Whenever an election result heavily favors one party or candidate, the commentariat class—those members of the media and political elite who feel qualified to act as final arbiters in determining the meaning of political and cultural events—brand that victory a “mandate.” This term is used as if the degree of victory somehow gives the winner greater legitimacy to act, lending an air of unassailable moral authority to the policies and initiatives pursued and casting dissenters as mere rabble-rousers who can be ignored as intransigent sore losers and extremists.
This characterization of electoral victories having varying degrees of legitimacy based on margins of victory, however, is highly problematic in a democratic society based on an intricately constructed system of coequal branches of government checking each others’ power. So what exactly should an electoral mandate mean?
Ideally, a large electoral margin of victory translates to a groundswell of support in the polity. An electoral mandate can therefore be considered a scion of populism. But populism does not translate well in a federalistic system, hence its record of failure in most elections, particularly federal, with a few notable exceptions, such as the midterm Tea Party victories of 2010 and 2014 and the 2016 presidential race. Since America is not a democracy but a republic in which power flows from the bottom up, mandates go against the grain of the whole culture of government.
The people are not the only source of power; states have a say in how the federal government behaves as well, hence the electoral college, which allots states their number of electors based on their seats in the House of Representatives—the body which represents the people—and the Senate—the body originally created to represent the interest of the states. Two forms of egalitarianism are significant to understanding American politics. The first recognizes proportionality as a just foundation of power; the majority have a right to make their beliefs the basis of law. The second recognizes that majoritarianism does not necessarily correlate to objective decision making, or does it outweigh the rights of the minority; all political actors need to have an equal say in policy in order ensure the rights of all are respected.
The first problem with the concept of an electoral mandate is that it recognizes only the first kind of power and dismisses the latter, using the size of its victory as a kind of moral battering ram to break through obstacles to its campaigns and rallying around the cry of the will of “the people”. But American political power, is more nuanced, both in how power is defined and wielded.
The sense of the will of the people as sacrosanct is a characteristic of populism, which treats the relationship between the elected official and the constituent not unlike a crusading knight driven singularly by the need to fulfill his holy vow. This relationship, however, is protectionist; the constituent cedes some of his autonomy to a representative of the government who has superior authority to regulate his affairs. He does so because he trusts his representative will always act in his best interest, a rationale which is completely antithetical to the doctrine of federalism and negates the equality of rights on which American political culture rests.
Clearly, mandates have no place in the electoral system. They are rooted in populist thinking, yet make the people subservient to the government, especially those who did not support the victorious party in the ballot box. This creates a paradox in which limited government cannot act. Further, electoral margins really only represent the results of a single action—the vote in question. They reflect the thinking of the electorate at a single point in time; this does not negate the ability of voters to change their mind as new information becomes available—as the agendas of politicians changes and drifts from their campaign promises. Therefore, to translate the outcome of an election as a mandate is fallacious.