Mandates, Clowns, Oh My
We don’t need to make American politics any more chaotic than they already are.
Dear Reader (Including those of you who skip this Dear Reader gag),
Joe Biden won a modest victory this week.
If the current map holds, he’ll have won 306 electoral votes to Trump’s 232. This, as you probably heard, is an exact inversion of Trump’s 2016 showing, when he garnered 306 electoral votes to Hillary Clinton’s 232.
I feel very comfortable calling this “modest,” because that’s what I’ve called Trump’s 2016 victory for four years. He claimed a “massive landslide victory” from the get-go and his fans have either parroted this nonsense or simply let it stand uncorrected. Trump’s electoral margin (for those counting) ranked 46th out of 58. If Biden’s position holds he’ll tie Trump. If he gets fewer Electoral College votes, he’ll be 47th. Of course, Biden doesn’t need to brag about Electoral College votes given that he will be able to say he received more votes for president than anyone in American history (even if he ends up losing).
Anyway, I bring this up because it’s a nice, small example of how telling the truth is wise policy in my line of work. Just this morning, Nancy Pelosi said that Biden will have a bigger mandate than JFK. This is ridiculous for a bunch of different reasons, which I’ll get to in a second. But my point here is just to note that, having said Trump didn’t have much of a mandate with 306 Electoral College votes makes it much easier for me to say the same thing about Biden. If you went around yammering about how Trump had a massive mandate to do whatever he wanted, denying that Biden has a mandate is just that much harder.
As I’ve been saying to my Trumpy friends throughout the Trump era, think about your answer to the question: “What can the next Democratic president do that you won’t be a hypocrite for criticizing?”
So what is a “mandate”?
Contrary to popular misconceptions, it’s not the term for Jeffrey Toobin taking some personal time. But it was the name of a gay porn magazine launched in 1975 by the same publisher of Black Inches. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but I didn’t read either—even for the articles.
“Mandate” comes from the Latin, mandare and then mandatum—“given into someone’s hand.” It comes into the English language in the 16th century meaning an “order” or “duty.” In 18th century France, “mandate” referred to a representative’s obligation to do the bidding of those who elected him. In his (somewhat overrated) political dictionary, William Safire offered this definition:
MANDATE, n: The authority to carry out a program conferred on an elected official; especially strong after a landslide victory.
And while I think this definition is what a lot of people claiming mandates want you to believe, a better definition would be something like, “A quasi-mystical abracadabra word for ‘your objections to my program are illegitimate because enough people voted for me to get my current job.’”
Whatever definition you subscribe to, Nancy Pelosi’s claim that Biden has a “bigger mandate than JFK” is particularly funny, because it’s true. The hitch is that JFK had the narrowest popular vote margin of the 20th century—112,827 votes, or 0.17 percent. Of course, JFK claimed a mandate—all presidents do.
And Biden will too. But a mandate to do what? Yeah, yeah, I know the Biden website has a lot of words about what he wants to do. But if 1 in 200 Biden voters had his promise to rejoin the Paris Climate Agreement or his vow to “protect and empower women around the world” foremost in mind, I’d be shocked. The moment he takes the oath of office he will have already fulfilled his core mandate: to not be Donald Trump. His second most obvious mandate will be well on its way to fulfillment the moment he starts taking Anthony Fauci’s phone calls.
After that, everything else is up for negotiation.
Making American Government Government Again.
As I’ve argued time and again, my problem with nationalism—and many other -isms—is that it turns the government into the State. The government in the American tradition is the place where people who disagree about public policy argue, barter, negotiate, haggle, and posture. The State is some mystical entity that represents the national soul or the volksgemeinschaft or something. This is what Randolph Bourne meant by war being “the health of the state.” When things are normal, criticizing the government and politicians is perfectly fine, and oh-so American. But during a war, the government becomes the State, a kind of cultural totem. Criticism of it becomes heretical or treasonous.
One of the worst trends in American life is the steady transformation of the peacetime government into the State. Both sides do it; Barack Obama definitely did. All of that “government is just the word for what we do together” nonsense was an attempt to turn government into the State. The cult of unity that says “We’re all in it together” is an effort to delegitimize dissent.
Our whole system is set up to keep the government from becoming the State. That’s why we have competing branches of government, and not just at the federal level. That’s why we have a First Amendment that protects the ability of people to speak their mind and argue with each other without fear. The Founders wanted a system that recognized that people can disagree without being traitorous. They wanted a system that made it impossible for any faction to claim they had a monopoly on the One True Voice of the People. That’s one of the reasons why we have an Electoral College. The national will is supposed to be channeled from below, through state governments, before it is translated into national power. And even then, the president is still held in check by—and accountable to—the other branches of government.
All of the people bleating and groaning about the Electoral College and the fact that Montana gets two senators just like California have a conception of democracy perfectly in line with Herbert Croly’s, and a long line of progressives who see democracy as a way to turn government into a State. It’s fine to champion democracy—I do—but democratic absolutism necessarily leads to statism because it translates a mere temporary majority into some sort of mystically unquestionable authority. In a healthy democracy, the word “democracy” means disagreement, not agreement—and certainly not total submission. If 98 percent of the country voted for some demagogue who wanted to repeal the First or Second Amendment, he could claim a mandate to do it unilaterally. But the Supreme Court would still be right—and obliged—to stop him.
Anyway, I’m not a big fan of Joe Biden, but I am happy he won. I am even happier because the GOP did very well in this election. I’m not saying that as a partisan, I’m saying it as a conservative who wants politics to be about government again. Biden will ask Congress for things I won’t like, but because it’s likely the GOP will control the Senate, he’ll have to ask. He’ll have to horse-trade. He’ll have to persuade. He’ll have to take into account the interests of people who disagree with him, and negotiate accordingly. More to the point, the people he disagrees with will have just as much right to claim a mandate as he does. Mitch McConnell was reelected to be Mitch McConnell. And the fights between those two is what government is supposed to be about in a free society, and in our constitutional order.
The great beclowning.
I saved this bit for the end, because I wanted to see how the day unfolded and because I was too angry to jump right into it.
I’m calmer now. But I’m still angry. I’m angry at some people for deliberately lying about the election being “stolen.” I’m angry at the people who sincerely believe these lies, which makes me even angrier at the people doing the lying.
At this stage, I’m not sure I can delineate who are the liars and who are simply the dupes. So I’ll just say both groups are wrong.
I’ll leave it to my colleagues to explain why the sort of voter fraud that people are alleging is quite literally impossible (the latest Advisory Opinions podcast is quite helpful on this), but roughly 99 percent of the “evidence” people are providing to back up their claims is either fraudulent itself or simply evidence that the process is working out as it should.
The one person who I won’t give the benefit of the doubt to is Trump himself. He is lying. He anticipated this scenario precisely so he could lie about the election being stolen. For months he told his voters that they should vote on Election Day—and they listened to him. Meanwhile, Biden voters didn’t. That’s why early votes went wildly for Biden and Election Day votes went wildly for Trump. We knew this would happen. We talked about this happening. Trump knew that the early votes would be for Biden. He said in advance that he would claim victory on Election Day if he was ahead before the early votes—which were cast first but counted last in many jurisdictions—were counted. He even telegraphed that he would claim those mail and absentee votes were fraudulent. And lo and behold, that’s precisely what he did. If he actually had the power to “stop the voting”—which really meant “stop the counting”—in those states, he would be guilty of the greatest example of mass voter fraud in American history. He tried—and is still trying—to commit voter fraud, and it is flatly outrageous and disgusting. He’s literally the one trying to steal the election, and—as is so often the case—he’s trying to do it by claiming his enemies are the guilty ones.
I could vent more. But if you can’t see the incredible shame of this series of events by now, you’re part of the problem.
Instead I just want to make one last point. All of these Twitter warriors claiming “this is war” (and demanding total support for the president in his effort to steal the election—by claiming the election is being stolen) are very weird warriors. They seem to think that shouting “the election is being stolen!” is a serious way to fight. They think courage is proven by tweeting boldly.
The weirdest example of this is the sudden hatred for Fox News’ decision to call Arizona for Biden. As of now, it looks all but certain that Fox was correct, even if reasonable people can claim they did it prematurely. But here’s the thing: Who cares? Nothing Fox did or didn’t do changed a single vote in Arizona or anywhere. And yet I keep seeing idiotic tweets from people who should know better that Fox is somehow involved in a “coup.”
I keep thinking about President Trump’s late-night crazy talk. He said:
I want to thank the first lady, my entire family, and Vice President Pence, Mrs. Pence for being with us all through this. And we were getting ready for a big celebration. We were winning everything and all of a sudden it was just called off. The results tonight have been phenomenal and we are getting ready… I mean, literally we were just all set to get outside and just celebrate something that was so beautiful, so good.
I’ve written a lot about how people are addicted to “narratives” as if the narrative is the reality and not simply—at best—the shadows on the wall of Plato’s Cave. Trump was saying in effect, he liked the way the story was playing out before they started counting the mail-in and absentee votes that he knew would go disproportionately for Biden. That’s understandable. But the story was never the reality. It’s like watching Old Yeller and turning it off before the dog gets shot. You don’t change the ending just because you stopped watching. He wanted the world to stop watching before the story played out. Like wishing away the pandemic, he thinks his feelings should trump reality.
When I watch all of these people beclowning themselves with this make-believe narrative of a stolen election, I see the same narcissistic narrative-addiction on a mass scale. Fox News didn’t steal the election or even remotely help steal it—because it wasn’t stolen. What they did do is steal the narrative Trump and the Trumpers wanted to be true. Or to put it more cynically, they stole the narrative the Trumpers wanted to claim was true, so that they could steal an election.
These liars and dupes are the political equivalent of Kathy Bates in Misery. They think the Fox News Decision Desk is James Caan, and their collective sin is not writing the story the way the MAGA Kathys wanted. And they’re ignoring the fact that even if Fox banged out precisely the story the Kathys wanted on their metaphorical manual typewriters, it wouldn’t change the fact that the story they want is fiction. Trump lost because more Americans—in total and in the necessary states—voted against him. Grow up and deal with it.
Canine Update: Zoë is still protecting her leaf most nights. Pippa is still Pippa. And they both love the fall weather, so, so much. Unfortunately, I have to cut this Canine Update short so I can record the solo Remnant. But if you still need more Canine Update, we actually did a whole episode of the Remnant on dogs and dog genetics, with Razib Khan. A lot of folks have said it was their favorite episode in a long time.
And now, the weird stuff
Photograph by Drew Angerer/Getty Images.