Let's hear it for democracy.

Why the Midterms Are Good for Democracy

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
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A guest piece in the New York Times today argues against the midterms. Entirely. David Schanzer and Jay Sullivan of Duke University would prefer four-year terms for the House, coordinated with presidential elections, and four- or eight-year terms for the Senate. It's a terrible idea.

They point out that staggered terms weaken the president. But that's a case for staggered terms, not against them, as Reason's Peter Suderman argues. I have nothing against strong presidents, but I also want strong, independent Congresses. The original idea behind the overlapping electorates and staggered terms is good: It gives each elected official his or her own constituency.

Yes, the president is the only one elected by the entire nation. Yet those same voters collectively elect both the House and the Senate. There's no reason to think that the whole nation in one election is any more or less authoritative than the whole nation in 435 pieces.

It's pretty hard to get elected in Iowa unless you support Iowa agriculture or in Florida if you oppose hurricane relief. Presidential candidates (at least in the general election) aren't so tied down, since their fortunes depend on the nation's general condition and the popularity of the incumbent in the White House.

The New York Times piece also claims a four-year cycle would allow politicians to tackle long-term problems that may be too "politically toxic" to solve. But this assumes politicians want to address these issues. It's just as likely that many politicians simply want to stay in office, Having fewer elections would only produce lazier Congresses. And "politically toxic" is just a condescending way of wishing for outcomes voters don't want. That's a backtrack from citizen rule. I'm for the democratic solution, even if it doesn't always produce the result I prefer.

Another argument against midterms is that off-year elections have smaller electorates. But if you remove restrictive voter registration and other discriminatory means of reducing the electorate, especially those targeting specific groups, voter participation will increase.

What if that doesn't work and the midterm turnout is still low? That's how it goes. There's nothing wrong with giving the most engaged voters added influence.

It's an illusion that the majority of the electorate has one set of beliefs and that these views are expressed more clearly in presidential elections. Barack Obama wasn't elected because Americans were clamoring for a national health-care plan and cap-and-trade (and the rest of the Democratic agenda). He and congressional Democrats won because George W. Bush was a terrible president, and a lot of terrible things happened in his presidency.

A strength of our convoluted Madisonian system is that it resists enshrining the preferences of one group that takes advantage of passing circumstances to make long-lasting policy. Another is that frequent elections keep the things that politicians do to win elections (such as supporting popular policies and trying to avoid failed ones) front and center.

Yes, those who win elections should have a chance to govern. It was reasonable to expect Democrats to pursue their top priority, universal health insurance, and the magnitude of their victories in 2006 and 2008 allowed them to get that done. If Republicans win now, they'll be entitled to try to legislate as they see fit. That doesn't mean the voters overall were demanding those policies, and when victories are less dramatic, compromise is going to be necessary. That's good.

Overall, politicians represent the entire nation better when they need to deal with those elected by the side that lost - and when they know the next election is coming soon.

  1. There is a strong argument against the Senate, because the 50 pieces aren't all the same size. But that's also an argument against the presidential system, since the Electoral College divides voters into unequal pieces too.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net