Democracy’s Unpluckable Feathers and Presidential Term Limits

Photo by John Tower

In her book Fascism: A Warning, former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright recounts that:

“Mussolini observed that in seeking to accumulate power it is wise to do so in the manner of one plucking a chicken — feather by feather — so each squawk is heard apart from every other and the whole process is kept as muted as possible.”

We often think of dictatorships as arising from wars or coups, but Mussolini’s analogy vividly expresses how nations can slip from liberal democracies to illiberal autocracies through a series of small, incremental changes.

Considering this, the citizens of democracies would be wise to collectively identify certain core features of their democratic order as strictly inviolable. Such pre-identification allows attempts to violate these core features to be called out more easily.

To put the point in terms of Mussolini’s analogy, democracies should identify specific feathers on their democratic chickens that they agree in advance should never be plucked. If such feathers are widely recognized and highly valued, then they cannot be plucked quietly.

By an unpluckable feather, I mean a specific and nonpartisan core aspect of a democracy that is treated as inviolable because of its importance in preserving democracy. Treating an aspect of a democracy as an unpluckable feather requires more than simply enshrining the principle in law. It also requires that a democracy’s citizenry widely recognizes and highly values the unpluckable feather. This is because the bulk of an unpluckable feather’s power comes from people’s refusal to let the unpluckable feather be violated.

Democracies around the world face the peril of executive aggrandizement, whereby elected executives gradually become autocrats by removing checks on their power slowly over time. Examples of executive aggrandizement include the presidencies of Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Turkey. Thus, now is a critical time to be thinking about unpluckable feathers.

An especially important candidate for an unpluckable feather in democracies with presidential heads of state is strict abidance by presidential term limits. This is because presidential term limits are about time. Most limits on presidential power are synchronic limits about the amount of power the president wields while in office. But term limits are a diachronic limit that if successfully implemented prevent even the most ambitious president from abusing power beyond a finite period of time.

The despotic damage that can be wrought by violations of presidential term limits is no mere theoretical concern. As Mila Versteeg and her colleagues have documented, since the year 2000, nearly one-third of presidents in countries with presidential term limits have attempted to remain in office after their term expired. Many of them have succeeded. Others, such as Russia’s Vladimir Putin, have successfully taken measures that pave the way for future overstay.

Versteeg and her colleagues identify several popular strategies for doing so, including enacting constitutional amendments that permit sitting presidents to remain in office past their original term limit and using courts to reinterpret term limit laws. They also point out that “none of the twenty-first century’s evasion attempts involved ignoring the constitution outright.” This is in keeping with the recent global trend by which autocracies tend to develop by incremental democratic backsliding rather than by hostile takeovers.

It would seem that many of the globe’s would-be autocrats are following Mussolini’s advice.

Concerningly, there are early warning signs that U.S. President Donald Trump may wish to be among the world’s presidents who consolidate power by finding a way to overstay their tenure in office. The Twenty-second Amendment of the U.S. Constitutions permits presidents to be elected for a maximum of two four-year terms. Yet, Trump has suggested on multiple occasions — typically under the guise of a weak joke — that he is interested in remaining president beyond his two terms.

If Trump manages to be elected for a second term and someday tries to overstay his time in office, the research done by Versteeg and her colleagues suggests that popular resistance by the American people may be the most effective bulwark against this kind of authoritarian move.

Versteeg and her colleagues observe that the Colombian Constitutional Court’s successful prevention of President Alvaro Uribe’s run for a third term is the only instance since 2000 in which a court successfully blocked a president from overstaying in office. Instead, in most cases where presidents failed to achieve their ambitions of staying in office after their term expired, it was widespread popular resistance that accounted for a president’s failure.

The fact that legally enshrined term limits are often insufficient to stop presidents from violating even constitutionally protected term limits shows that law alone is insufficient to create an effective unpluckable feather. An effective unpluckable feather must be enshrined both in law and in the hearts of the nation’s citizens.

We must collectively value our democracies enough that would-be autocrats are removed from office, either through impeachment or failure to be reelected, when they attempt to violate core aspects of our democratic system such as term limits. We must be vigilant against democratic backsliding. This includes not getting so attached to short term partisan victories that we come to value party victory more than preservation of liberal democracy.

In short, we must agree that within the rich plumage of our democracy there are certain feathers that simply cannot ever be plucked.

This piece was originally published on the philosophy in public affairs blog, Justice Everywhere.

Attorney and philosophy professor writing about philosophy, law, religion, politics, queerness, and books, among other things. He/him

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