Held In The Hand

You hear a lot in the wake of a big election about who has the mandate. This year, with all the time I’ve spent with gay friends on the marriage campaign, my first reaction to the word was, “With who? Gimme the dish!” But I got all excited for nothing—they just mean the same old tired definition. It seems to generally go along with a sweeping victory, but what exactly qualifies as “sweeping” (and even what qualifies as “victory,” sometimes) covers a range of outcomes you could drive a truck through. 
But the historian in me got to wondering: Where did this concept of an authorization or endorsement of one side’s agenda come from?
The term mandate comes directly out of Latin, which is unsurprising, since most ideas of political power were defined—in one way or another—by those experts in bureaucracy, the Romans. But the etymology suggests something more of a public trust: mandate means “to give into the hand” (manus = hand; dare = to give). Romans used the past participle, mandatum, to mean something given into a person’s care. 
By the 15th century, mandatum turns into mandat, which meant a legal or judicial order in early modern France. The wars of religion were already revving up, but there had been two sources for such orders for almost 1000 years: secular courts, run by a local magistrate, noble (often the same), or even the king; and canon courts, run by the Catholic Church. While secular courts dealt with problems of property, feudal allegiances, or the usurpation of the state’s prerogative to use violence, the canon courts claimed crimes with a moral or sinful dimension (e.g., marital disputes), as well as any crime committed by members of the clergy, which included not just priests and monks, but any member of the Catholic bureaucracy, including university students.
So there’s already both a political/legal sense of the word that existed alongside a very spiritual idea of trust and care. And the Romans weren’t the only ones to invest the word mandate with those dual meanings. Ancient China, starting in the Zhou Dynasty (1046-256 BCE), ascribed its rulers with the mandate of heaven. To the Western eye, the mandate of heaven looks like a version of the divine right of rulers. But in China, the endorsement of the divine depended on continued moral leadership (both leadership with morals and demonstrating exemplary morals), and if the leader was not sufficiently generous, just, conservative (in the small “c” sense of conserving tradition and resources for future generations), and observant of religious obligations, then Heaven would revoke its mandate. This could serve as justification—even an endorsement—for popular uprising and the overthrow of the regime. (1)
If that sounds similar to something American rebels against England could get behind, you’re not wrong. And, in fact, 1796 is the first time mandate is used in the modern political sense of approval of policies as communicated by the outcome of a vote. (2) Naturally, the only American politician whom everyone agrees had a mandate was George Washington. But while the Constitution provided a framework for elections, it’s clear that the Framers had no intention to ascribe endorsement of policy change to the outcome of those elections.
But that sure hasn’t kept our presidents from claiming that mandate. Andrew Jackson, who was elected after the Twelfth Amendment (1804) correlated the popular vote with the actions of the Electoral College, asserted that the President “was an immediate and direct representative of the people” in order to legitimize the changes he had in mind for the Bank of the United States. Woodrow Wilson is credited with giving voice to the idea that the President is the only nationally elected representative, saying “There is but one national voice in the country, and that is the voice of the President.”
Richard Nixon made the first direct use of the word mandate when he announced in 1973 that “Last November, the American people were given the clearest choice of the century. Your votes were a mandate, which I accepted, to complete the initiatives we began in my first term and to fulfill the promises I made for my second term.” But both Kennedy and Nixon in his first term were elected with only a plurality of the national vote (less than a 50% plus one vote majority), and Jimmy Carter received a bare 50.1% of the vote in 1976. Reagan won in 1980 with less than 51% of the national vote, yet the Vice-President-Elect claimed that Reagan’s victory was “not simply a mandate for change but a mandate for peace and freedom; a mandate for prosperity; a mandate for opportunity for all Americans regardless of race, sex, or creed; a mandate for leadership that is strong and compassionate….” (3)
Not that we’ve ever agreed with our opponents’ claims, or the extent of that mandate for proposing new policy. As presidential elections have become increasingly about the personal qualities of proposed leaders, and less about specifically communicated policy intentions, I think it’s worth looking back at where the idea of a mandate comes from. With the country so divided along ideological and party lines, it’s unlikely that we’ll see popular vote margins large enough to satisfy everyone that the winner has a clear endorsement from the people. Even Barack Obama, the first Democrat since Franklin Roosevelt to win back-to-back majorities of the popular vote and the Electoral College, obviously isn’t seen as holding a mandate from a significant portion of Americans.
But, more than ever, it’s important for our leaders to proceed knowing, as the Romans and Chinese knew, that they hold their power in their hands—they hold the people in their hands. And it is a fragile thing, so easily crushed by inattention and the flexes of muscle demanded by other parts of the job. Though Bush’s presidency represented it in absolutely no way at all, I appreciate the idea of “compassionate conservatism.” The people and their trust must be treated with compassion, not ruthless budgetary efficiency or wasteful military squandering, or neither of them can be conserved for the good of the country’s future. 
Held in their hands, our leaders could easily squeeze out the civic feeling and confidence in good governing, exhausting those tender values before the next generation can refill those reservoirs with youthful optimism. The real mandate that every legislator must embrace is the one to earn our trust and preserve our faith in the institutions to which they want us to appoint them.
(1) For more on the Chinese idea of The Mandate of Heaven, watch this helpful video.
(2) Etymological details of the word mandate come from here.
(3) History of the Presidential mandate from Wikipedia entries for individual presidents, and this excellent article by Robert Dahl in Political Science Quarterly, found here.

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