Thursday, January 6, 2011

Mandate? What Mandate?

Well, the first thing I want to say is… “Mandate, my ass!”
- Gil Scott-Heron, “B Movie” (1981)

Once again, the political winds shift by a few percentage points – and politicians speak as if this as some sort of mandate. In quote after quote, Republicans declare that the changes in November reflect a clear message, as if people spoke with one voice:

  • Incoming Majority Whip Rep. Eric Cantor (R): “The American people are expecting quick action on the part of the new Republican majority.”
  • Rep. Greg Walden (R): “The American people sent Congress a clear message in November.”
But let’s not just pick on the incoming Republicans. The Democrats did the same thing in 2008. The President himself referred to having “a mandate to move the country in a new direction.”

Or take it all the way back to the 1994 Republican “Revolution.” The only revolution was the revolving door Newt Gingrich shot through four years later.

It’s a perilous path they’re following – and a mistake that politicians make time and again, to the detriment of their future hopes, not to mention the country.

First, it’s hard to call anything a mandate with such low voter turnout. According to the Federal Election Project at George Mason University, total voter turnout in 2010 was 90.7 million, or 40.8% of the eligible voting population. (See the Project’s site for details of this calculation.) In the 2008 Presidential electon, turnout was 132.6 million or 61.2%. And it was only 75 million or 38% in the 1994 Republication “Revolution.”

Second, a bare majority barely constitutes a mandate. The overall voting percentages for the House of Representatives in 2010 were 51.6% for Republicans and 44.8% for Democrats. (The remaining amounts go to smaller party and independent candidates.) In other words, the House Republicans’ “mandate” came from 45 million people, representing 20.7% of the eligible voting population – and only 14.6% of the total population.

Lest Democrats start to feel any sense of satisfaction from that, keep in mind that President Obama won 53% of the vote (the first Democratic presidential candidate since 1976 to receive a clear majority of the vote). That’s 66.9 million of the 131.1 million who voted, or 31.3% of the eligible voting population – and only 21.9% of the total population.

I could go on, but the point is this: there are a multitude of reasons why people vote as they do. Just because they voted for a party/candidate doesn’t mean they agree with everything that party/candidate wants to do. Assuming the electorate (represented often by that abused phrase “the American people”) speaks with one voice, and then playing to the extremes by claiming some sort of mandate, is a loser’s game: it doesn’t help any political party – and certainly won’t help “we the [suffering] people.”

The U.S. is certainly more conservative than Canada or most European countries, but it’s still a generally center-right country – and not near as divided as people like to think. While the concept of Red vs. Blue States makes for nice visuals, and the media love those exciting and quotable extremist voices, it’s an exaggeration. There’s no Red America or Blue America: it’s Purple America, as Robert Vanderbei at Princeton University has shown. Rather than represent each county with a single color for the winner, he mixed the colors based on voting percentages. So if a county voted 55% Republican and 45% Democrat, it would be represented with 55% red and 45% blue. Thus, a lot of the country (particular the population centers) is purple, rather than red or blue, as shown in the map to the right (which represents 2008 – he hasn’t done 2010 yet).

If the Republicans are going to remain in office, and take control of the Senate and/or the White House in 2012, they’re going to have to figure out how to govern Purple America, as pandering to the Tea Party minority will get them nowhere.

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