The Myth of Mandates: Bush’s Second Term|
BY PIOTR BRZEZINSKI
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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
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.
DANGER: IGNORANT PUBLIC AHEAD
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
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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