The Dissident


The Myth of Mandates

The Thoughtless Orthodoxy

The Priority of the Visible: How Democracy Empowers Terrorists

Ditching the M-word

Straight Talk about Economic Illiteracy

The Poverty of Good Intentions

Buddhist Capitalism

Theory Gets a Reality Check: Power, Money, and a Little Bit about Love

The Politics of Innocents





The Myth of Mandates: Bush's Second Term

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No sooner had their victory celebrations ended than Republicans began outlining an ambitious second-term agenda, justified (they said) by Bush’s freshly minted electoral mandate. “Look,” Republicans crow, “the people re-elected President Bush in the face of a united and energized opposition, with the country mired in an unpopular war, and on the back of an iffy economy. Clearly, a vote for Bush was an endorsement of the broad conservative ideology and agenda.” There is every sign that the president himself believes this assessment. If so, his desire to achieve major reforms may be frustrated by the most well-established fact of political science: the public’s political ignorance.

Simply put, electorates make massively ignorant decisions, because the vast majority of the electorate just doesn’t follow politics. This has been amply demonstrated by public-opinion research dating back to the “Michigan school” of the early 1960s. Scholars of the subject are left to compete with each other in coming up with the adjective that best describes public ignorance: “Abysmal”? “Breathtaking”? “Staggering”? As Stanford political scientist John Ferejohn puts it, “Nothing strikes the student of public opinion and democracy more forcefully than the paucity of information most people possess about politics” (quoted in Ilya Somin’s “Voter Ignorance and the Democratic Ideal,” Critical Review, Fall 1998).

In the vacuum of their ignorance, voters base their electoral decisions on accumulated Leno jokes, stray bits of misinformation, vague impressions, and distant
character judgments, occasionally combined with blind party loyalty. This harsh reality renders the idea of electoral mandates mythical except in extreme
cases, when the target of the mandate is usually negative: a status quo gone horribly awry (as in Ukraine). Usually, however, the idea that the public is positively
endorsing the winning party’s legislative agenda is a myth, inasmuch as it’s almost never the case that the public even knows what that agenda is—let alone what
the arguments for it and against it are.


For President Bush, electoral mandate make-believe could prove disastrous. If Republicans rely on the election as evidence of the public’s commitment to conservative ideology, the mandate myth could torpedo the more achievable parts of Bush’s ambitious second-term agenda, and might unleash a backlash that would leave the GOP in the political wilderness.

It is at least initially plausible—if one is ignorant about public ignorance—to believe that Bush’s re-election was a vague endorsement of his foreign policy, since
foreign policy was the main topic discussed during the campaign. But there are no grounds for such a belief when it comes to the rest of Bush’s agenda. A pre-election poll showed that 70 percent of the respondents didn’t even know that the president had signed a huge new Medicare prescription-drug entitlement, and that 57 percent didn’t think that the rising federal deficit was significantly caused by greater domestic spending. How likely is it, then, that many people e ven realized what little-discussed domestic reforms Bush had in mind?

Yet Bush has now staked his political capital on his least popular and, arguably, least necessary goal: Social Security reform.

Most members of the public have little idea that Social Security is funded by the “pay-as-you-go” method, nor any understanding of the various proposed solutions to the problem that method creates: rising numbers of recipients, paid for by shrinking numbers of workers. What the public will hear on the Social Security issue is a polyphony of contradictory statistics and extreme claims made by “experts.” Given voter ignorance, plausible-sounding exaggerations (“Republicans want to destroy Social Security!”) (“Private accounts will explode the deficit!”) could turn the largely uncommitted public not only against meaningful reform, but against the Republican party as a whole.

If that happens, Republicans will have wasted an opportunity to achieve simpler, more saleable, and more important changes, such as tax reform and school vouchers. But it would not be the first time that politicians had fallen for their own hype about the wisdom of the people.

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Piotr Brzezinski is a second-year Harvard social studies major.




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