TT: Why Do We Do It THAT Way?

Hi!  If you’re looking for the Wednesday Wandering, just page back and take a look at my garden – and offer your thoughts on how gardening is like writing.

Also, I’d like to remind you that Alan has put together a free e-book containing about the first six months or so of the Thursday Tangents.  It also contains new material in the introductions.  The cover is by Alan’s wife, Robin.  You can download it at

JANE: Okay, Alan.  Last time you said you had question for me.  Go for it!

Washington and Roosevelt Campaign Contributions

ALAN: Something that I find really alien and incomprehensible about your political structure is the vexed question of money. I was watching an episode of the TV series The Wire which, among other things, was about a candidate standing for office in Baltimore. Much of the programme was devoted to him soliciting for funds for his election campaign. This would be completely illegal here, and people have been prosecuted for doing it. Here, campaigns are financed from party funds and there are very strict limits on how much a candidate can spend. It simply isn’t allowed to “top up” the war chest with private contributions.

JANE: Oh, boy…  This is and remains a “hot button” issue here.  I really had better dodge it.  Let’s suffice to say that some people here in the U.S. would agree with you and some would start telling you all the reasons you’re wrong.

ALAN: That’s interesting. “The Wire” made it seem completely non-controversial. I didn’t realise it was a real point of contention.

JANE: Oh, it is…  So any other questions about how our government works?

ALAN: Why do you have a waiting period before your new government takes over? Our new government takes over as soon as the election results are known. This causes utter chaos in the ministerial offices as furniture, papers and personal effects are moved in and out!

Incidentally, the building where the ministerial offices live is called the Beehive because it is shaped like a giant beehive. I’ve told you before about the literalism of New Zealand names…

JANE: Ah…  Such literalism is not unique to the Antipodes.  The New Mexico capital is commonly called “The Roundhouse” because it is shaped like a Zia, our state symbol.  The Zia is round with four radiating “rays.”

Returning to your question, I’m going to guess about this waiting period based on what I know about the history of how the United States was founded.  Geography would have been a contributing factor.  I don’t know anything about how New Zealand was set up, but by the time the United States became an independent nation, the thirteen colonies stretched up and down the east coast and many miles inland.  Elected officials maintained residences in their home states and commuted to the national capital.

To further complicate matters, the United States did not agree as to the location of the national capital for some time.  Philadelphia (where the Continental Congress had met) and New York were front runners, but there were other suggestions.  Washington D.C. was a compromise –  and a very unpopular one at that, since the new city had to be built pretty much from scratch on swampy land.

It gets even more complicated when you add in a factor I’m not sure New Zealand or Australia ever faced – the fact that each of the thirteen colonies had a distinct personal identity.  Effectively, the early United States was more an alliance of nation-states connected by something of a common language and varying degrees of dislike of British rule.

Basically, there were no Lords already based in London and running things (and later admitting Commons).  It was being made up from scratch by people who wouldn’t agree whether States Rights were more important than Federal Rights.

ALAN: But surely the long gap between your President being elected and taking office means that effectively you have no government at all in the interim?

JANE: Absolutely not!  Elections are staggered so that there are plenty of incumbents to keep things going.  A particular elected official can become a “lame duck” – unable to push through new policy because no one feels he or she is owed any favors, but in terms of keeping the wheels of government turning or reacting to a crisis, there is a government always in place.  Even on Inauguration Day, who is in charge is absolutely clear right up until the oaths are administered.

ALAN: Another question for you.   Don’t you have a limit on the number of times a candidate can stand for office? That’s always struck me as rather odd. We have no limits – anyone can stand for anything as many times as they like. Surely such limits on holding office lead to a lame duck situation when it is clear that someone’s time is coming to an end and so nothing can be done, in any constructive legislative sense, until they go?

JANE: Only a few offices have term limits.  President is the most obvious, but in some states governors or other officials also have term limits.

When the United States was founded, there was a terrific fear that someone would step in and try to become king.  George Washington was very popular and could have done this, but he voluntarily refused to run for a third term.  This created a tradition of two terms only, a tradition that was upheld until President Franklin Delano Roosevelt held office for three terms (he died in his fourth).  Afterward, what had been a tradition became a law.

Let’s move to the question of  how the political systems under which SF/F writers live have shaped the governments in Imaginary Worlds.  Shall I start with my Tolkien Whine?

ALAN: Please do! I love a good whine.

JANE: Then stand by…


5 Responses to “TT: Why Do We Do It THAT Way?”

  1. heteromeles Says:

    Term limits are popular where I live in California. We’re the only state with the peculiar tradition of easy citizen initiatives, and we’re a great example of why this tradition is a bad idea. It came about due to a massive distrust of state government back in the 1920s or so (I’m not researching this, just doing it from memory), so we get citizen initiatives all the time to reorganize state government.

    That’s how we’ve gotten saddled with things like property tax limits (Proposition 13, back in the 1970s), mandatory balanced budgets, a big chunk of money that has to go to schools, regardless (to make up for the shortfalls induced by Proposition 13), and, oh yes, Term Limits.

    I’m coming to hate term limits, at least on anyone other than the US President. The problem is, politics is slow and complicated. Many controversial land use issues can take over a decade to solve (I know this only because I work on the darn things), and it takes years to learn how the system works.

    Well, if you’re unhappy with how your politicians are doing, your knee-jerk reaction (if you’re a Californian) is to limit their time in office, so that a few people don’t rise to positions of power and influence. The result is that everyone gets limited to two terms at the state level, then they’re out.

    The result? Constant campaigning. Every politician is looking for their next job, because there’s no security in their current position. It’s effectively government by postdocs (a legislative career now being the postdoc on the way to becoming a tenured lobbyist), and the people who do know what’s going on are the lobbyists, the business interests, and some activists, along with some of the mid-level bureaucrats. The people making the decisions have little knowledge, little stake (unless it affects their campaigns), and little time to learn.

    Of course, most citizens don’t realize this, so getting an initiative to repeal term limits would probably be seen as favoring corruption. In some ways, it would be, of course. It would also probably mean that we wouldn’t get the constant demolition derby that’s current California politics.

    As for the POTUS (President of the US), I don’t mind the eight year limit. That’s one of the more stressful jobs in the world, and I don’t think anyone should spend more than eight years dealing with it. I’ve forgotten who said that the White House was the fanciest prison in the world (LBJ?), but there’s a bit of truth to the observation.

    Thanks for supporting my rant, Jane!

    • beardedtriffid Says:

      I can’t argue with you because I agree with you completely. Unlike the citizens of California, I think that open ended terms of office strongly discourages corruption. It is in the office-holder’s interest to be seen to be doing a good job, because if they aren’t doing a good job they will not be voted in again and the gravy train stops. Long term interests start to become more important that short term gains. This is particularly true if elections are frequent — we hold elections every three years. Some people claim that this is rather too short an interval but I feel that it has merit. A single term of office is sufficient to prove competancy (with, therefore, a good chance for re-election), probably isn’t long enough to screw up completely, and it provides an incentive to do well enough to want to see the job through next time. All in all a good thing.

      By the way — you do a very good rant. It was a pleasure to read.


  2. Tom MacCarrol Says:

    Hi. A good chunk of the reason for the delay between election and taking office had to do with the appaling communication issues back in the late 18th cent. America. Roads were few, and tended to be bad-often the fastest way between one colony/state and another was by sailing ship. It took time for word to reach a candidate that he’d (males only in those days) won, and more time for the winner to reach the capital. Now, when jet travel would eliminate it, the lag is still written into the laws.

    • janelindskold Says:

      Thanks for clarifying my point about geography. I meant to imply that because the colonies were so widely separated from the capital city, travel time needed to be factored in.

      • Louis Robinson Says:

        And, IIRC the current date is an amendment of the original mid-March, made when the railways shortened travel time enough to make it practical to start terms in January, and shifts in the application of the Constitution meant that the Presidential election would never end up in Congress and the new president would be known soon enough. With modern communications, the inauguration of a president could easily be held the week following the election. However, I doubt you could get even that straightforward an amendment passed in the current state of the Union.

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