Our leaders claim to be democratically legitimate because they were elected by the people—and can be ousted from office once they lose popular support. And yet, we mostly take for granted the answer to one of the most fundamental questions about elections: Just how often should the people get to vote?
In most countries, the answer is: not very often. Every four or five years, the electorate is called to vote for a new parliament or president. There may be a smattering of local or regional elections in between, but for those four or five years, there is no real opportunity to oust the country’s most powerful leaders. Democracy promises the rule of the people, but in reality it only affords them a chance to “throw the bums out” once in a long while.
Alone among large democratic nations, the US allows voters to clip the government’s wings more regularly. Though the president is elected for four years, midterm elections serve as a very real check on his power. All seats in the House of Representatives are up for election every two years, as are about a third of the seats in the Senate. Even a president who is elected on an overwhelming mandate (as Barack Obama was in 2008) can effectively lose his ability to govern within two years if public opinion turns against him (as it did in 2010). Similarly, even a president who won reelection by a comfortable margin can become a lame duck two years later—as Barack Obama did last night.
So why have other countries failed to follow America’s example? In a time when the pace of politics has sped up in every other way, wouldn’t voters around the world welcome an opportunity to curb the power of their leaders once they have lost public support?
There are, in fact, strong reasons why most countries resist holding elections this often. Democracies are always in danger of short-termism. They find it difficult to adopt policies whose positive effects will only come into view after the date of the next election. When that date is never more than two years away, it’s difficult to enact anything other than the most symbolic or pandering of policies.
Elections also take an extraordinary amount of effort. Politicians have to raise money, plan their strategy, and make hundreds of campaign appearances. With elections taking place every two yeas, the business of gaining and retaining power takes over completely; little time is left for actually doing something with that hard-won power.
Finally, in presidential systems, midterms are likely to put parliament in the hands of people who oppose the president. As scholars of Latin America (where parliamentary elections often took place in the middle of a president’s term) found, this division of power has often led to an inability to take action on the most pressing problems. In many cases, escalating tensions between government and opposition, and even outright coups, were the result.
But the effect of midterms could be just as disastrous in parliamentary systems, where the parliament usually elects the prime minister. If a new parliament selected a new prime minister every two years, the temptation to repeal his predecessor’s key legislative achievements before they had fully taken effect would be enormous. The likely result would be a constant policy zig-zag.
Midterm elections, in short, are expensive, distracting and conducive to irrational policies. It would be easy to write them off as a strange American aberration, one that other countries are wise to avoid—if it weren’t for the stubborn fact that they are clearly more democratic.
In fact, all of the bad features of midterms stem directly from the fact that they give the people more control. Midterms tend to foster short-term thinking—but only because voters tend to punish or reward politicians for such factors as the state of the economy. Midterms focus the minds of politicians on campaigns—but only because voters reward their representatives for taking the time to talk to them. And midterms tend to create political gridlock—but only because voters are often disappointed with their political leaders, choosing to limit their powers when they get the chance.
Modern democracies are a strange beast. They put the people on a pedestal, yet the promise that democratic government is “by the people” remains rather nebulous. Much of the time, citizens in contemporary democracies feel that they have little control over what actually goes on in their nation’s capital.
Midterms are a sure way to give the people a greater voice in the political process. Their drawbacks are real, but anybody who dismisses them out of hand has to admit that, to them, democracy is more about good outcomes and efficient government than it is about letting the people rule.