Friday, November 07, 2008

Stop Saying Mandate

The Obama victory feels good. It really does. And it should.

But let's not kid ourselves. Obama's election marks a shift in race relations in this country. It constitutes a small step back from the edge of a very deep crevasse of self-destructive stupidity. Lovely, the both of them.

But it wasn't a mandate. The only mandate worth talking about in this election is the mandate in California, Arizona, and Florida that now legally cannot turn into a manmarriage. (In California, at least, we can thank some Obama voters for helping make that civil rights triumph possible. Swell work, fellas.)

Because they illustrate the point better than talking and because I'll never get tired of their odd beauty, here again are Mark Newman's cartograms:


The 2008 map is notably bluer, but parts of it are redder and a whole lot of it is still purple. So let's not allow the the electoral college numbers to blind us. Obama only won about 53% of the popular vote. Admittedly, unlike Bush's party in 2004, Obama's party in 2008 picked up a lot of seats. But even there they still hold no more than 60% of seats in the House and Senate. Tidy gains, but hardly transformational. So talking about Obama's "mandate" is only fractionally less silly than all the wishful conservative talk of Bush's 2004 mandate, when he barely cleared 50% of the popular vote.

Of course, that's not stopping Paul Krugman from imagining that America has suddenly turned into the Netherlands:
Anyone who doubts that we’ve had a major political realignment should look at what’s happened to Congress... Since [the 2004 elections], Democrats have won back-to-back victories... [and] now have bigger majorities in both houses than the G.O.P. ever achieved in its 12-year reign.

And, since in American political punditry, one can only get a mandate after holding a referendum, Krugman says that progressivism won that referendum:
Bear in mind, also, that this year’s presidential election was a clear referendum on political philosophies — and the progressive philosophy won.

Now, there were a bunch of ballot initiatives in California, so maybe I missed it, but I don't remember that particular referendum. In 2004, cultural conservatives misunderstood the significance of Bush's victory--they thought so many people voting (in part) out of fear of terrorism meant that the country was ready to return to 1948, only with better wiretapping technology. It wasn't. And this year, so many people voted (in part) out of fear for their pensions. That doesn't mean the country is salivating for the New New Deal. Voters in 1932 knew that the stakes were much higher; contrary to FDR's speeches, Depression-era voters had to fear not only fear but also starvation.

We may get to starvation, but we probably won't, precisely because we elected Obama when we did. A little competence and accountability might be enough to turn things around, which means it might be enough for most voters. Of cousre, after the past eight years, a little competence and accountability almost seems like too much to ask.

After dancing his mandate jig, Krugman goes on to argue that Obama should seize his chance to help rebuild the America's infrastructure and social safety nets. Well, amen to that. But let's not imagine that'll be a snap for him.

The last thing we need three months from now is a bunch of unrealistic lefties sniping at Obama for not unveiling a National Recovery Act on inauguration day. The damage done over the past eight years will require some bold action, but it will first require some careful analysis and then some skilled politicking to get that bold action through the Congress. I'm not saying that we should stand on the sidelines uncritically waving pompoms for Obama, but I am saying we shouldn't act like those drunk, moronic fans who get red in the face because their team has a game plan that acknowledges the presence of the other team and of complicating factors like gravity and friction.

Oh, and an afterthought: I'm not sure that any candidate in America has ever gotten a true mandate from "the American people." For a long time, only a small percentage of the population could vote freely. And once most of the adult population could vote, many people simply didn't bother--and still don't. This year, despite the record voter turnout, almost as many voting-age adults in America didn't vote (about 100 million) as did (about 122 million). If anybody had a mandate in this election, it was None of the Above, continuing decades of strong showing for the Apathy and Alienation Party.

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