Term limits may be necessary: so concludes social psychology, neuro science and our founding fathers

In a recent post, Uniters.org pulled together a convincing case that term limits serve an important purpose in a democracy. That is to avoid hubris syndrome:

Social psychology:   

After two decades of lab and field experiments Dacher Keltner, a psychology professor at UC Berkeley found that  Subjects under the influence of power acted as if they had suffered a traumatic brain injury—becoming more impulsive, less risk-aware, and, crucially, less adept at seeing things from other people’s point of view.

Neuro Science:

Sukhvinder Obhi, a neuroscientist at McMaster University, in Ontario, recently described something similar. Unlike Keltner, who studies behaviors, Obhi studies brains. And when he put the heads of the powerful and the not-so-powerful under a transcranial-magnetic-stimulation machine, he found that power, in fact, impairs a specific neural process, “mirroring,” that may be a cornerstone of empathy. Which gives a neurological basis to what Keltner has termed the “power paradox”: Once we have power, we lose some of the capacities we needed to gain it in the first place.”

Researchers David Owen and Jonathan Davidson labeled this a disorder, which they called ‘hubris syndrome’, in a journal article in Oxford’s ‘Brain: A Journal of Neurology’:

“We believe that extreme hubristic behaviour is a syndrome, constituting a cluster of features (‘symptoms’) evoked by a specific trigger (power), and usually remitting when power fades. ‘Hubris syndrome’ is seen as an acquired condition, and therefore different from most personality disorders which are traditionally seen as persistent throughout adulthood. The key concept is that hubris syndrome is a disorder of the possession of power, particularly power which has been associated with overwhelming success, held for a period of years and with minimal constraint on the leader.”

Here is the crux of the issue, from just a few paragraphs further down (bold mine):

“Being elected to high office for a democratic leader is a significant event. Subsequent election victories appear to increase the likelihood of hubristic behaviour becoming hubris syndrome.”


Founding Fathers knew

It’s not just this study or social psychologists that understand the danger of long term power. Our founding fathers also understood the innate corruption of power:

  • James Madison took note of this, saying that “All men having power ought to be distrusted to a certain degree”,
  • James Madison said that “The trust is that all men having power ought to be mistrusted”,
  • John Adams recognized “Power always thinks it has a great soul and vast views beyond the comprehension of the weak.”
  • George Washington of course ceded the Presidency after two terms citing the need to turn over power to avoid political aristocracy.

Lord John Dalberg-Acton is quoted as saying ‘Power corrupts, but absolute power corrupts absolutely’.

Non political examples:

Hubris syndrome isn’t limited to politics of course. And considering other domains where you see hubris is persuasive that it must also exist in any realm where much power is invested in a few individuals. Consider Harvey Weinstein and Donald Trump they got away with mistreatment and abuse of power for decades. Their behaviors becoming ever more extreme and abusive.

The Counter Argument

The best (only?) counter argument to term limits is that there is value in having experienced elected representatives. But no one is saying that someon can never run for re-election. Just that there should be some reasonable limit that allows turnover so no one individual can vest themselves with unchecked power.

Because the danger of abuse of power by long time elected officials who ignore the will of the people is not a mere theory. We see it every day. In Washington DC and in Governors offices and State houses throughout the country.

And remember, those that argue against term limits are usually limited to the incumbents and those already in power for long periods of time. That is, those that may already be suffering from some level of hubris syndrome.

Read the entire Uniters.org article

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