Next month more than half of Americans will go to the polls to vote on various issues including the President of the United States. The rhetoric has heated up to unprecedented levels so now is a good time to look at a contentious political issue – term limits – through the lens of influence.
When George Washington declined to run for a third term precedence was set with American presidents. Based on Washington’s actions no president ran for a third term until Franklin Roosevelt did so in 1944. The unusual circumstance of a world war in two major theatres was a big reason for FDR’s decision. However, not long afterwards the American people passed the 22 Amendment limiting the president to a maximum of two terms in office.
For some odd reason Americans have not pushed for term limits for congressman and senators. A few states enacted laws to limit the terms of their particular representatives in Washington in an effort to move away from “career politicians.” Unfortunately the Supreme Court overturned those laws saying states could not limit the term of national offices.
Like just about anything in life there are positives and negatives to each side of the argument when it comes to term limits. What should concern citizens is whether or not the best people get elected and whether or not we’re getting fresh political ideas simply because of how voters make decisions.
I remember my pastor saying, “People will remain the same until the pain of staying the same is greater than the perceived pain that comes with change.” That’s akin to, “If it ain’t broke don’t fix it.” Americans saw voter revolts in 1994 when republicans swept into power in the house and senate and again in 2010 because of our economic woes. Both times there was so much dissatisfaction with the status quo that people kicked out many incumbents.
My question is; why do we have to wait for things to get so bad before we act? “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” sounds good until you consider Steve Jobs and his iPhone. We didn’t need the iPhone because nothing was broken but we’re better off for it. Perhaps we could have the same fresh ideas and change in Washington if we routinely had new people in office.
Politicians are famous for saying things like, “We have term limits because voters can always vote someone out of office if they want to,” and, “Why do we need to restrict voter freedom?” Of course both arguments could be used against term limits for the president and yet as a country we thought it was good to limit the terms for the highest office in the land. I suspect career politicians are thinking first and foremost about staying in power, not the good of the country.
But I digress and you’re wondering how influence ties into this. It will come as no surprise to readers when I state the obvious; nearly every sitting politician wins re-election the vast majority of the time. In fact, it’s staggering how often they win! Take a look at the charts below showing reelection rates for U.S. congressman and senators from the Center for Responsive Politics.
Are incumbents winning so often because they’re the best candidates? Hardly. It’s simply a function the principle of liking due to familiarity. People go to the polls and tend to vote for the person they’re most familiar with and the farther you go down in terms of elected offices the worse it is because quite often people vote for the incumbent simply because they know nothing about the other person running. When you’ve seen or heard about your congressman for the past four years or your senator for the last six years that’s a lot of familiarity for a challenger to overcome.
On this subject, in his book Influence Science and Practice, Robert Cialdini wrote, “Often we don’t realize that our attitude toward something has been influenced by the number of times we have been exposed to it in the past.” And it’s not just how often we hear a name it’s how much we see the face. Sitting politicians are routinely seen in the news and that helps unless their face is connected to a scandal. I can tell you from firsthand experience that I get much better response to my emails when I include my picture at the bottom of the email because familiarity helps.
While there many other things that come into play during an election we can’t underestimate the importance of simply being more familiar with one candidate vs. another. It’s the way we’re wired.
To be sure we – the typical American voter – are partly to blame because we’re notoriously disengaged when it comes to knowing the candidates, their positions, and understanding the issues. If anyone didn’t need term limits it would be presidents because I’d venture to guess we know presidential candidates better and understand the presidential issues more because of how much they’re in the media vs. lower offices and more localized issues.
In a sense terms limits save us from how our decision-making sometimes works against our best self-interests. My boss likes to say, “If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got.” In other words, how can we expect anything different from Washington when we keep electing the same people for the most part? Yes, we can make a concerted effort to become more informed voters but with less than 60% of people of voting age voting in every presidential election since 1968 do we really think that will happen? I certainly don’t. Sometimes we need laws to protect ourselves from ourselves and term limits might be one such law.