It has been a summer of striking contrasts. Banks collapsing, inflation skyrocketing, and New Orleans threatened again—yet record audiences for the glittering spectacles in Beijing and Denver. Both carefully stage-managed events emphasized popular participation. Yet while no one would equate China with genuine rule by the people, Obama’s dazzling speech certainly elevated expectations of what his party could do for American democracy. And that’s a good thing.
Here in New York City, Mayor Bloomberg and his city council are contemplating doing an end-run around the will of city voters and abolishing term limits. That’s a bad thing. Term limits were approved by voter referendum in both 1993 and 1996. In the most recent local elections, neither the mayor nor any city councilmember ran with a pledge to overturn the two-term limit. Yet, should the mayor give the implicit green light, those same legislators now could extend the limit to three terms, essentially granting themselves four more years in office. That incumbents almost never lose is, of course, one of the main reasons why term limits arose in the first place.
Not long ago, New York City was at the forefront of democratic experimentation. Consider the city’s system of public campaign financing. Matching funds (currently six to one) have greatly expanded the field of candidates. But now a mayor who doesn’t participate in the public financing system is being encouraged by his big-time developer allies to alter the law so that he can use his deep pockets to win another election. A move toward Chinese-style dictatorship the effort is not. But neither does it fit with American democratic idealism, which has always aimed to prevent dynasty and mitigate privilege.
Alas, this is the last issue that will feature the handiwork of our very talented designer Nadia Chaudhury. Nadia is headed up to Boston, where she’ll do graduate work at Emerson. Rest assured, you’ll be seeing many future essays, both written and photographic, from Nadia in these pages in the coming years.