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Tuesday, November 8, 2016

The Myth of the Presidential Mandate

As another Presidential election comes to a close it is worth offering a pre-emptive rebuttal to any attempts to claim that the results convey some type of mandate on the victor. Below, drawn heavily from Prof. Robert Dahl's "Myth of the Presidential Mandate," I'll explain why.

Dahl writes, “As a means of popular control over government, elections are a blunt instrument: powerful but not very articulate. The ballot gives voters the chance to select candidates, but not explain why they made those choices. The weakness of election results is that they are specific on one point only: who won and who lost. On other points, especially why one candidate won and the other lost, the message is vague and open to interpretation.”

Why did Barack Obama beat John McCain or Mitt Romney?
Why did George Bush beat John Kerrey?
Why did Bill Clinton beat Bob Dole?

In 2004 70% indicated that their vote was in support of their candidate, 25% said it was in opposition to the other candidate.

In 2016, roughly half of all voters indicate that they are voting against a candidate.

In 1832, Andrew Jackson killed the national bank of the United States by claiming to be acting on the authority of the American people who elected him. 
"...the president is the direct representative of the American People" he said, having received 55% of the popular vote.


In 1848 James Polk declared that “the people command the President to execute their will – The President represents the whole people of the United States – the president is responsible to the whole nation, members of congress to states and districts." Polk had received 49.6% of the popular vote.

In 1932 FDR declared "the American people have registered a mandate for vigorous action.. the have made me the instrument of their wishes." He won 58% to 40%.

In 1980 VP George Bush declared that the election result represented “a mandate for change, a mandate for opportunity, a mandate for leadership.” Ronald Reagan had won 51% to 42%.


In 2004 Bush declared "I've earned capital in this election -- and I'm going to spend it for what I told the people I'd spend it on." He won by 51% to 48%.

The Framers intended that Congress be the representative of the People. The change over to popular election of Electors in the 19th Century challenged this design. Suddenly a President was the only person elected by the whole of the Nation. Jackson first established the concept of Elections endorsing a President’s policies and Polk firmly established the concept of a mandate and a President as equal to Congress in representativeness.

Woodrow Wilson cemented the modern concept of the mandate – holding that only the president was selected by the nation as a whole and therefore represented the nation as a whole. Wilson argues that no one else represents the nation as a whole and the President in this regard is superior to Congress. As such, a Presidential election represents unified national will. 

But the notion of a Presidential mandate can be found nowhere in the framers' intent and is in fact counter to their design.

But do election results translate into mandates? Are all results a mandate? What constitutes a Mandate?

Is it based on margin of victory? Must a candidate exceed 50% or 55%. What if a candidate wins big, but loses seats in the House and Senate? What if a popular vote victory is narrow, but the Electoral margin is significant?

Dahl tells us that none of that really maters. For a mandate to exist we must accept the following four interpretations of any election:
    1. The results confer constitutional and legal authority upon the winner
    2. It reveals the first choice for president of a plurality of voters
    3. A clear majority of voters preferred the winner because they preferred  his/her policies and wish that they be pursued
    4. Since the policies reflected the wishes of the majority, his/her policies should prevail in any conflict with congress.
The first two seem clear and non-controversial, the third seems suspect and if false, so is the fourth and the whole concept of a mandate. 

Does an election show that a plurality or majority of voters prefer the policies of the winner?Survey’s consistently show that people vote for candidates even if they cannot detail their proposals. People frequently vote for candidates when they disagree with their proposals.

Elections are blunt and uninformative in many ways - elections tell us who won and who lost, but not why. And if we can't truly answer the "why" then any claim to a mandate is hollow. The pluralistic concept of a diverse populace represented by a body elected from that diversity (Congress) is also supplanted by the notion that a single representative (the President) of a majority or plurality speaks for the interests and beliefs of the populace. 

And by portraying the President as the only true voice and the Congress as the segmented voice of narrow and regional interests the President is elevated to an exalted position not intended by the Constitution and at the expense not only of Congress, but of the judiciary, the states and the people themselves. Claims of a mandate confer advantages on those whose interests are broader or more national than those who interests are more reflected in Congressional or regional majorities - and this is not necessarily in the best interests of a diverse nation. 

So if an election does not confer a Mandate then what does it do? It's simple really, an election victory confers the legitimate authority, right, and opportunity on a President to try and gain adoption of the policies that he/she supports. Just as any member of Congress is conferred with the right and opportunity to try and gain adoption of the policies that he/she supports by nature of his or her victory. Being President doesn't mean getting an extra or primary right to pursue your agenda. You have no more claim to the right to pursue your agenda than does any other elected official. 

Whatever policy or agenda is ultimately adopted may not represent the desires or interest of any majority – but perhaps no elected representative is qualified to say just what the desire of the public truly is.

So we may hear the claim of a "mandate" come Tuesday night. But, whether it's uttered by Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton, it will be an empty claim.