Chris Rock and Political Reform

Having the topic of political reform start to seep into pop culture is a good thing.

Something interesting happened last night on SNL, which is Chris Rock’s monolog had some riffs on structural political reform. At around the three-minute mark, Rock made a few criticisms of the US government and actually made some passing reform arguments:

First, he sideways suggested a parliamentary system. Specifically, he mocked the fact that the president gets to serve four years no matter what. A system that allows for the early removal of the head of government based on performance, is parliamentarism. In such a system the parliament can express no confidence in the Prime Minister and call for early elections or the party itself can decide to replace the PM (there are variations depending on the country).

Unlike impeachment, which basically is for malfeasance, removing a PM is done usually over policy disagreements or the inability of the PM to govern adequately. This type of removal can also sometimes spark a new election, which is more democratic in the full sense of the concept as it allows the voters a say in which party continues to govern.

In situations in which a party replaces its leader without an election, this allows for the majority party to have an incentive to handle a bad leader, as they can replace that leader internally without the stain of an impeachment trial and conviction.

There are, of course, various complexities, depending on the specifics of a given system. At a minimum, there is a lot to be said (and that could be said) for having non-fixed terms for the head of government.

Second, Rock called for term limits. Indeed, the main reason that I know that Rock mentioned politics at all is because PoliSci Twitter erupted last night about what a bad idea this is.

Term limits sound great, because we want to “vote the bums out” and yet we know that the re-election rate of congress is quite high. The problem with term limits, which has been extensively studies in political science, both in terms of local US politics but also in a comparative context (Mexico being a prime example) is that they tend to lead to poorer representation and less democratic responsiveness.

To put it as simply as possible: term limits lead to the empowerment of lobbyists and staffers, as they become the more permanent actors with knowledge of how the system works.

We should want politicians to be beholden to voters for their jobs. It is a key way in which representative democracy is supposed to work. In many ways that is why I go on and on and on (and on and on?) about representativeness and the problems with our flawed electoral processes.

Part of our problem is that office-holders are not anywhere near as beholden to voters as we should want them to be. For example:

  • If members of Congress are elected from a safe district, what do they have to do to please voters?
  • If they are nominated by a clear numerical minority both of their districts and their co-partisans in that district, to whom are they going to be loyal. In other words, candidates are nominated by primaries that have low turnout and are often dominated by the more ideologically-oriented voters within a given party.

Non-competitive districts and primaries show the problems that can emerge when office-holders are not directly accountable to democratic majorities. Although, at least they still face some accountability at the ballot box.

Terms limits would mean that an office-holder, once elected to their final term, would face zero electoral accountability in that term. Do we want Senators in office for six years with no accountability whatsoever?

If a major pillar of representative democratic theory is that elected officials have to constantly seek the reaffirmation of voters, then terms limits short-circuit that notion. It is my informed position that terms limits, rather than fixing problems, would just exacerbate existing problems with democratic feedback in the US system and, further, would create new problems.

Also: if we, as a country, are going to burn reform energy, this is not the place to do it, even if it sounds nice to oust some people who have been in office forever.

Rock also raised the notion that the US is an oligarchy, i.e., rule by the rich. And he has a point, which is the fact that the US government doesn’t do a very good job of representing the various interests across the land, which, spoiler alert, could be made better with a more representative electoral system.

At any rate, jokes about politics and politicians aren’t new, although jokes that identity structural reform, both vaguely and specifically, are by no means common. As I have written here for years, and in print, a specific oddity of the US is that its citizens rarely talk about political reform, especially given our extreme reverence of The Founders. There have been some signs, usually in elite news publications, that this is changing, Having it start to filter into popular culture is a positive sign.

FILED UNDER: Democracy, Democratic Theory, Entertainment, Government, Humor, US Politics, , , ,
Steven L. Taylor
About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is a Professor of Political Science and a College of Arts and Sciences Dean. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. His most recent book is the co-authored A Different Democracy: American Government in a 31-Country Perspective. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging since 2003 (originally at the now defunct Poliblog). Follow Steven on Twitter

Comments

  1. Michael Reynolds says:

    Term limits have always been a stupid idea. Magical thinking. So much of politics is unglamorous work in the trenches over the course of years or decades, but that’s hard, so people want an easy button to push to make things all better.

    The problem I have with systemic change requiring a constitutional convention is that we now have proof positive that at least 40% of Americans are morons. What are the odds they would keep the First Amendment?

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  2. Mister Bluster says:

    In the intrest of being repetitive I will run this again:

    15 of our United States have legislative term limits.
    AR AZ CA CO FL LA ME MI MO MT NE NV OH OK SD.
    If anyone can demonstrate that legislation passed through these chambers is somehow wiser or more efficient than bills passed in the 35 other non term limited States I will consider that term limits may be useful at the Federal level.
    —–
    As a point of information it is here noted:
    The following six State legislatures have had their term limits nullified:
    Idaho Legislature: the Legislature repealed its own term limits in 2002.
    Massachusetts General Court: the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court overturned term limits in 1997.
    Oregon Legislative Assembly: the Oregon Supreme Court ruled term limits unconstitutional in 2002. See term limits in Oregon.
    Utah State Legislature: the Legislature repealed its own term limits in 2003.
    Washington State Legislature: the Washington Supreme Court voided term limits in 1998.
    Wyoming Legislature: the Wyoming Supreme Court ruled term limits unconstitutional in 2004. See term limits in Wyoming.

    Term limits restrict my political freedom to vote for the candidate of my choice. Apparently term limit advocates think that I am too stupid to make this choice for myself and think it is appropriate for the law of the land to deny my franchise by limiting the terms of my preferred candidate.

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  3. Mu Yixiao says:

    Walter Cronkite was the most respected man in journalism. You know why? Because we never saw him in shorts.

    I find it difficult to disagree. 🙂

    There was a bit on West Wing–a small comment in a bigger scene–about term limits. I can’t find the exact quote, but it was something like:

    There’s been a lot of talk about term limits. We have term limits. They’re called “elections”.

    When it comes to politicians staying in office too long, the problem isn’t with the system. It’s with the electorate. Until we educate the electorate nothing will change. We could flip to a parliamentary system tomorrow and nothing in the government would change.

    We don’t need to change the Constitution, we need to educate the electorate.

    But that’s too hard. It can’t be done with a sound-byte or a tweet.

    7
  4. Not the IT Dept. says:

    Look, I’m opposed to term limits too but this is too much to swallow:

    “To put it as simply as possible: term limits lead to the empowerment of lobbyists and staffers, as they become the more permanent actors with knowledge of how the system works.”

    Come on, James. What country have you been living in?

    4
  5. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    We don’t need to change the Constitution, we need to educate the electorate.

    But that’s too hard. It can’t be done with a sound-byte or a tweet.

    More like can’t be done at all. At that level of complexity/sophistication/competency/whatever, education is almost completely voluntary and dependent on the volition of the educatee.

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  6. @Not the IT Dept.: Well, Steven not James 🙂 but that is exactly what the research shows.

    If you think lobbyists have power now, go to term limits and see what happens.

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  7. gVOR08 says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    The problem I have with systemic change requiring a constitutional convention is that we now have proof positive that at least 40% of Americans are morons.

    If we hold a Constitutional Convention I wouldn’t worry about the 40%, I‘d fear the 0.1%. As Chris Rock said, we’re an oligarchy. Koch and the rest of the Billionaire Boys Club would have a field day buying a Convention and selling the results to that 40% for ratification. Ratification being state by state and just as small d democratic as the Senate.

    And the First Amendment wouldn’t be a target. As long as the Court holds that corporations are people and money is speech, Chuckles Koch loves the First Amendment.

    4
  8. Monala says:

    @Just nutha ignint cracker: I don’t know. A lot of Gen-X kids learned the Preamble to the Constitution and how a bill becomes law through Schoolhouse Rock. And the “Click it or Ticket” campaign was very effective in enforcing seatbelt use. Yeah, media is a lot more segmented today, but someone could get creative.

    4
  9. An Interested Party says:

    Term limits sound great, because we want to “vote the bums out” and yet we know that the re-election rate of congress is quite high. The problem with term limits, which has been extensively studies in political science, both in terms of local US politics but also in a comparative context (Mexico being a prime example) is that they tend to lead to poorer representation and less democratic responsiveness.

    It’s interesting how longevity and experience are pluses in just about every employment field except politics…why wouldn’t politicians, just like employees in every other field, get better with experience? Do you really want to be constantly represented by novices who aren’t quite sure what they are doing…

    1
  10. James Joyner says:

    @Mu Yixiao: But elections aren’t term limits. For example, Kentucky voters would be crazy to get rid of Mitch McConnell even though he’s been a bad leader for the country. He just had too much power to do things for Kentucky.

    Ultimately, I don’t think term limits is the right solution. But representing one’s constituents well while simultaneously becoming more able to screw up the country is a big problem.

    4
  11. Jc says:

    Okay on terms, but can we have age limits? The average age for both houses is around the age I would be dreaming of retirement.

    1
  12. Mu Yixiao says:

    @James Joyner:

    But elections aren’t term limits.

    Yes. They are. But only if the electorate is educated and actually cares about what’s going on.

    Put term limits on every federal seat and you’ll just get an assembly line of the same bullshit. And, as Steven pointed out, the real power will fall back to the unelected bureaucracy.

    1
  13. R. Dave says:

    I understand the research shows that term limits reduce democratic responsiveness by increasing the influence of staff and lobbyists at the expense of elected representatives. However, I do wonder whether that research looked at whether term limits affect how competitive districts are, in a partisan sense, over the long term. Presumably, it’s at least somewhat harder to gerrymander a “safe” district for a given party when you can also mold that district around a specific candidate’s profile. And if term limits do increase the average partisan competitiveness of districts over time, I would think that in itself constitutes a gain in democratic responsiveness.

    Obviously, I’m sure the poli-sci community has looked into this issue and factored it into the overall conclusion that term limits produce a net loss in democratic responsiveness, but I don’t think I’ve seen it directly addressed one way or the other in term limit discussions before. Instead, they usually just focus on the point about empowering staff and lobbyists.

    1
  14. Bob@Youngstown says:

    @Mu Yixiao:
    Immediately after Trump’s election:
    “We have term limits,” Mcconnell said. “They’re called elections.”

  15. Monala says:

    By the way, it’s the 14th amendment the righties would go after.

    2
  16. Mu Yixiao says:

    @Just nutha ignint cracker:

    More like can’t be done at all. At that level of complexity/sophistication/competency/whatever, education is almost completely voluntary and dependent on the volition of the educatee.

    If you’re attempting to educate 50-somethings who are dead-set in their ways, probably.

    But civics is taught in school–at least it used to be.*

    Teach kids about the Constitution–and let them actually debate the topics–and you’ll get a much more educated electorate in a few dozen years.

    * I’m actually in the process of writing an 10-part series for my newspaper on the Bill of Rights. I’ve asked two of my old teachers if they’d be willing to assist, and I’ve contacted the school district to ask how civics fits into their curriculum.

    4
  17. Mu Yixiao says:

    @Bob@Youngstown:

    And the stats say it’s 80/20 that he’ll be proven right–with Trump getting sent on his way by voters.

    1
  18. Lounsbury says:

    @Michael Reynolds: They are indeed mistaking a symptom as the disease.

    If constituencies are not competitive competitions, then examine if access is can not be improved – and address issues like Gerrymandering, ensure constituencies boundaries are set in a fashion that no single political party dominates the definition etc.

    1
  19. gVOR08 says:

    Term limits became a thing nationally in the 60s and 70s. Dems still dominated Congress and Rs threw it out hoping it would help them. Even though it was infeasible to act on it, it still somehow made long term incumbents look suspicious. Now that Rs hold the Senate, they’re a lot quieter about term limits.

    @James Joyner: I think McConnell’s tenure has less to do with delivering pork for KY than with money, of which his campaign has gobs. Campaign finance reform would be far more useful than term limits. But impossible with a Federalist Society majority on the Court.

    5
  20. Bob@Youngstown says:

    test? at 16:15 10/4/2020

  21. The State of California enacted term limits in the Legislature via proposition. My understanding is that this was a Republican initiative aimed at unseating Willie Brown as Speaker. It was successful, but it was also a terrible idea. It has not improved the level of expertise or responsiveness of the Legislature one bit. But it did get Willie Brown to take a different job.

    On this one, I agree with Steven.

    3
  22. Sleeping Dog says:

    @James Joyner:

    …Kentucky voters would be crazy to get rid of Mitch…

    They should get rid of him because he’s doing a lousy job of it, Kentucky is rated 45th or lower in a number of quality of life, business and social rankings. Just sayin…

    3
  23. Scott F. says:

    It’s a real shame that Chris Rock muddied his argument with his choice of phrase, because he lost the PoliSci Twitter folks and most of this comment thread to a diversion. Rock didn’t argue for term limits. He argued for government that had some meaningful relationship with the governed.

    If you watch that part of his monologue again (check out around the 5:15 time stamp) and you will see Rock only brought up “term limits” as a transition from his point that Congress is full of people who are unrepresentative in age (the losing proposition of Democrats only putting up 75 year olds to go against Trump) to people who are unrepresentative in wealth (dukes and duchesses making decisions for poor people).

    That’s an SNL monologue making a point of the age of those in government same as Steven’s OP from earlier on Saturday (do you think CR reads OTB?), then shifting to another obvious example of a demographic make-up in Congress that is disproportionate for representative governance.

    Much has been made here of late about the imbalances between right/left derived from our current structure of elections and institutions of government. Good on Chris Rock for calling out old/young and rich/poor as additional disjunctures that should be troublesome in a government “of the People.”

    7
  24. Joe says:

    @James Joyner:

    For example, Kentucky voters would be crazy to get rid of Mitch McConnell even though he’s been a bad leader for the country. He just had too much power to do things for Kentucky.

    This x 1000. This was exactly my take on the big topic of 3 or 4 weeks ago whether the Republican Party should be burned down nationally and structurally. It doesn’t matter how angry America is with Mitch McConnell as long as KY voters think he helps them and as long as Republicans stay in control of the Senate. The same is true of every incumbent politician to a greater or lesser extent.

    1
  25. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Mu Yixiao:

    But civics is taught in school–at least it used to be.*

    Indeed. I and my generation took civics in high school. How’s that working out for ya?

    (And in the district I was enrolled in, the civics classes were above average of what I’ve seen as a teacher since. YMMV.)

    2
  26. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @gVOR08:

    Term limits became a thing nationally in the 60s and 70s.

    Not simply to be argumentative, I would say in the mid-70s and later because Washington State was a relatively early adopter of term limits in the 90s. Ironically enough, they also started being a thing seriously in the young adulthood of people like me–who argued about the Bill of Rights and the Constitution in our civics classes in high school.

    (Past performance is not reflective of future returns and all, but still…)

    1
  27. An Interested Party says:

    Congress is full of people who are…unrepresentative in wealth (dukes and duchesses making decisions for poor people).

    When have the poor ever held any political power? On the contrary, for the most part, this group of people continues to be demonized as lazy freeloaders who could succeed if only they would pick themselves up by their own bootstraps…this way of thinking is probably promoted by the wealthy and certainly believed by many in the middle class…

    6
  28. Kathy says:

    It’s easier to make one change than to make many, even when the one change might make things worse.

    So on the one hand there’s term limits. On the other, ending gerrymandering, reforming hos primaries are held or candidates nominated, and campaign finance reform. The path of least resistance is clear.

    1
  29. James Joyner says:

    @Sleeping Dog:

    Kentucky is rated 45th or lower in a number of quality of life, business and social rankings.

    They’d likely be doing much worse without the infusion of cash McConnell can shovel their way. It’s a poorly-run state but that’s local politics, not national. And it’s not exactly clear to me how they’d change that. Obviously, they could move away from coal and into a 21st Century economy. But how the hell do you get waves of smart people to move to Kentucky?