A Presidency without Term Limits: The Slippery Slope to Demagoguery

Let the People Lead!

In March 2006, my colleagues and I experienced first hand the hope of a better future coursing through Venezuelan society — a future where the downtrodden classes could see improvements in medical care, literacy, and the fulfillment of basic needs.1 Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez deserves his share of acclaim for the positive changes brought about in the country.

At that time though, there were rumors of Chávez seeking an abolishment of term limits on the presidency. I found such a proposal to be regressivist. Why? Everyone knows the caution about putting all one’s eggs in one basket, but this is essentially what support for an entrenched leadership is. A revolution must be rooted in the people — not in a figure. Although personalities may emerge as “leaders,” without the people a revolution will not be carried forward.

Now, the Venezuelan parliament has pushed through referendum articles that would allow for constitutional changes that would eliminate presidential term limits, deepen socialist reforms, and strip the central bank of its autonomy.

The movement toward socialism is laudable. Neoliberalism has been a disaster for the middle and lower socioeconomic classes, and socialism is a necessary step in the opposite direction to redress the losses of the working classes. Chávez hasn’t gone far enough in this regard though.2 As for the central bank, it is an institution run by an “elitist” section of society and should be under government control. To leave it autonomous is essentially undemocratic.

But tinkering with the constitution to allow for a long-term presidency is a mistake. Presidential term limits were implemented for a reason. Also if term limits shouldn’t apply to a president, then why should they apply to other Venezuelan parliamentarians? This is calculated hypocrisy. A long-serving president would be surrounded by lesser experienced parliamentarians, and presumably, this experience advantages the president against any parliamentary challenge.

The attainment of progressivist3 policies do not require an entrenched leadership. An entrenched leadership best suits anti-democratic forces.

Some would argue that Chávez is following democratic procedures to allow the people to decide on amending the constitution. This is true. Certainly, Chávez has won the trust of many Venezuelans, and he has brought about changes that have improved the lives of many citizens. Chávez seems to be a leader disposed to improving the lives of his fellow Venezuelans.

But what message does a long-term presidency convey when the revolution is focused on a man? That there is no one else who can be trusted to carry out further reforms in Venezuela (Let’s be honest, Venezuela is still hardly socialist; it is a market-based economy with uneven wealth distribution, and it is still waiting for a genuine revolution)?

The situation of an extended presidency sets Chávez up increasingly as a target for criticism and attack from US imperialists. One needs only look at the long presidency of Fidel Castro in Cuba.

If Fidel Castro were a great and selfless leader, would he not have relinquished the reins of power long ago? Would he not have insisted that the Cuban Revolution is more powerful and more durable than any leadership invested in one man? Could he not have stayed on in the Communist Party and played the important role of a fatherly guide to safeguard the revolution and insure the well being of the people? It may well be that the majority of Cuban people desire Castro to have continued as the Cuban leader since 1959 and that this confers legitimacy on Castro’s tenure as leader. Nevertheless, a great leader must always place the interests of the people and society above the vainglory of power. Arguably, Castro’s remaining in power for almost five decades has given US administrations a target for their specious accusations that Castro is a dictator (untrue; Cuba is a democracy4). This has served to make it easier to economically strangle Cuba (a form of collective punishment, which is forbidden by Article 33 of the Geneva Conventions).

If a government is overly based in a leader, then there is little to prevent a skillful demagogue from rising to power and undoing progressivist legislation and leading society down a regressivist path. One needs look no further than Bill Clinton as an example of such a politician — a politician who presented himself as a man of the people, workers, and peace, but he undid much of the social safety net, signed the US onto corporate-friendly NAFTA which saw many US manufacturing jobs head elsewhere to low-wage competitors, and of course, there was US military adventurism in Bosnia, Serbia, Iraq, Somalia, and Sudan.

Anarchy: A Leadership of Everyone

The current political leadership schemata is anathema. Leadership is conducive to societal needs when the leadership comes from the people. Government does not require a leader; it requires servants who carry out the will of the people. A government leader, not granting that such is required, needs to take directives from the people. For this to function, people must have unfettered access to information upon which to make their decisions which way society is to go.

But given that information is tightly controlled, given that education is designed to serve the dictates of the capitalist class, given that academia is selectively appointed, and given that politicians have long played to the prejudices of the uninformed, the will of the people is not all it is cracked up to be. As Henrik Ibsen’s Dr. Stockman claimed,

The majority never has right on its side. Never, I say! That is one of these social lies against which an independent, intelligent man must wage war. Who is it that
constitute the majority of the population in a country? Is it the clever folk, or the stupid? I don’t imagine you will dispute the fact that at present the stupid people are in an absolutely overwhelming majority all the world over. But, good Lord! — you can never pretend that it is right that the stupid folk should govern the clever ones …

There is much to support the contention of Ibsen’s Dr. Stockmann. For example, despite early public support for the aggression and occupation of Iraq that has since soured, a majority in the US — 52 percent according to a Zogby poll, favors an attack on Iran!5

In Israel, a poll indicated a plurality of Jewish Israelis support the transfer of Palestinians.6

It looks like Chávez will win his desire to extend his presidency. Venezuelan people look poised to approve of such constitutional changes. This is “democracy.” It may represent the will of the people at a given point in time.

In the hands of a great person, leadership could be redeeming. Benign leadership can exist, but when the doors are opened for benign leadership to reign, those same doors are opened for authoritarian tyrants. So given the dangers of a leadership-based system in the long run, why would a good person grab the reins of power and hold on?

If Two Heads Are Better Than One, Then Wouldn’t Three Heads Be Better Than Two, and Four Better Than Five, …?

People are fallible — all of us. When electoral politics make one person the Decider, society winds up having to live with those decisions — good and bad. Is it not prudent to share the decision-making among more people? That is what some will argue that this is the role that a cabinet plays. However, a cabinet is usually chosen by a leader and this renders it prey to the leader’s biases.

The likelihood of fallibility expressing itself must be reduced among the masses of people because of the corrective mechanisms of discussion and debate that are less available to one person. The focus must be on the ideals and the struggle for a better society for all people.

Leadership, especially as a cult, is inimical to egalitarianism, and it misdirects energy from the struggle. People can energize a movement, and using this energy to advance the struggle is fine insofar as this energy is properly channeled and based on good information to allow for decision-making at a societal level.

Decision-making is a right of all the people. Let the people lead!

  1. Joshua Frank, Kim Petersen, and Sunil K. Sharma, “Revolution of Hope,” Dissident Voice, 10 August 2006. []
  2. See James Petras, Rulers and the Ruled in the US Empire: Bankers, Zionists, Militants (Clarity Press, 2007). []
  3. A definition of progressivism is important. This writer defines it, succinctly, as an omnibus term for the gamut of the leftist range of the political spectrum, including socialists, communists, anarchists, liberals, etc. []
  4. See Isaac Saney, Cuba: A Revolution in Motion (Fernwood Publishing/Zed Books: 2004). []
  5. Zogby Poll: 52% Support U.S. Military Strike Against Iran,” Zogby International, 29 October 2007. []
  6. Aaron Klein, “Poll: Israelis favor expelling Palestinians,” WorldNetDaily, 14 February 2005. []

Kim Petersen is co-editor of Dissident Voice. He can be reached at: kim@dissidentvoice.org. Read other articles by Kim.

22 comments on this article so far ...

Comments RSS feed

  1. AJ Nasreddin said on November 12th, 2007 at 10:26am #

    After more than 200 years of a democratic “experiment,” I think we should all take a step back and examine the results. Sure, democracy offers many good things – but let’s be honest and admit that there are many problems. First and foremost is that in order to have a good democracy, you need smart people – well, you need educated people aware of the world and how their actions and decisions effect the world.

    In the early history of the US, one was required to be a landowner in order to vote, but in many instances people were allowed to vote if they could prove that they could read. Landowners, at the time, were assumed educated because they had the wealth to afford the time needed to become educated. The whole point was that the US founders didn’t want stupid people voting without understanding anything. America, at that time, was one of the most literate countries in the world – exactly what a democracy needs in order to work. I think America is much more stupid nowadays.

    I have to criticize hanging onto a system for the sake of a system though. When the whole point is to follow the “Will of the People,” I have to argue against democracy and side with Plato: Rule of the Mob is not the best form of government. You might as well say it is government by the “Whim of the People.”

    And when people in some countries decided that democracy is not working for them and want to try something else, we see the US stepping in and killing for the sake of the system. History has shown that democratic and non-democratic governements can still do business, so why not respect the Will of those people not to have democracy?

    “The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.”
    – Winston Churchill

  2. John said on November 12th, 2007 at 12:44pm #

    If the people want to abolish term limits, that should be their right. Hugo Chavez is a very rare bird who should be exploited by (and for) the people, to the maximum extent possible. It would be different if we were all starting out at the same point. Chavez is far more evolved than the average person. It is very likely that his worst faults are far better than the oligarchie’s best virtues. Eventually, all successful politicians will be honest and will love the people. With all the horrors being heaped upon the world by the U.S. government, it is dissappointing to see American’s complaining about some of the best leadership the world has ever seen, on another continent.

    ===========================================
    “I swear by the God of my parents, I swear by my nation,
    I swear by my honor that I will not allow my soul to rest,
    nor my arm to relax until I have broken the chains that
    oppress my people through the will of the powerful.
    Free elections, free land and free men,
    horror to the oligarchy.”

    Oath used by Hugo Chavez (when he was 28) and some of his revolutionary friends.
    (Page 80, !HUGO! by Bart Jones)…

  3. Michael Dawson said on November 12th, 2007 at 1:58pm #

    What’s democratic about term limits? If you’re an anarchist, isn’t arbitrary restriction of choice one of your most hated things? A term limit is an arbitrary restriction of choice. And, tellingly, the limitation of terms has only arisen as an issue because of the excessive growth of democracy (FDR and the New Deal) or as a bogus “solution” in obviously reactionary times.

    You either haven’t thought this through (and your equation of Chavez and Castro — who has never exposed himself to popular elections — suggests this), or you are letting your anarchist confusions warp your own perceptions.

    P.S. to Nasreddin: What the hell are you saying? That dictatorship is the answer? No thanks.

  4. HR said on November 12th, 2007 at 8:55pm #

    Term limits for the presidency here were abolished because a bunch of damned right-wingers who were afraid they would lose power forever, which would have been a good thing. As long as a person has to stand for election to each term, then they’re entitled to as many terms as they can get through honest elections. Take a look at the joke of a state legislature in California, a term-limit state, if you want an argument FOR no term limits. I want the freedom to vote for whomever I consider the best person for the job, period.

    Term limits are nothing but a doomed-to-failure effort on the part of people who are too damned lazy to get involved in politics beyond the effort required to cast a vote. They don’t fix anything.

  5. Binh said on November 13th, 2007 at 11:48am #

    What if the people keep voting for Chavez? Barring him after a set number of terms is undemocratic if the majority support him.

  6. Kim Petersen said on November 13th, 2007 at 1:48pm #

    This article does not argue for term limits. It does not argue against the people’s right to choose whichever Decider they desire; it argues for the right of people to be the Decider. Anarchism, Michael, is about the right of people to be involved directly in decision-making.

    Binh, it was Chávez, himself, who initially decided there should be presidential term limits in the constitution, thereby barring himself from his own ambitions.

    My point is that the people should be empowered through access to information and decision-making and not have to rely on one person.

  7. Daryl Davies said on November 13th, 2007 at 4:31pm #

    The problem is that there would be no revolution in Venezuela without Chavez. It is his vision and charisma that is holding the left together and driving the process forward.

    Chavez needs to stay in order to push through the reforms that will make him unnecessary. No one else can do it.

  8. Kim Petersen said on November 13th, 2007 at 4:41pm #

    And how do you prove these assertions Daryl?

    Certainly Chávez has been an important figure in Venezuela … but that he is the only person who could have pulled off the political changes in Venezuela is beginning to sound like the cult of Chávez.

  9. Michael Dawson said on November 13th, 2007 at 4:55pm #

    Kim, one wonders what you think is happening in Venezuela! Are there not a huge number of new institutions of participatory democracy being built there? Unless a whole lot of reporters are being duped, there most certainly are. Are they perfect yet? Certainly not. But has there not been about a much progress as anybody could hope? My impression is yes.

    And why do you anarchists hate all leadership? Should children raise themselves? Is there such a thing as talent or special knowledge or skill? Why can’t people be allowed to recognize it and benefit from it, just to please some anarchist perfectionist principle? If the institutional checks are strong and open, why can’t people choose to follow, as well as be involved?

    And why are you carping about Hugo Chavez, of all people in this fucked-up world? Do you think Venezuelan or any other Chavistas are a stupid lot who need your anarchist lectures? Curious for somebody whose philosophy is supposed to put trusting free people first…

  10. JE said on November 13th, 2007 at 5:13pm #

    Where did this inane idea that term limits are democratic come from? Term limits are authoritarian and a pitiful, desperate attempt to temper democracy.

    Term limits were actually reactionary “conservatives” response to New Deal Dominance in congress from the 30s to 70s…

    Under the current framework that allows career politicians of the worst ilk to run a government the last thing you want is term limits. They are, however, a good way to encourage corruption and discourage accountability…

    Besides, the fact that Kim would even buy into this “what if Hugo Chavez might one day become a dictator” banter is troublesome. It’s a worthless hypothetical. The whole idea of democracy, even indirect, is the people decide. As long as Chavez enjoys the support of a majority of Venezuelans in democratic elections then he should enjoy the privilege of being able to represent the electorate. The problem people have with this is his policies are so popular that it seems he will be able to stay in office as long as he chooses to. So what? The media wants to make this about Chavez to marginalize the importance his policies play in his popularity.

  11. greybeard said on November 13th, 2007 at 7:49pm #

    Term limits have not prevented the rise of a pseudo-democratic regime in the U.S. An informed, educated (even politically sophisticated) electorate can decide for itself whether to limit an individual’s term. The use of demogoguery must be challenged with a vibrant, loyal opposition–which exists in Venezuela but is sadly lacking in the U.S. It just might be that Venezuelans, though on average less educated than Americans, are much more politically savvy than their American counterparts.

  12. Steve Jordan said on November 13th, 2007 at 10:58pm #

    So, in what way is Cuba a democracy? That one somehow slipped past any observation skills I have. I have interacted several times with Cuban Athletes overseas and found them worrying constantly about their actions, whether they were being watched, in competition they worked hard knowing their livelihood was at stake foe themselves and their families, they looked over their shoulders constantly in fear of being watched by the government of Cuba, and when their actions were deemed out of line, they were restricted from travel overseas and even membership on National teams. yeah, Petersen, great democratic values expressed there.

  13. Steve Jordan said on November 13th, 2007 at 11:02pm #

    Term limits has traditionally been used to restrict the power of political leaders becoming too entrenched in their offices and gaining much power to enrich their own pockets and personal power. Sometimes it is good to change and dilute this centralized power. Here in the States in works both ways, liberal and conservative. Both are plagued with corruption, and therefore change for change sake is needed so that the old guard has to turn over the reigns of power to someone else that isn’t too entrenched.

  14. Steve Jordan said on November 13th, 2007 at 11:07pm #

    The best argument for democracy is a five minute conversation with your local dictator, most Caudillos will do. Hugo Sanchez is just another caudillo in a long line of corrupt Latino Caudillos, from the effe in charge of the local village all the way up to the National strongman running the Government for the entire country. Mexico, Chile, Argentina, Cuba, Guatemala, nothing changes in these countries except for the name of the latest strongman, the Caudillo with the most power. Why should Venezuela be any different.

    Here in the States the powers of individuals at least is somewhat balanced and set against each other in a more neutralizing relationship called ‘Balance of Power” or diluted corruption.

    And yes I agree that the average american voter is an idiot, but no more than any other country. that is human nature.

  15. Daryl Davies said on November 14th, 2007 at 1:51am #

    Ultimately it’s not outsiders decision whether he stays or goes.

    The overwhelming majority of Venezuelans believe he should to stay on. And that’s good enough for me.

    Steve Jordan your contempt for people is contempt for democracy. It is elitists like you that make Chávez such a necessity.

  16. Lloyd Rowsey said on November 14th, 2007 at 6:35am #

    Kim. I want to look at one paragraph only. And I’m going to shoot from the hip a bit here, but my basic point is that the questions you raise in this one short paragraph dealing with Fidel Castro are enormously complex questions, and non-historical answers to them can only constitute vacuous, non-historical support for your main arguments concerning “leadership” and “the people”:

    “If Fidel Castro were a great and selfless leader, would he not have relinquished the reins of power long ago? Would he not have insisted that the Cuban Revolution is more powerful and more durable than any leadership invested in one man? Could he not have stayed on in the Communist Party and played the important role of a fatherly guide to safeguard the revolution and insure the well being of the people? It may well be that the majority of Cuban people desire Castro to have continued as the Cuban leader since 1959 and that this confers legitimacy on Castro’s tenure as leader. Nevertheless, a great leader must always place the interests of the people and society above the vainglory of power. Arguably, Castro’s remaining in power for almost five decades has given US administrations a target for their specious accusations that Castro is a dictator (untrue; Cuba is a democracy4). This has served to make it easier to economically strangle Cuba (a form of collective punishment, which is forbidden by Article 33 of the Geneva Conventions).”

    The paragraph’s first three sentences are The Questions and are variants of one question: “How did Fidel perceive the only threat to the Revolution’s existence – the United States – in terms of his continued leadership and the alternatives to it?” Regrettably you pose this question outside of historical time, as if it could be addressed by abstract political theory; whereas in historical time – for example, in the slice of time between 1959 when Fidel visited Harvard, and 1962, when JFK risked Cuba’s extinction – most Cubans’ perceptions of the US must have changed, and changed in many different ways.

    The rest of the paragraph contains no questions, but finally mentions a date, although it is 1959, and although you mention that date as the first year of an incredibly eventful period of “almost five decades.” To which period your non-historical conclusions are supposed to apply. It’s not surprising that you couch your persistent, political theory argument at this point in terms of “Arguably.” And even resort to arguing with yourself – “(untrue; Cuba is a democracy).” I happen to agree that Cuba is a democracy (and I thank the forces that be that Cuba’s form of democracy is not a variant of Democracy As We Know It). But so what? You’ve already said that the issue which Cuba’s being a democracy contradicts is just….arguable.

    If ever a manual is written about how to produce prose for endlessly confused discussions on the internet, this paragraph would make a great introduction.

  17. Binh said on November 14th, 2007 at 1:23pm #

    Kim writes: Binh, it was Chávez, himself, who initially decided there should be presidential term limits in the constitution, thereby barring himself from his own ambitions.

    So it’s not OK for him to change his mind on this issue? Obviously we agree that “the people” (or for me more specifically, the workers) have to be the Revolution’s “deciders,” but term limits take away that power from them. There are many organizations within the revolutionary movement that are fighting to push the revolution beyond the bounds that Chavez has so far been able to set for it. See:

    http://www.isreview.org/issues/54/chirino.shtml
    http://www.isreview.org/issues/54/venezuela.shtml

  18. Kim Petersen said on November 14th, 2007 at 5:40pm #

    Thanks everyone for your comments.

    Michael, you are arguing for participatory democracy in Venezuela. I’m with you. I would like to see that participatory democracy extended to the people: let the people be the decision-makers. It is new as parecon and old as Brooks Farm.

    Anarchists don’t hate all leadership, but they want a say for everyone in the decision-making. How can class differences be wiped out when if anarchists were to set up a leadership class? The statement about children raising themselves is silly. Arguably, children should, as much as possible, have information accessible to them and to have input into their upbringing.

    You ask: “why can’t people choose to follow, as well as be involved?” So you argue for the shepherd and the sheeple? At any rate, if an informed people opt for a leader, it is their right. But they must also have the option of sharing equally in the decision-making, and that option is not offered to the people.

    My article did not “carp” about Chávez. It cast no aspersions on this man with the guts to take on US imperialism. It argued for the empowerment of people, the involvement of an informed people involved in the decision-making. Or are people to put all their eggs in the basket of one person? Is that one head better than the heads of the masses of people?

    JE, the article is not about a term limits. It is about the need for empowerment of the people, the equal right of people to be involved in decision-making throughout society.

    JE, the “what if Hugo Chavez might one day become a dictator” is your conjuration. What I am concerned about is not Chávez, but which leader may come after him. Look at history. Look what happens when a movement or revolution becomes invested in the leadership of one person. Look what happened to socialism in China after Mao’s death, or socialism in the USSR after Gorbasjov fell from power. Do you know who is waiting in the wings after Chávez? I don’t know. Therefore, I rather see a movement taking directions by decisions reached by the people. After leaders die or are deposed, the people still remain.

    Steve Jordan, as for why Cuba is a “democracy”: simply, they hold free elections like other democracies in the world.

    You demonize Chávez as a “caudillo” and ignore all accomplishments during his tenure in government: medicare for the people, literacy of the people, rights to basic food stuffs extended to the people.

    Lloyd, I raised the questions about Castro’s long hold on leadership to address whether such was in the best interests of Cubans. What is the message: that one person can be placed above the rest of the people in society to make decisions? Second, US imperialists have seized upon the long tenure of Castro to speciously paint him as a dictator.

    You pose the question: “How did Fidel perceive the only threat to the Revolution’s existence – the United States – in terms of his continued leadership and the alternatives to it?” I submit that that answer should not be the sole prerogative of Castro, but that it is a decision for the Cuban people to make.

    “Historical time?” Respectfully, are you saying that the factors that put Castro in power in 1959 have substantiated his holding power until present times? Does Cuba not function still under his brother?

    Binh, we probably don’t differ much. Term limits is secondary to the thrust of the article. I don’t want sheeple: people reduced to being followers exercising a vaunted vote for a so-called representative every few years. I am pushing for granting the power of leadership/decision-making to the people. I am arguing for the people to lead. Maybe Chávez will someday entrench this step in the future.

  19. Lloyd Rowsey said on November 15th, 2007 at 9:14am #

    Thanks, Kim. The paragraph I wrote about in my post above DID concern the “best interests of Cubans,” and whether “one person can be placed above the rest of the people in society to make decisions.” It also DID concern the fact that “US imperialists have seized upon the long tenure of Castro to speciously paint him as a dictator.” (Both quotations are from your post, dated 11.13.007, also above.)

    However, those concerns were not the point of what I wrote.

    I was trying to address a more general, methodological point – to wit, can you talk meaningfully about Castro’s role – as one person among the people of Cuba AND as the leader of all the people of Cuba – without specific reference to the time of which you speak. This “time” might be days, it might even be weeks or months; but certainly it is not years or decades, and certainly not when speaking of Fidel Castro and the Cuban people and the United States. Because the threats both external to Cuba and internal that the United States presented to the Cuban Revolution have varied so enormously from Moncada, say, to November of 2007.

    Were I clearer about the “anarchism versus term limits” points in your piece, and were I to try and address them directly, I would start by pointing out that the role of a military leader vis-à-vis the people fighting with him/her, and as one of the persons fighting, is very various. And the role varies enormously with the intensity of the physical threat these persons perceive, and its proximity. Varies in the leader’s mind and varies in the minds of troops and potential troops. And always as the physical threat and the perceived physical threat varies in historical time. In Cuba and Fidel’s case, varied from the walls of Moncada (and before) to the victory marches in Havana to the Bay of Pigs to the Missle Crisis; thru the literally hundreds of attempted quiet solutions, the poisoned cigars, etc; varied during the entire period which continues today of the blockades – whose intensity and effects in Cuba have not been a constant or a uniformly changing phenomenon over the decades. Etc, etc. Respectfully, Kim, I never meant to say that “the factors that put Castro in power in 1959 have substantiated his holding power until present times…”

    I guess what it comes to is this. I wish you’d left out of your article that one long paragraph about La Gente Cubana y El Jefe; and it would be nice to read another Kim Petersen article in Dissident Voice, less philosophical and more historical and dispassionate, on the subject of that one paragraph.

  20. Kim Petersen said on November 15th, 2007 at 2:20pm #

    Lloyd, I see your point, but I demur because a revolution is not embedded in one human.

  21. Lloyd Rowsey said on November 16th, 2007 at 6:08am #

    Maybe I should have written: “Obviously, Kim, I never said that the factors that put Castro in power in 1959 have substantiated his holding power until (the) present time.”

    Obviously, Kim, a revolution is not embedded in one human.

  22. Bob Greene said on December 2nd, 2007 at 10:33am #

    Isn’t what Chavez is proposing really little different from what is the case in many other parliamentary nations? We Americans are simply not used to that way of “electing” a president, but what he is proposing will not make him a “dictator for life,” any more than the President of Italy or Israel is a “dictator.” My understanding is that Chavez–like the presidents of Israel and Italy and elsewhere–would still be answerable to his party–and other parties that decide to align with it, and not be insulated from removal.
    We’re forgetting too quickly that we do not have popular election of our president, but the electoral college…