The Volokh Conspiracy
Mostly law professors | Sometimes contrarian | Often libertarian | Always independent
It is now clear that Joe Biden will be the next president of the United States, despite some last-ditch denialism by Donald Trump. And Biden has already claimed he has a "mandate for action." In this respect, Biden is no different from most other modern presidents. Newly elected presidents routinely claim they have a mandate to implement the policies they ran on. In 2016, Republicans similarly claimed a mandate for Trump, even though the latter won only a razor-thin electoral college victory and lost the popular vote by a substantial margin. But the extent to which Biden really has a mandate is questionable. And we shouldn't attach too much normative significance to it, even if he does.
Biden's pretensions to a mandate are a lot more plausible than Trump's. By the time all the votes are counted, he will have won the popular vote by about 4-5 points, and his wins in key swing states will be by larger margins than Trump's in 2016. Biden is also substantially more popular than the widely despised Trump has ever been.
Nonetheless, it's questionable whether Biden's victory actually proves that he enjoys widespread public support for his policy agenda. Exit polls indicate that some 30% of those who voted for Biden say they did so primarily to oppose Trump (I was one such lukewarm Biden voter myself). These are the people who put Biden over the top, and it is likely that many of them have serious reservations about his agenda. In addition, the Democratic Party seems likely to fall short of a majority in the Senate, and have actually lost seats in the House of Representatives (where they will retain only a narrow majority). This doesn't seem like an election where the Democrats succeeded in gaining a broad consensus in support of their agenda. If Biden has a mandate for anything, it's to get rid of Donald Trump and govern as a more normal president.
Political scientists who study mandates point out that mandate claims are routine, but only rarely meet with widespread acceptance. Rarely does the electorate send a clear "message" somehow endorsing the winning candidate's policies. Indeed, thanks to widespread political ignorance, many voters often have little idea what those policies are, and even less understanding of their likely effects.
Even if a president does have a mandate – in the sense of broad public support for his policies – it is far from clear that means implementing them would be a good thing. Thanks to ignorance, prejudice, and other types of error, majority public opinion is often badly wrong. Majority support cannot convert an unjust or ineffective policy into a good one. Right and wrong don't depend on the number of people who support it.
As a political matter, the perception that the president has a mandate makes it more likely that he will be able to implement his agenda. It might especially make it more likely that Congress will cooperate with him. But it doesn't make that agenda any more right and just.
To avoid misunderstanding, I should emphasize that there are some major aspects of Biden's proposed agenda that I really would like to see implemented – most notably his plans to liberalize immigration policy, end Trump's trade wars, and rebuild our relationships with key allies. Biden's superiority over Trump on these vital issues are the main reasons why I voted for him. But the rightness of these policies doesn't depend on whether Biden has a "mandate" for them.
When Biden – or any president – claims to have a mandate for his agenda, such assertions should be viewed with skepticism. They are often questionable on their own terms. And they don't justify supporting unjust or counterproductive policies, even if the "mandate" claim is actually true.
When Biden and other politicians propose various policies, we should evaluate them on their merits. Good ideas (or, sometimes, even those that are just less bad than the status quo) deserve support. Bad ones should be rejected. And that's true regardless of whether they are backed by a "mandate."