A New York Times op-ed by a Duke professor and a student argues that midterm elections are passé. A cynic might conclude something about the timing of this realization – that it coincides with an election in which the party favored by academia (and the New York Times) is likely to receive an electoral shellacking. But the argument is worth taking at face value, so let’s consider it on the merits.
Schanzer and Sullivan say that midterms once made sense, but that times have changed. For one, they argue that the need for close electoral accountability has diminished thanks to modern technology:
Twitter, ubiquitous video cameras, 24-hour cable news and a host of other technologies provide a level of hyper-accountability the framers could not possibly have imagined. In the modern age, we do not need an election every two years to communicate voters’ desires to their elected officials.
Perhaps. Communicating with elected officials is certainly easier than ever before, as is taking the pulse of the electorate, but does greater access to public desires translate into legislative results? I find that politicians are most concerned about public views come election time. Longer terms for House members would thus reduce incentives for representatives to adhere to public desires.
Reading between the lines, one gets the impression that’s precisely what the authors want. They worry over the fact that “Americans’ confidence in the ability of their government to address pressing concerns is at a record low,” and grumble that the “main impact of the midterm election in the modern era has been to weaken the president.” Indeed, it appears to be any obstacle to an imperial presidency that most motivates the authors.
“The realities of the modern election cycle,” they complain, “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.”
In other words, this appears to boil down to the standard statist complaint over “gridlock.” Though they also throw in some identity politics for good measure:
Another quirk is that, during midterm elections, the electorate has been whiter, wealthier, older and more educated than during presidential elections. Biennial elections require our representatives to take this into account, appealing to one set of voters for two years, then a very different electorate two years later.
Again, a cynic might note that the kind of voters the authors would prefer politicians stop appealing to tend to favor an ideology and party that academia (and the media) loathes. But not to worry, they have a solution:
There’s an obvious, simple fix, though. The government should, through a constitutional amendment, extend the term of House members to four years and adjust the term of senators to either four or eight years, so that all elected federal officials would be chosen during presidential election years. Doing so would relieve some (though, of course, not all) of the systemic gridlock afflicting the federal government and provide members of Congress with the ability to focus more time and energy on governance instead of electioneering.
For many, anything that limits the energy politicians spend on governance – that is, the time spent imposing their whims on the rest of us – is likely to be a good thing. Gridlock, in other words, is a feature rather than a bug.
Political tools tend to be blunt instruments, and attempts to solve societal problems through the political process are often hamfisted and counterproductive. Certainly some problems need political solutions, but there is good reason for the process to be arduous and time consuming. The impulse of individual politicians in the face of any problem is to preen and overreact in order to demonstrate that they are “doing something.” It is up to institutions, then, to slow things down and force deliberation into the process. If midterm elections contribute to that process, then they are a net positive.