Politics shares many of the characteristics of professional sport. It has teams, complete with owners, managers, and agents. It has a regularly scheduled season capped in contests in which score is kept and a winner declared. It has major and minor leagues and recruitment between the two. It has a daily highlight reel. It has rookies and veterans. Former players become television hosts and commentators. Fans are irrationally loyal, and of course everyone is making way more money than they should.
Politics also shares many of the characteristics of serial drama. Politicians are not humans-in-full but soap opera characters played by persons of the same name. They are broadly sketched as villains or heroes, often with shorthand monikers, and their motives are only understood relative to that season’s plot. There is cheating, backstabbing, and scandal. There are alliances and betrayals. There are cliffhangers and plot twists. Characters’ fates are decided at season’s end, and if they fall out and reappear, they seem to pick up where they left off as if no time had passed.
This is why politics so closely resembles professional wrestling, which is also a mixture of sport and serial drama. Both rely on kayfabe, or the portrayal of staged events as real. Politicians will deliver prepared comments with false spontaneity or make showy, televised stands in opposition to a bill whose fate was decided in advance.
For this reason and others, I have been a staunch supporter of term limits for most of my adult life. I still am. It has worked well with the office of the president, and there is real value in periodically forcing citizens to pick someone other than the incumbent, and to break fundraising ties.
However, I’m not convinced most voters will go for it. Without truly being aware, they will find it disconcerting to introduce “artificial” limits on their favorite characters.
If a beloved personality, hero or villain (remember: people love to hate more than anything) reached such a limit, the audience would be reminded of the outside world akin to a fourth wall break in wrestling. The presence of term limits would, at first anyway, throw the viewer out of the story by reminding them that it is one.
By comparison, imagine if the players in a professional sport or soap opera all had identical contractual limits. They got X number of years, at most, and then they were kicked, regardless of performance or position. Imagine if Marvel ended RDJ’s contact after 10 years as Iron Man, regardless of which film was next.
Imagine if Tom Brady wasn’t allowed to go back to the Super Bowl for any team. It feels “fake” because it contravenes the essence of sport and drama, which is why the most common argument against term limits is some version of “We already have them. They’re called elections.”
One can believe that only if one believes the fiction — for example, that the contest between an incumbent and a challenger is a fair one. What these people want first is “natural” drama, the ebb and flow of personality and influence, the rises and falls that make for good television.
But unlike football or Sherlock, politics is not supposed to be good television. It is supposed to be real.