One thing I find amusing in the weeks since the election is the backpedaling of conservative pundits on the definition of a mandate.
If you’ll remember in 2004, when Bush “won” with a whopping 50.7% of the popular vote, you couldn’t turn on a television or radio without hearing the word “mandate” about a hundred billion dozen times per hour, as though the outcome was some sort of epic landslide. Robert Novak crawled out from his coffin in the cellar of a Transylvanian castle long enough to hiss out the following in response to a question on whether Bush’s “win” was really a mandate:
Of course it is. It’s a 3.5 million vote margin. But the people who are saying that it isn’t a mandate are the same people who were predicting that John Kerry would win. … So the people who say there’s not a mandate want the president, now that he’s won, to say, Oh, we’re going to accept the liberalism that the — that the voters rejected. But Mark, this is a conservative country, and it showed it on last Tuesday.
Peggy Noonan warbled out the following on the same topic:
George W. Bush is the first president to win more than 50% of the popular vote since 1988… The president received more than 59 million votes, breaking Ronald Reagan’s old record of 54.5 million…It will be hard for the mainstream media to continue, in the face of these facts, the mantra that we are a deeply and completely divided country. But they’ll try!
And, of course, all you have to do is toss this idea into the echo chamber of conservative commentators, and the message gets spread far and wide as incontrovertible fact: Move over, everyone — the country has spoken, and our Fearless Decider now has a free pass to oppress gays, privatize everything, create even larger gaps between haves and have-nots, and basically do whatever in fuck we damn well please.
Well, jump ahead four years, and what do these same pundits (and likely the myriad others who drink the Kool-Aid they make) think about Obama’s victory with 53% of the vote?
Here’s Robert Novak, just before grumpily slamming his coffin shut:
The first Democratic Electoral College landslide in decades did not result in a tight race for control of Congress.
When Franklin D. Roosevelt won his second term for president in 1936, the defeated Republican candidate, Gov. Alf Landon of Kansas, won only two states, Maine and Vermont, and Democrats controlled both houses of Congress by wide margins.
But Obama’s win was nothing like that. He may have opened the door to enactment of the long-deferred liberal agenda, but he neither received a broad mandate from the public nor the needed large congressional majorities.
What did Peggy “our country is united under the banner of conservatism” Noonan have to say about this?
This is already a dramatic time — two wars, economic collapse — and people are rattled. “Moderation in all things.” It should be noted here that the split in the popular vote was 53% to 46%. That is a solid seven-point win for the new president elect, but it also means more than 56 million voters went for John McCain in a year when all the stars were aligned against the Republicans…Mr. Obama has a significant portion of the nation to win over. He acknowledged this in his sterling victory speech, when he spoke of “those whose support I have yet to earn.” He does have yet to earn it.
So 50.7% > 53%, apparently. I mean, that’s grade school math, right there, and they fuck it up so bad it’s pathetic.
Now, it’s true that over 46% of the country voted for John McCain — over 50 million Americans. That’s a lot of people, and an election victory doesn’t mean you get to just ignore that many people just because your side was victorious. Real democracy means considering the wishes of the minority as well. But, see, here’s the difference: Conservative policies tend to be extremely oppressive, or at least facilitating of oppression. Bush had to ignore the wishes and demands of liberals, because implementation of conservative policies is on the whole fundamentally incompatible with freedom.
For instance, it’s impossible to dictate who an adult can and can’t love while also giving that same adult the ability to decide for themselves who they do and do not love. It’s impossible to give religious freedom while denying the right to perform marriage rights to churches and individuals who believe they can’t deny any two consenting adults the ability to marry each other regardless of genitals. It’s impossible to force teachers to propagate the message that science has nothing to do with the scientific method while also allowing them to teach their students what science actually is. It’s impossible to outlaw abortion while still giving a woman the right to her own body. It’s impossible to ban pornography and contraception while at the same time giving individuals the right to sexual freedom.
Conversely, Obama can for the most part ignore conservatives’ wishes and demands, because conservatives in the end are still free to do as they themselves please (save for oppressing other people, which is a right they should unquestionably and forever be denied). Their churches don’t have to marry gays and they themselves don’t have to have gay relationships just because gay marriage is legalized. They can still send their children to “Sunday School” without worrying that some third party has the right to come into their Bible study classrooms and countermand everything they teach. They have the right not to get abortions or use contraception, and not to look at pornography.
Ultimately, it’s difficult to claim a real electoral mandate in the case of either a 50.7% or a 53% win. Obviously, Obama won by a larger percentage, substantially more electoral votes (which is really meaningful, given that the Electoral College is skewed in favor of more conservative states) and over 7 million more people, but anything in the range of just over 50% isn’t really a mandate. The real mandate comes from the fact that liberal policies give the individual the right to be individual — that they don’t oppress anyone in the same way conservative policies almost always do. The real mandate comes from the fact that oppression is wrong.