that each fears the other will gain and hold on to power for an extended period of time. This fear can be motivated by two factors. First, the longer a coalition expects to be in power the more likely it is to exploit another coalition. Or, to put the issue the other way, the greater the expected rotation of power the less likely the presently ruling coalition is to exploit other coalitions. Until May of 1994 South African blacks had little legal political power. Nevertheless, as the prospect of future black political power increased the South African government became constrained in its actions towards South African blacks. The prospect of black power in the future moderated white power today. Second, if coalitions are risk averse they will prefer to rotate power with rival coalitions, and in this way share the spoils of governing rather than gamble upon winning or losing all political power for a lengthy period of time. Term limits are one method of increasing the rotation of political power.

When a politician’s term is over the election for the open seat is more competitive than it would be if an incumbent were running. By increasing the number of open-seat elections term limits increase the rotation of power….The probability of a rotation of power is five times more likely in the House and nearly three times more likely in the Senate in an open election than in an election with an incumbent. Thus, incumbency advantage has an enormous impact on party rotation. Term limits, in fact, were historically referred to as the “rotary system” or the principle of “rotation in office” (Benton 1854, Petracca 1992). From this perspective the benefit of term limits is not the termination or limitation of current politicians but rather the expectation that new politicians will rotate into power. The conflict theory does not connect support for term limits with dissatisfaction with current politicians and, in the conflict theory, voting against current politicians is not a substitute for term limits.

…The conflict theory implies that the more political conflict there is in a region the greater the demand for term limits.


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