Earlier this year I complained about the tendency of pundits to take some poll of likely voter in an upcoming election and use it to complain that “the American people” want this or that or have decided this or that. This is done, of course, to depict any politician (say, Barack Obama) or political party (say, the Democratic Party) that is out of step with a select subset of the population as defiantly opposing the Popular Will, and perhaps representing alien influences–as opposed, of course, to the Courage of Conviction and Conservative Principles that other politicians are credited with when they swing against the tide of published polls.
But the same issue comes up after elections, which, while infinitely more authoritative than polls and bearing vast real-life consequences, should not be confused with some sort of universal plebiscite on this or that issue, or even on how the next election will go.
Hendrik Hertzberg of The New Yorker made the crucial distinction amidst the expansive spin of the post-election chattering classes:
With the votes tallied, the spin began: a procession of confident assertions about what “the American people”–meaning, in practical terms, the slice of the scaled-down midterm electorate that went one way in 2008 and the other in 2010–were “trying to say.”…
As for “the American people” themselves, it seems clear enough that their rejection of the Democrats was, above all, an expression of angry anxiety about the ongoing economic firestorm. Though ignited and fanned by an out-of-control financial industry and its (mostly) conservative political and intellectual enablers, the fire has burned hottest since the 2008 Democratic sweep. By the time the flames reached their height, the arsonists had slunk off, and only the firemen were left for people to take out their ire on. The result is a kind of political cognitive dissonance. Frightened by joblessness, “the American people” rewarded the party that not only opposed the stimulus but also blocked the extension of unemployment benefits. Alarmed by a ballooning national debt, they rewarded the party that not only transformed budget surpluses into budget deficits but also proposes to inflate the debt by hundreds of billions with a permanent tax cut for the least needy two per cent. Frustrated by what they see as inaction, they rewarded the party that not only fought every effort to mitigate the crisis but also forced the watering down of whatever it couldn’t block.
Hertzberg’s interpretation of the muddled intent of the midterm electorate (which acted as authorized agents for “the American people,” but are not the same thing) is his own version of events and their background, which doesn’t spring automatically from the results. But the same is true of the confident Republican argument that their party has some sort of mandate to do things that weren’t made manifest by any exit polls or any clear-cut point of debate in campaigns across the country. So next time you hear somewhat pontificate about what “the American people” are demanding–and particularly if elements of those purported demands, such as more tax cuts for the wealthy or big changes in Social Security and Medicare, are items the public clearly hasn’t supported up until now–then it’s time to challenge the spin and mock the spinner.
Republicans have won their midterm victory, but overstating it into a precise mandate, given the circumstances, is very curious, all the more since Republicans can’t seem to make up their own minds whether “deficits don’t matter” as the most recent Republican vice president famously said, or have instead instantly become the most important thing of all.