President-elect Joe Biden.
It is now clear that Joe Biden will be the next President of the United States, despite one recent denialism from Donald Trump. And Biden has already claimed that he has a “mandate to act”. In this regard, Biden is no different from most other modern presidents. Newly elected presidents routinely claim they have a mandate to implement the policies they pursue. In 2016, the Republicans also called for a mandate for Trump, although Trump won only a wafer-thin election victory on the electoral college and lost the referendum by a considerable margin. To what extent Biden really has a mandate is questionable. And we shouldn’t attach too much normative importance to that, even if it does.
Biden’s claims to a mandate are much more plausible than Trump’s. When all the votes are counted, he will have won the referendum by around 4 to 5 points, and his victories in major swing states will be significantly higher than Trump’s in 2016. Biden is also far more popular than the widely despised Trump has always been.
However, it is questionable whether Biden’s victory actually proves that he enjoys widespread public support for his political agenda. Quit polls show that around 30% of those who voted for Biden did so mostly against Trump (I was one of those lukewarm Biden voters myself). These are the people who exaggerated Biden, and it is likely that many of them have serious reservations about his agenda. In addition, the Democratic Party is unlikely to gain a majority in the Senate and has actually lost seats in the House of Representatives (where it will only retain a slim majority). This does not seem like an election where Democrats have managed to achieve broad consensus in support of their agenda. If Biden has a mandate for anything, it is to get rid of Donald Trump and run as a more normal president.
Political scientists who study mandates point out that mandate claims are routine but rarely find broad acceptance. Rarely does the electorate send a clear “message” that somehow confirms the policies of the victorious candidate. Indeed, due to widespread political ignorance, many voters have little idea what such policies are and even less understanding of their likely implications.
Even if a president has a mandate – in the sense of broad public support for his policies – it is by no means clear that implementing these guidelines would be a good thing. Thanks to ignorance, prejudice and other types of mistakes, the majority public opinion is often very wrong. Majority support cannot turn an unjust or ineffective policy into a good one. Right and wrong do not depend on the number of people who support it.
From a political perspective, the perception that the president has a mandate makes it more likely that he will be able to carry out his agenda. In particular, this could increase the likelihood that Congress would work with him. But it no longer makes this agenda right and fair.
To avoid misunderstandings, I should stress that there are some important aspects of Biden’s proposed agenda that I would really like to see implemented – particularly his plans to liberalize immigration policies, end Trump’s trade wars and rebuild our relationships with key allies. Biden’s superiority over Trump on these important issues is the main reason I voted for him. However, the accuracy of these guidelines does not depend on Biden having a “mandate” for them.
If Biden – or any president – claims to have a mandate on his agenda, such claims should be viewed with skepticism. They are often questionable on their own terms. And they do not justify supporting unjust or counterproductive policies, even if the claim “mandate” is actually true.
When Biden and other politicians propose different strategies, we should evaluate them according to their merits. Good ideas (or sometimes even less bad than the status quo) deserve support. Bad ones should be rejected. And that applies regardless of whether they are supported by a “mandate”.