The argument for term limits is one of those rare cases that you can accurately apply the label of ‘transpartisan’. For as long as I can remember, since I began engaging in political activity in the late ’90s, polls have shown a super-majority of US citizens – myself very much included – support this idea, but apparently scientific studies in recent years now lend objective, measurable credence to the old truism that ‘power corrupts’.
Research Shows Keeping Power for Long Dulls Empathetic Neural Processing
A wonderful long-read article on the subject, by Jerry Useem at The Atlantic, outlines several lines of research that all point to the conclusion that there is a strong correlation between the collection of power (be is political, social, economic, etc) and a range of negative behaviors. These negative behaviors aren’t merely bad habits, but – according to the evidence collected – stem from measurable neural impairment.
That’s right – power can cause a measurable, physical change in a leaders’ brain, that makes them less capable of empathy. From The Atlantic article:
“The historian Henry Adams was being metaphorical, not medical, when he described power as “a sort of tumor that ends by killing the victim’s sympathies.” But that’s not far from where Dacher Keltner, a psychology professor at UC Berkeley, ended up after years of lab and field experiments. Subjects under the influence of power, he found in studies spanning two decades, 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.
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.”
Run a quick search for terms like ‘hubris syndrome’, names of researcher mentioned here and in the article from the Atlantic and you’ll quickly find a trove of very convincing, mounting evidence. Much like the brain scan studies somewhat famously done by social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, showing how deep ideological belief results in areas of your brain all but shutting down when faced with information conflicting with one’s beliefs (physical evidence of cognitive dissonance), we should take heed of this new evidence and actually do something about it.
This Has Been Recognized Throughout History
We’ve all seen this in person. People who suddenly gain power, wealth, fame or some other sort of social status tend to begin acting differently, especially toward those now seen as being under them in some sort of social pecking order. Thinkers have observed this through observation throughout history, coming to conclusions that also support the idea of term limits and why people like Harvey Weinstein and Donald Trump would so easily treat women they way they have.
Founding father 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.”
The most famous line on this subject comes from the enlightenment period thinker Lord John Dalberg-Acton. Something Lord Acton said is often partially misquoted as something akin to ‘Power corrupts, but absolute power corrupts absolutely’ – here is the full quote, from a better to an Archbishop where he argued that moral standards should be applied universally:
“Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence and not authority: still more when you superadd the tendency or the certainty of corruption by authority. There is no worse heresy than that the office sanctifies the holder of it. That is the point at which… the end learns to justify the means.”
– Lord John Dalberg Acton
More recently in American history, there is perhaps no better example of this ‘hubris syndrome’ than President Richard Nixon, who infamously said that “When the President does it, that means that it is not illegal.” Nowadays, a day doesn’t pass without another case of corruption or unethical behavior by people in positions of power (lately, also a spike in men who have taken sexual advantage of their positions – hopefully a turning point in our culture).
It is no surprise, then, that the term ‘career politician’ is used in such a derogatory sense. Understanding this to be true, ought we not trust fallible human beings with said power for long periods of time that only makes it more and more likely that they will succumb to this neural weakness in human wiring and abuse said power?
Term Limits a Logical Response
All of this underlies the core concept of why enacting term limits is so important. If more power for longer results in less empathy – which makes poor decision-making and corruption more likely, then the logical reaction would be to limit the length of time any given person can hold on to power in government – AKA term limits.
The above doesn’t even scratch the surface of the plethora of cogent arguments in favor of term limits that have been made over the years, even without this new(ish) evidence.
Our system of laws include a number of important limits on legal behavior, on things that are far less dangerous to the wellbeing of the American people than the wielding of the amount of power that people holding the reins of government have. We’ve already collectively made the choice to not allow presidents to hold on to the Executive Branch for more than two elected terms, so if we recognize the dangers of that (some states also have term limits on a range of state-level legislative and executive offices), why do we not apply that to all other high offices?
One can certainly disagree over how long/short those limits should be set at, or perhaps have novel alternative ideas on what we could do instead, but to ignore it and do nothing is a mistake. Making a similar point roughly twenty-five centuries ago, the ancient Greek storyteller Aesop advised to:
“Destroy the seed of evil, or it will grow up to your ruin.”
Given the millennia of observable evidence, and the mounting scientific evidence that virtually proves the idea that holding power for long periods of time results in leaders who are less responsive to the people that put them there, more prone to corruption and other behaviors that correlate with lower empathy for one’s countrymen and women, it is long past time that we enact term limits to at least – in my opinion – both houses of Congress, if not all legislative bodies around the country.