Home / General / How Mandates Can Matter

How Mandates Can Matter



Julia Azari — who has written a very valuable recent book on the subject — has a useful corrective to my too-glib dismissal of the concept of mandates:

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.

  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Google+
  • Linkedin
  • Pinterest
  • Progressive Agenda

    We Demand the abolition of incomes unearned by work. Breaking of the thraldom of interest.

    In view of the enormous sacrifice of life and property demanded of a nation by every war, personal enrichment through war must be regarded as a crime against the nation. We demand, therefore, the total confiscation of all war profits.

    We demand the nationalization of all businesses which have been amalgamated.

    We demand profit-sharing in large industries.

    We demand a generous increase in old-age pensions.

    We demand the creation and maintenance of a sound middle-class, the immediate communalization of large stores which will be rented cheaply to small tradespeople, and the strongest consideration must be given to ensure that small traders shall deliver the supplies needed by the State, the provinces and municipalities.

    We demand an agrarian reform in accordance with our national requirements, and the enactment of a law to expropriate the owners without compensation of any land needed for the common purpose. The abolition of ground rents, and the prohibition of all speculation in land.

    We demand that ruthless war be waged against those who work to the injury of the common welfare. Traitors, usurers, profiteers, etc., are to be punished with death, regardless of creed or race.

    The State has the duty to help raise the standard of national health by providing maternity welfare centers, by prohibiting juvenile labor, by increasing physical fitness through the introduction of compulsory games and gymnastics, and by the greatest possible encouragement of associations concerned with the physical education of the young.

    We demand that there be a legal campaign against those who propagate deliberate political lies and disseminate them through the press.

    • Malaclypse
      • Hogan

        Strict adherence to the original intent of the Declaration of Independence

        So all you Democrats who keep trying to make us British colonies again can suck it.

        • Malaclypse

          It scares me that they are making anti-vaxing part of the platform. When 27% of parents refuse to immunize their kids, because freedumb, it won’t end well.

      • McAllen

        I like the part where they demand the repeal of the 17th amendment right above where they decry “unelected, appointed bureaucrats.”

    • cpinva

      I demand extra-dry pancakes and watered down syrup for jenny!

  • postmodulator

    the dysfunction of divided government under current norms is likely to get worse before it gets better.

    Well, I’ll be having nightmares tonight.

  • DrDick

    It certainly not get any better as long as one of the two major parties has no actual interest in governing and prone to scorched earth tactics, not to mention being heavily occupied by certifiable lunatics (like Jenny upthread).

    • Why govern when your paymasters prefer tantrum theater?

  • matt w

    Sweet post title from Azari.

    Also can we just delete JenBob’s posts on sight? If you’re worried that doing this messes up the threading, don’t respond to them; problem solved.

    • I prefer kittening to deletion.

      • rea

        We old-timers remember the traditional yummy pancakes . . .

        • DrDick

          Yes, but Jenny always prefers to waffle.

  • cpinva

    sen. Dirksen was sane, the same cannot be said of his political descendants. his batshit crazies, the birchers, and the money men like the hunts, didn’t have nearly the sway that the teabaggers and the kochs do.

  • Mike in DC

    Can we generate a mandate to abolish the legislative filibuster…and then actually do so? Then you just need 51 or so reliable votes for a specific package of various philosophically consistent policies. Whether those are Democratic or Republican policies, eliminating the filibuster tends to mean that party then becomes accountable, to a greater extent than currently. That’s my theory, anyway.

  • Tracy Lightcap

    I think this depends on the theory of governance the administration in question is using. Way back in 1936, Corwin postulated a justification for the increasing power of the presidency in relation to Congress. What he said was that the presidency was becoming more powerful, but it was restrained by three things: a. Congress, just like before, b. the technical and scientific limits of government policy, refereed by professional elites, and c. public opinion, reflected in the increased polling operations already beginning to come on line. So a more powerful presidency didn’t mean a less democratic or less restrained office; it only meant that the restraints had changed. From this it is easy to see where the idea of a “mandate” developed.

    It was the political stance of the Bush administration and unitary theorists of the executive that none of these restraints counted one whit. The only “mandate” that counted was the presidential election. And they were right, so long as they had control of Congress. Problem = the preceived restraints based on Corwin’s ideas are, as Scott says, still something to contend with. Why do people seem so unconcerned about the possible disappearance of the ACA subsidies? One of my friends said it best, “Oh, they’ll never get rid of that. Too many people would be against it.” Well, of course, they would and they’d never pay much attention to the hubbub. But the idea that they can’t is still out there.

  • matt w

    I do worry about the Azari’s conclusion about how elections confer legitimacy. It seems to me that of the last three presidents, the two whose legitimacy was seriously contested by a large swathe of the country (including officeholders of the other party) were the two who were not brought to power in a clearly illegitimate fashion.

  • SIS1

    I would posit that a Mandate is something that a faction or party can obtain, but that makes less sense when discussing what an individual with defined statutory powers can do. For example, between 2006 and 2008 voters clearly gave Democrats a mandate by giving them significant majorities in both houses of Congress and the White House, which is what allowed the ACA to pass. The public then retracted that mandate with regards to Congress.

  • Ezra

    Azari’s argument reminds me of the one we heard a lot back when intervention in the Syrian civil war was being bandied about, namely that there were incredibly powerful “norms” preventing the use of chemical weapons that functioned perfectly right up until the point when someone wanted to use chemical weapons.

It is main inner container footer text