On the day of midterm elections, it is worth taking the time to admire the Founders’ design. Gratitude does good for the soul at any time, but it is particularly warranted now, when a number of progressives have argued that midterm elections are a mistake, principally because they get in the way of powerful Presidencies that can transform American society through national politics.
The Framers kept government on a short leash because they were more realistic about what federal politics could accomplish and more pessimistic that any particular idea of national reordering would be good. They built a system of checks and balances to constrain the dangers from excessive power. Those restraints in turn protected other forms of more decentralized political ordering like the market, voluntary associations, and state and local government.
An op-ed in in The New York Times yesterday argued that it would be a good idea to eliminate the midterms and the amend the Constitution in favor of longer terms for members of Congress. They analogize the federal offices to state and local offices, like school boards, which have longer tenure. This argument gets things perversely backwards. We put checks on the power of the federal government in part to make it harder for the government to displace the more local ordering of state officials, thus preserving federalism. The more potentially powerful their political agents, the more opportunities the people need to check them.