This Academic Life
  "Mandate," my ass
This is not what I was originally going to blog about this morning -- I'll do that a bit later, got to get it out while the inspiration lasts -- but this article and its quotation from Dick "there's no way I can run for President in 2008 so I'd better do what I can now while I still have an elected position" Cheney:

Mr. Cheney, in introducing the president at the rally at the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center less than a half-mile from the White House, left little doubt about how this White House saw the election, and what it intended to do with it. He said the president had run "forthrightly on a clear agenda for this nation's future, and the nation responded by giving him a mandate."

Please. For one thing, the Republican victory in the election was very close, coming down to a few votes in a few swing states. Had Kerry won, calling his victory a "mandate" would have been just as absurd. The country remains deeply divided, and to pretend otherwise is fanciful mythmaking. (Not that the Republicans are the only ones guilty of this. Arguably, the emergence of red states in the first place has something to do with the Democrats' tendency to assume that the rest of the country agreed with them and their values, and almost completely missing the demographic and ideological shifts of the last two decades. The Republicans retooled their base a lot during the 70s and 80s, setting the stage for their electoral victories in the 90s; the Democrats better do likewise if they don't want to miss the boat here. In particular, I think that the lesson is that you can't run as a thoughtful patrician intellectual and hope to succeed in the long run -- no more FDRs and JFKs. Who will emerge as the next great Democratic populist candidate?)

But more fundamentally -- pardon my ivory-tower, scholarly tendencies for just a moment -- the very notion of a "mandate" makes no sense in the American constitutional system. The U.S. Constitution is set up to minimize the dangers of the momentary will of the masses taking over and steering the country down a disastrous course; hence the Electoral College, the indirect election of Senators originally specified in the document, the life tenure of the judges in the Supreme Court, and so on. The central danger (and The Federalist Papers are so abundantly clear on this that it is impossible to miss unless you either don't read them or take great pains to pull words and phrases out of context) is governmental tyranny, which the authors of the document thought about in terms of any one branch of government -- or its natural constituency -- gaining the upper hand for a long period of time. Executive tyranny is minimized through the need for "advice and consent," the fact that President's veto can be overridden, and his inability to dissolve the Congress (among other things); a tyranny of the Court is prevented by the need for judges to go through an approval process; and legislative tyranny is prevented through bicameralism, federalism, and the need for country-wide supermajorities to override the Constitution.

The system is not designed to do anything efficiently. It is designed to present obstacles to effective action, in the hopes that only those courses of action that are obviously right [which, for a bunch of sober enlightenment intellectuals, meant "reasonable" in that reason-is-the-voice-of-God-whsipering-in-your-mind kind of way] would survive the process and be enacted. And in partuclar -- something that we like to forget in our more populist age -- the tyranny that the framers most feared was a tyranny of the majority. The "factions" that Madison rails against in Federalist #10 are not lobbying groups; they are political parties. And the danger is that such factions present their special and specific interest as though it were a more general interest. Think "Rousseau" here, not "Locke"; the argument is that a special interest represents the will of a part, not the (general?) will of the whole. The U.S. Constitution is a machine designed to prevent this, by making it so immensely difficult to win a decisive victory that the difference between the interest of a few (even the interest of the majority) and the interest of others (even a small minority) cannot be mistaken for the difference between the general will (which cannot err: who could oppose the Voice Of All The People, Of Which You Yourself Are A Part?) and a small holdout that has to be "forced to be free."

The notion of a mandate is antithetical to this whole setup. It commits the central error -- flagged both by Rousseau and by Kant -- of falling into democratic tyranny, conflating the "will of all" (in this case, not the "will of all," but the "will of a rather slim majority") and the general will, and removing the possibility of opposition from the rhetorical topography. Who among us can oppose the will of God as revealed through a "mandate" from God's Chosen Electorate? Rhetorically, discursively, politically, this is a much trickier proposition than simply opposing a specific policy or set of policies preferred by a set of elected officials. So it makes political sense that Cheney would invoke such a notion, regardless of how far it deviates from the design of our institutions and our very governmental structure and philosophy, as it affords possibilities that might not otherwise be available. It's always good to have the General Will (a.k.a. the Voice Of God/Reason) on your side as you try to push through controversial legislation like drilling for oil in Alaska and outlawing abortion and "gay marriage."

"Mandates" scare me. The language of a "mandate" scares me. How can one feasibly stand against such a thing?

[Posted with ecto]

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"Academia als Beruf," or, an occasional record of the various aspects of my life as an academic. Written by "21stCWeber," an arrogant handle I know…but I must confess that I do want to be Weber when and if I grow up :-)



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