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The meaningless mythical mandate

Politics, as we are constantly reminded, is the art of the possible. And yet there is this equally persistent theme in political discussion about who has a mandate after an election, and for what. Policies are presented to the electorate as a bundle by political parties, not as a series of plebiscite questions, and which ones are enacted depend, as they ought, on circumstances and the greater good of the body politic. What counts as a “mandate” then?

It seems to me that the mandate can only ever be: you are elected to govern or legislate because the bundle of policies you presented were considered least offensive or the best available as a bundle by the voters. So there is neither a mandate for a singular policy nor a requirement that everything you presented must be executed as you presented it.

So does Obama, or Boehner, or in my country, Gillard’s carbon tax, etc., have a mandate? The question is entirely meaningless. As representatives, these politicians have a duty: to govern for the benefit of all. This means making the best judgement calls one can. It does not mean that they get either a free ride for their policies, or that they can do anything they like because they gained a majority in this or that race.

Political guys! Listen up! You are elected in a democracy not to represent only your people or policies. You are elected to act as the representatives of your constituencies. Stop behaving like kindergarten children and grow up. None of you have “mandates”, just political roles.


  1. John the Plumber John the Plumber

    Fifteen years ago I owned a farm. Thanks to a bank manager making a mistake then lying in court, I lost all I had worked for, but on the way I learnt Property Law. This told me I never owned the land of my farm, only the freedom to do what I pleased over the top of the land. It’s been that way here since William the Conqueror. He dished out freedoms to the barons who helped him win England. The Crown owned the land. The barons were free to do as they wished on their allotment – to do as they would with their serfs. The kings law dealt only with disputes between barons. Common law began as nothing much to do with common people. It was a set of rules the Crown imposed, in ‘common’ to all barons – that all treated serfs in the same way – only cut one hand off at time – that kind of thing.

    What all this boils down to is that I am a peasant.

    I now have a simple over-riding ambition – to be a happy peasant – even a happily endarkened peasant. – appreciate my place in the order of things.

    The order of things does not seem to have changed much since the Pharaohs. It’s just that the idea of democracy, voting for your dictator, has been slipped into the plot, to confuse peasants into thinking they have, or ought to have, any say in the matter of being one or not.

    So what maintains the order of things? – Is it the rulers or the peasants – or is the system itself in charge? – Does the system demand the right proportions of rulers and peasants, and those in between – all of types acting as they do – that the system is perpetuated? – Are all of us, peasants, bishops and kings, pawns in the same game? – If so, then what is the name of the game?

    The name of the game is surely evolution – but traditionally, evolution is about change – yet the system which controls us appears to have remained unchanged.

    Let’s suppose for one moment that we have evolution wrong – that it is not about change – but about maintaining stabilities in a universe of flux. – Let’s suppose it is not about life but about systems – and systems doing their best to remain stable. Let’s suppose that Laws of Evolution are laws common to all systems throughout the universe. – That life is one such system – politics another – education another – philosophy a fourth – and so on – till we have a myriad systems – like planetary systems – all like living cells independently trying to remain stable for a while – at the same time, all of the same whole, itself trying to remain stable.

    If nothing else, this would tell us that neither us, nor our politicians are in charge of our political systems – that systems are entities unto themselves – and essentially out of man’s control – particularly if we have evolution wrong, thus fail to know or understand its laws.

    I’ll give you a first Law for free – “To survive, an entity must continue able to function in its environment.”

    One might add, ‘in order to remain stable’ but of course that is an outcome of all following the law.

    In the mean time, for all those suitably endarkened, ‘Chocolate for Ever’ should be the political slogan of choice.

  2. “None of you have “mandates”, just political roles.” I wouldn’t go that far. I do think that the concept of political legitimacy, difficult as it may be to define, does point to something significant. So, for example, Mikhail Gorbachev’s political role changed drastically after the August 1991 Moscow coup attempt, not because his legal position within the Soviet system had changed, but because he was no longer taken seriously by the broad mass of the public or by key elements of the power structure.

    To choose an example from a country where major leadership posts are filled by regularly scheduled multiparty elections, I’d go back even further in time and say that Richard Nixon’s political role changed drastically in the last weeks of the Watergate scandal. Again, the results of the 1972 election had not been revised, nor had Congress yet acted to remove him from office. However, it was so widely believed that he could be removed whenever his opponents wished to do so that he simply could not persuade major constituencies to take his proposals seriously.

    I know that these are extreme examples, and I choose them for that reason. Political action is of course always very complex, and many factors enter into every major development. So it is only in extreme cases that we can readily pick apart various elements that have contributed to decision-making. In these cases, I think it is clear enough that there is some factor at play that corresponds to what we talk about when we talk about “legitimacy” and its opposite.

    I would argue, however, that the legitimacy question is also a routine part of political life. So a government owing its victory to quirks in the electoral system and facing an opposition that advocates an agenda with which the public is both familiar and sympathetic would be probably be unwise to change the course of national policy in some drastic and radically innovative way. Some would argue that the Bush-Cheney administration in the USA did exactly that, and that Mr Bush’s survival in the 2004 election was a fluke attributable to public anxieties following the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001. I’m not sure that is altogether correct, but certainly the troubles the Republican Party has had in more recent elections would suggest that there might be some truth in it.

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