Notes on a Theory…

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Posts Tagged ‘Democratic Party

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.

Are the Democrats on Board with the Prosperity, or the Austerity, Agenda?

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[Updated below]

Not long ago I wrote about Prosperity Economics, a report by Hacker and Loewentheil, that seeks to offer a way forward that challenges the dominant approach, called austerity, which involves cutting government spending, supposedly to restore confidence in order to right the ship of the economy.  In point of fact, this actually makes things worse, by reducing aggregate demand (while at the same time producing additional suffering among those who have already suffered the most)–a kind of reverse Keynesianism.  Austerity was used before.  It was pushed by the IMF, the World Bank, and the US government on so-called developing nations, leading them to dismantle their welfare states and sell off public goods and enterprises, which made firms like Citibank even more rich while causing pain and suffering abroad.  (On this, I highly recommend Panic Rules! Everything You Need to Know About the Global Economy, by Robin Hahnel.)

The point of the report isn’t to break new analytical ground, but rather to offer an alternative framework around which progressives can organize to chart a new path.  It has the backing of the labor movement and some civil rights groups.  Hopefully more will sign on.  And thanks to an email I received from Blue America, I’ve learned that it has the support of a number of Democratic candidates as well. (You can see the list here, and donate if you’re so inclined). As of right now, there are ten candidates listed, all for US House races, all non-incumbents.

This should come as no surprise.  The Democrats have embraced austerity for some time.  Here we have a major effort to shift the discourse around addressing our economic problems (and thankfully, many other problems along the way), but the response from Democrats so far has been anemic.

This reminds me of an earlier episode, the Responsible Plan to End the War in Iraq.  The Responsible Plan was developed by retired General Paul Eaton and candidate Darcy Burner, and unveiled in March 2008.  It garnered the support of many Democratic candidates that year, and of course Democrats expanded their majorities in both houses in Congress as Barack Obama won the nomination and the presidency in part because of his early opposition to the war. But there was no serious push by Congress to end the war or even take steps towards that.  Ultimately, it was the Iraqis who pressured the Obama Administration to keep the deadline which they have previously pressured the Bush Administration to set.  I thought then, and I think now, that the Responsible Plan was a great idea. But the inability to generate pressure (or to even try) once Democrats took control of the White House poses a pretty serious problem for this approach.   That Democrats stated their support for the goal of ending the war (some of the time) was enough for most people–their own side was to be trusted.  This seems to be how partisanship works, at least at the present time.  But it means that partisans aren’t keeping their own side accountable, with disastrous consequences.

Will this report garner support from members of Congress?  Will activists demand that Democratic incumbents who decry the Ryan budget sign on, and incorporate its message and policies into their campaigns?  This moment, with the election approaching, is the time when incumbents are most open to pressure.  If people wait to make any demands until after the election, in the interests of beating the Republicans at all costs, the moment will pass.

But most of all, let’s not make this just about Democratic officials, or worse still, Obama himself.  Activists, voters, organized interests, commentators and unions — we need to demand better. It’s no good to ask why government or a political party refuses to do things we refuse to mobilize over.  That’s not meant to excuse them.  It’s meant to encourage us to do the main thing that’s actually under our control. Simply put, the answer to the question I posed isn’t set in stone. Nothing in politics is. Every effort to change the world for the better has been told it was impossible, and those critics generally look right as long, but only as long, as we listen.

[Update]: On a related note, David Dayen warns, “The party of  ‘eat your peas’ is not an attractive party,” with bonus video of Corey Robin discussing austerity on Up With Chris.

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