There's No Such Thing as a Presidential Mandate

Teasing out actionable policy from election results is not only impossible but irresponsible.

President Trump wants a border wall so much, he’s making its funding a condition of passing DACA. The wall was his signature campaign promise, a fact he surely uses to justify his resolve. Such is the foolish reasoning of the presidential mandate.

It is not a new idea: presidents often rely on their election victory to cajole Congress into compliance. But the presidential mandate does not exist.

What Is a Presidential Mandate?

In his 1990 article, “The Myth of the Presidential Mandate,” political scientist Robert A. Dahl notes how the presidential mandate is based on two lofty claims:

  1. A majority of voters prefer the winner’s policies.

  2. Because the people prefer the president’s policies, the president’s policies should triumph if Congress and the president disagree.

A majority of voters never prefer a specific policy. In other words, the presidential mandate derives from a sycophantic view of the presidency and the significance of elections. It claims that a majority of all voters prefer all of the new president’s policies. It presumes that the President is some sort of special representative of the people, and that unique position grants him special powers — powers that transcend the Constitution.

The latter claim is, of course, not true, and we should denounce any president who seriously claims that Congress should bow to his or her will. But it’s the former claim that is most interesting. While no one would seriously argue the strong version of this claim — the president isn’t even directly elected — there is a sense that Congress should put special effort into passing a president’s signature campaign promises. After all, “the people want it.” But a majority of voters never prefer a specific policy.

Votes Are Not Policy

It’s embarrassing how easy it is for people to forget that only individuals act. The “will of the people” makes about as much sense as the “will of the cheeseburger.” Hidden within any majority decision are individuals wanting many different things. Details dilute any claim of a majority position, regardless of election outcomes. Everyone wants something different.

Teasing out actionable policy from election results is impossible. This is why candidates favor various and vague policy promises. Various positions grant broad support. Vague goals allow voters to graft on what they want the politician to mean. The result is a mess of meaningless priorities.

It’s impossible to determine how much of someone’s support comes from one promise versus another promise. And even if one could determine how much voters favored a particular policy, they would disagree on execution. Support can easily disappear once details are added.

If it were possible to translate votes into policy, it would still be foolish to try. Voters are ignorant and irrational about the circumstances and execution of policy. Election outcomes vary for a host of irrelevant reasons including the weather and local football games. Teasing out actionable policy from election results is not only impossible but irresponsible.

No Consensus among Trump Voters

Surveys illustrate how dispersed voters’ priorities are. Emily Ekin’s exhaustive work on Trump voters at the Voter Study Group showed there’s no such thing as a “typical Trump supporter.” She identified not one but five types of Trump voters, each with a very different worldview. The five types — Staunch Conservatives, Free Marketers, American Preservationists, Anti-Elites, and the Disengaged — are all over the political map.

For example, Ekin’s work suggests a lack of consensus on the border wall. While voters weren’t asked specifically about the wall, they were asked to rate their feelings about immigrants using a temperature scale. Among Trump voters, only 42 percent had “cool” feelings towards immigrants (a 1 or a 2 on a 6 point scale). Though the wall was popular with his base, it’s doubtful that it's still a major priority, especially among those who know Mexico won’t pay for it.

Ekin found many other sources of disagreement beyond immigration. The wall is certainly not popular among all voters, the people Mr. Trump supposedly represents. Less than a third — 31 percent — had cool feelings about immigrants. Just over half of all voters had warm feelings. Polling last year specifically on the wall by Pew and the Washington Post-ABC found that roughly 60 percent of all Americans oppose it.

Other evidence in Ekin’s study suggests deep disagreement about Mr. Trump’s signature issue. While restricting immigration was the centerpiece of his campaign, only 39 percent of his voters favored making it “much harder” to enter the country. Just 60 percent favor making it “slightly or much harder.” Just 49 percent of his voters strongly favored a Muslim ban and 27.4 percent of all voters strongly favored one. Ekin also found many other sources of disagreement beyond immigration.

The Myth of Democratic Socialism

These are familiar challenges to socialism. In The Road to Serfdom, F.A. Hayek warned that voting can’t aggregate manifold desires and priorities into collective action. There are too many desires to consider. Too many costs. Too many possibilities. Action requires specifics, which means that many will be left behind. Socialism cannot use democracy to sidestep the oppression and inefficiencies it’s so well known for. Relevant knowledge cannot be summarized with the pull of an election lever.

Consider democracy at the most basic level: the school board. Even here, little can be interpreted from election results. If a school board member is reelected, do voters approve of how much high-school teachers are paid? The condition of a particular grade school? The availability of special education? The quality of middle-school lunches? Bus drivers? Counselors? Security? Overcrowding? Start times? The idea that one could tease out a particular approval or disapproval from this cacophony of concerns is laughable. At a state or federal level, it’s even more absurd.

Even Voting with Dollars Is Hard to Interpret

The difficulty of running a grocery store helps us fully appreciate how difficult it is to tease out policy from election results. Like elections, customers “vote” with their dollars.

Unlike elections, grocery store managers and owners have even better information because they have daily data not just on how many customers they had and how much each customer spent, but what times of day they came in and what they spent their money on. They get regular and detailed feedback not based on cheap talk, but by individuals using their own money to buy food for themselves. Customers who, literally, put their money where their mouth is.

Politicians don’t even get monthly, let alone daily, feedback. But if sales of produce were to stall, it’s not obvious what the store should do about it. Is the quality of their produce slipping? Is there a new competitor taking their business? Are there poor customer relations in the produce section? Is this slump simply random? Or is it a combination of some or all of these and other considerations? The possibilities are mind-bogglingly endless, which is why managers and owners have to work hard to understand consumer’s diverse and evolving preferences.

Save for unusually vocal constituents and cheap talk-polling data, politicians don’t even get monthly, let alone daily, feedback. And their reach of influence concerns issues far more complex than the quality of lettuce or the number of apple varieties. Typical politicians have a thousand ways to influence our lives. Votes don’t mean anything beyond who won.

Politicians love ignoring this reality because it helps get a pet law passed. They refer to it regularly, if subtly. But don’t let them trick you into falling for the mandate myth.

Further Reading

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