Mandates are essentially stories that tie the practice of political power to the processes that constrain it – namely, the will of the electorate and the rule of law. The content of these stories, and the extent to which they are invoked to justify governance, vary a lot based on the circumstances. And like a lot of stories, much of what we tell ourselves about mandates is owed to invention rather than fact. That doesn’t make the idea of electoral mandates any less important. If anything, it gives us more reason to pay attention.
This is fair. The fact that “mandates” don’t mean what pundits think they mean doesn’t mean that the concept is devoid of value.
With respect to both the point of how perception (as Gordon Gekko would say) becomes reality and the broader point of the centrist pundit view of politics that includes things like the more vulgar understanding of mandates, I’ve been thinking about a point that occurred to me when writing my review of Julian Zelizer’s new book. In a sense, the idea that informed voters pay attention to procedural details and punish obstructionism could function as a sort of noble lie that allowed the presidential system to function. Everett Dirksen both thought that it was his professional obligation to work with the president and the Democratic congressional leadership to pass legislation and thought it was in his political self-interest to do so after Goldwater got clobbered. This mattered. Mitch McConnell’s analysis of the politics — i.e. that the public doesn’t pay attention to procedural details or in most cases understand how to assign responsibility, so it’s always in the interest of the opposition to obstruct the president’s agenda — is more accurate, but the norms he has created make the government much less functional.
As the data Azari collected and analyzed in Delivering the People’s Message shows, the increasing use of “mandate” rhetoric from presidents in response to polarization is a reflection of weakness more than strength. I would add that a crucial aspect of presidential systems that complicates and potentially confounds electoral accountability — the fact that both legislators and presidents can claim mandates — means that the dysfunction of divided government under current norms is likely to get worse before it gets better.