A Department of Justice (DOJ) spokesman recently claimed that the election of Donald Trump was a mandate "to restore legality to the Southwest border." The spokesman probably spoke sincerely, but we should not take this claim seriously.
No doubt Mr. Trump's vows to crack down on undocumented immigrants accounts for some of the votes he received in 2016. But the claim that his election constituted a mandate to do anything is incompatible with the fact that he received three million fewer popular votes than did Hillary Clinton. The result of the election was clear enough, though.
Thanks to the distribution of the popular votes, he won a majority of the votes in the Electoral College and was duly elected to the presidency. He was not unique in this outcome, sharing it with presidents John Quincy Adams (1824), Rutherford B. Hayes (1876), Benjamin Harrison (1888), and George W. Bush (2000).
Claims that Donald Trump has a mandate to do anything are just an extreme example of language heard all too often from successful candidates — or from their supporters.
But even when the candidate has received a majority of popular votes, to argue that this means that a majority of the voters wants that official to do some particular thing is not just humbug, it's incompatible with everything that we know about why people vote they way they do.
Candidates generally promise to do more than one thing if they are elevated into a high political office, and not uncommonly these promised things are mutually incompatible.
This often takes the form of pledging to reduce taxes, increase spending for favored programs, protect other programs, and reduce the annual deficit. Not unnaturally, voters like the idea of having their cake and eating it too.
Those voters will be disappointed when the victorious candidate fails to deliver on all of these promises. When done too obviously, these kinds of promises tend to undermine public confidence in government.
Some voters may support the candidate because he or she supports one policy, whereas others may vote for that candidate in spite of that fact or perhaps on the basis of completely different policy stances. The fact that the candidate wins a majority of the votes therefore does not prove that voters have given a mandate to do any particular thing.
And not all votes are based on candidates' stands on issues. Some people support a candidate because they (and probably their ancestors before them) have always voted for a particular political party. Sometimes in "realigning" elections large numbers of people change parties, but such elections do not happen frequently.
Some people support a candidate because they think he or she has more of the temperament that good political leadership requires.
Some people vote for or against a candidate because of that candidate's race or gender.
Some people vote for a candidate because the candidate has kissed their baby.
Some vote for a candidate because they consider the other main candidate worse.
In other words, it's impossible to ascertain from the fact that someone has won an election that the voting public supports any particular policies. Public opinion polls directly asking people what they think about possible policies are a more reliable way to figure out what people want.
But even polls have very limited utility for this.
I remember decades ago when voters in a Michigan county had to answer two questions in a referendum, which is more like a poll than like election of a candidate. One question was whether they favored establishing a community college for that area. A majority voted yes. The other question was whether they supported increasing local property taxes enough to pay for a community college. You guessed it, on this question a majority voted no!
Apparently the majority didn't want a community college badly enough to pay for it, which is to say they really didn't want it.
When any politician claims a mandate to do something, our response should be to tell that official to get serious and tell us why doing it would be a good idea rather than trying to stamp it with a good housekeeping seal of public approval. To claim a mandate is a rhetorical device trying to marshal support and head off critical evaluation of a proposal, and we should never take such claims seriously.
Paul F. deLespinasse is Professor Emeritus of Political Science and Computer Science at Adrian College. He received his Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins University in 1966, and has been a National Merit Scholar, an NDEA Fellow, a Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and a Fellow in Law and Political Science at the Harvard Law School. His college textbook, "Thinking About Politics: American Government in Associational Perspective," was published in 1981 and his most recent book is "Beyond Capitalism: A Classless Society With (Mostly) Free Markets." His columns have appeared in newspapers in Michigan, Oregon, and a number of other states. To read more of his reports — Click Here Now.
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