Notes on a Theory…

Thoughts on politics, law, & social science

An Electoral Mandate is a Claim, Not a Fact

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From four decades of intensive research on voting behavior, political scientists know a great deal about the determinants of individual voting choices.  We know much less, however, about elections—the institutions in which these individual choices take place.  This is a serious shortcoming, for it is elections that link voters to governance.  The nature and quality of this linkage has long been a primary concern in the study of politics, especially democratic theorists.  To some, the only purpose of elections is the permit voters to choose among political leaders; in short, that voters cannot or should not control the choice among politics in any more direct way.  Many others, finding such limited control insufficient for a democracy, seek to show that elections can and should have policy meaning if subsequent government programs are to be seen as legitimate.  [snip]

The idea of a mandate…plays a major role in the justification of elections as institutions and in the effort to construct explanations for particular election results.  It helps also to reassure citizens that their primary forms of political participation–the vote-had an impact on the policies to which they will be subjected.

These words were written by Marjorie Randon Hershey in 1996.  They are, admittedly, a bit disturbing.  I’d like to believe things have improved since that time, but I’m not so sure.  Since the 1950s (at least) political science has looked to individual formal decisions as the key to understanding politics, and often towards some internal factors, be they interests, attitudes, or ideas, as the causes of those decisions.  Votes, court rulings, roll calls–these are the sorts of things political science has focused on. Things which fit comfortably with this sort of approach were foregrounded, things which did not were obscured.  While plenty of criticisms of this approach have been voiced, the basic model has remained.  A certain idealized view of democratic elections serves the same role for political science does for markets–it is the starting point no matter how much research suggests it is not  a very useful way of making sense of the world.

What’s more, there is a presumption–especially in the field of judicial politics–that elected officials were presumptively legitimate, whereas judges, are not, especially when they challenge the decisions of elected officials (i.e. when they exercise judicial review to strike down a law or executive action) .  That’s not true on either account.  Elected officials may find their legitimacy challenged, and judges often act to strike down laws without controversy.   This notion confuses democracy as a normative idea with democracy as an empirical explanation.

The standard move for a political scientist when confronted with the idea that an idea is an essentially contested concept, one that necessarily blends normative and empirical dimensions, one that, as a result, cannot be settled with facts, is to abandon the idea.  That which cannot be settled should be abandoned for terms that can be operationalized.  But this means avoiding talking about things that political actors take very seriously.  As Hershey says:

No matter how difficult it may be to agree on a definition of mandate or to locate one in practice, it remains a powerful concept in political discourse.  Politicians claim mandates in order to legitimize bold actions, journalists use the term frequently in interpreting elections, and scholarly studies continue to focus on various aspects of the idea of a mandate.  In short, mandates are a central democratic myth–“an unquestioned belief held in common by a group of people that gives events and actions a particular meaning.”  As a myth, the idea of a mandate gives meaning to election results and thus has a potentially important effect on the abilities of administration to govern.

I started to think of this excellent piece as I read various discussions of what the meaning of the upcoming presidential election would be from a few left leaning sources. While they disagreed on the answers, all asked the same questions–would there be a mandate, what would its content be?  Lost here is that a mandate is not a thing that exists, like a chair or an apple, but a claim.  It results from politics, as politics is largely a contest of claims.

So the better question is, what claims will be made in terms of the meaning of the elections, and which ones will be successful?  How would the two main parties interpret it, and how would the media treat those claims?  For what it’s worth, I think the right largely appreciates this. I doubt they would ask these questions.  If Romney were to win, they will claim it’s a mandate for conservative policies.  If Obama wins, no matter how large, they will claim it means little.  How about the other side?  I doubt the Democrats will claim any victory, no matter how large, is a mandate for liberalism.  Those who hold the reins of power in the party have long been neoliberals.

As a result, no amount of polling evidence would lead to voters being seen as demanding some liberal outcome.  Any such claim would not be seen as ‘reasonable’, but rather ‘political,’ in large part because it would be outside the bounds of what either party would accept.

This is why I get frustrated with repeated efforts to show that Americans don’t support this, or American oppose that, by those who seek to challenge far right positions or bipartisan consensus.  It quite simply doesn’t matter.  Either activists mobilize those opinions by engaging people to hold them to act, which has to be something more than voting, or such opinions will have no impact. Citing polls won’t change that (although polls can and should inform efforts to mobilize people).

Scholars and activists would do well to understand that democracy isn’t a particularly useful analytic framework, but that it is a powerful myth, that can be mobilized.

6 Responses

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  1. I agree that mandates are myths, but I am not sure Democrats are necessarily shy when it comes to claiming them. In the early days of the Obama administration, we heard a lot about how the Democrats’ victory in a 2008 was a mandate for progressive change. Was it really that or was it a reaction to the incompetence and mistakes of the previous administration?

    I would also point out that it was a progressive Democrat, Woodrow Wilson, that first started using mandate rhetoric on a large scale in the White House. The fact that the Republicans have become ardent users of that rhetoric only underscores how much they have bought into the essentially progressive understanding of the executive as legislative leader.

    This is not to say that plenty of folks on the left have not recognized the dangers of a plebiscitary presidency. But let’s be sure we hold both parties to account when they overdo the mandate claims….


    October 16, 2012 at 4:34 pm

  2. Guess you were wrong about Democrats and their claims of a mandate.


    November 30, 2012 at 3:36 pm

    • It’s entirely possible I am, but I’m not sure what this refers to.

      David Kaib

      November 30, 2012 at 4:04 pm

  3. […] 5) An Electoral Mandate is a Claim, Not a Fact : I draw from some classic political science by Marjorie Randon Hershey. Elections are institutions, not simple aggregations of individual choices.  This is one piece in a larger theme – politics is better understood as competing claims making rather than decisions. That’s important both for how we do politics, and how we study it. Or, another post on the importance of contestation. […]

  4. […] statements can never be facts, but will always remain claims–for example, when they involve essentially contested concepts or when they depend on claims about motives or beliefs. In political science, there is a tendency […]

  5. Electoral mandate is more akin to the call by a referee when the win is disputed; popular vote is clear win not needing referee, or interpretation. In most contests, mandates are best by clear wins, for most people, and the nation responds accurately, as a clear mandate for government action.

    To presume a mandate by Electoral College referee call means that unbound electors, those of 538 persons, chose a President for the entire population. That is certainly not a clear win, or more importantly, a mandate for governance, especially adverse to the will of the people regardless of how loudly they are.

    Resistance need not be futile, it is a check on the privilege a President has to act “for all the people.”
    Important distinctions in a system of checks and balances.


    December 4, 2016 at 6:54 am

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