How years of mandate-claiming paved the way for the crisis of democracy
Elections are at the center of Trumpism. A recent report finds that “Republicans widely support Donald Trump and believe his claims about a stolen election." Stating that Joe Biden won the 2020 election and discussing Trump's connection to the January 6 insurrection have become politically costly for Republican leaders – just ask Liz Cheney. States are passing laws to change how votes are cast and counted, including consolidating partisan power over election administration. The Department of Justice is suing Georgia over a new law that it claims targets Black and Latino voters. And there’s the struggle in Congress over the For the People Act.
We are no longer just polarized in elections; we are now polarized about elections. This polarization isn’t just about genuine disagreement, but is also driven by misinformation and false narratives. To state the obvious: this isn’t sustainable for a democracy, which requires a shared acceptance of election results and procedures in order to be stable and legitimate.
Scholars and commentators have delved into both the recent context for this – Trumpism and trends in the modern GOP – and the deeper historical precedents of disenfranchising Black voters and dismantling democracy at the state level. But there’s also something to be learned from more mid-level context – the last 50 years or so. During that time, American politics became increasingly concerned with interpreting elections, findings mandates and meaning in virtually any contest, however contested or close. What I call the “age of mandate politics” created the conditions for this development in two ways that I discuss in my 2014 book: it promoted the crafting of election narratives that were zero-sum, and that were at least partly rooted in fiction. There’s also a factor I wish I had discussed more in my published work: race and the creation of a fictitious “real” electorate.
In my research, I document an increased emphasis on rhetoric about fulfilling campaign promises, “doing what I was elected to do,” and“the reason I was elected,” from presidents and their surrogates. News media also increasingly sought and advanced these mandate narratives. Why did this turn toward mandate politics happen? I connected the shift to the declining institutional legitimacy for the presidency after Vietnam and Watergate – greater reliance on election rhetoric came as a way to justify a powerful office of which the public was suddenly more suspicious. I also linked the rise of mandate rhetoric to the rise of polarization and clearer ideological sorting between the parties – it’s easier to credibly claim that the election was a referendum on a particular set of ideas when the parties are distinct. These two factors have only become more relevant to presidential politics, and as the book went to press I predicted that mandate narratives would also become more common frames for increasingly nationalized Congressional, state, and local elections.
This didn’t have to be a negative development. As historian Sam Rosenfeld has documented, political leaders (with help from political scientists) have pushed for parties and elections to be structured as to give voters a more meaningful choice. In theory, the idea that elections mean something and bind politicians to their promises is a nice blueprint for democracy. In practice, this kind of mandate claiming lent itself to a zero-sum way of presenting election results - which are often complex and paint a less than straightforward picture of what the electorate may be thinking. There are lots of great works to explain how this has played out: Frances Lee’s work on how close competition for control of Congress has given politicians very little incentive to cooperate and hand the other side a win; Lilliana Mason’s work on the psychological aspect of consolidating our political and social identities and then combining that with perceptions of winning or losing in politics. Many have written on the poor fit between distinct, ideologically cohesive parties sand Madisonian institutions. In other words, the age of mandate politics has been one in which elections are increasingly spun as clear victories for one side or another because it makes a neater and more compelling narrative, and this contributes to the zero-sum environment.
Over time, I also observed election narratives that became increasingly based in fiction. Reagan’s conservative mandate in 1980, a “mandate for change” in 1992 for Bill Clinton, or a compelling narrative of the 2000 election, are all mostly constructions. The evidence for the 1980 election as a decisive ideological shift among voters is mixed. Clinton – who won 43% of the vote – likely benefited from an economic recession rather than a positive endorsement of his ideas. The 2000 election was a tie, with Bush’s opponent winning more votes. But this, again, didn’t prevent the administration from occasionally using mandate rhetoric. As a result, the whole political system – politicians, media, and the electorate – have all grown somewhat comfortable with interpretations that stretch the truth into a useful political story. Once we entered an area in which the facts were merely a starting point to build a story, it’s been more plausible to build up increasingly wide interpretations, and slide into outright lies.
This isn’t a point I’ve seen raised much, and I think it is worth dwelling on for a moment. There’s a worthwhile debate about how much Trumpism represents a stark departure or is simply an extension of existing political forces. While acknowledging that the post-2020 stuff has been different, and the general refusal to accept an election loss belongs to a different category than some narrative stretching, it’s worth contemplating how our tolerance for more benign electoral fictions has loosened the standards for truth when it comes to stories about elections.
The final element concerns something I didn’t write much about in my book, but I should have: talk of the “real” American people that emerged from populist rhetoric on the right connected mandate construction with racial exclusion. In the version of my book that I wish I could write today, I would do a deeper investigation of how constructions of the electorate, populist language, and stories of electoral legitimacy are connected to whiteness. It’s probably trite to say so now, but this became a powerful story after the 2016 election: despite Trump losing the popular vote, mainstream and left-leaning outlets nevertheless searched for meaning in his surprise victory, and clung to the idea that it must have carried a profound and urgent message about the state of the country. The key turning point here is Nixon’s “silent majority” in 1969, but claims of conservative mandates – especially after shaky victories – relied on this populist messaging. On the other points – zero-sum and exaggerated narratives – the parties are equal opportunity offenders. With this one, the main purveyors and beneficiaries have been the GOP, though the Democrats’ willingness, despite their dependence on a multi-racial coalition, to accept the idea of white voters as the “real” American electorate is also deserving of more scrutiny. If I wrote my book now, I’d pay closer attention to race in post-1960s election narratives, and how it structures understanding of both victories and losses.
Increased attention to interpreting election results in media and political rhetoric has, paradoxically, had the effect of trivializing the role of elections and creating opportunities to invent fictions about them. This includes the “big lie” about 2020. It also includes bills passed with the stated purpose of protecting election integrity, but that really impede voter participation and, most concerningly, even possibly create opportunities for election officials to overturn the results. In other words, the age of mandate politics has brought us to a place in which elections are taken neither literally nor seriously, subject to strained interpretations and held up as civically sacred but only in the most superficial ways. What makes elections important is not just talking about them and creating narratives from them, but forging real connections among voter preferences, accountability, and governance. These broken connections are also part of the crisis of democracy. Talking more about the meaning of elections has not made them more meaningful.