Elections Don’t End Debate

While I share Michael Tomasky’s disdain for people carrying signs about “the blood of tyrants” while protesting democratically elected leaders, he goes too far here:

There was an election. One guy one, another guy lost. It wasn’t disputed. It wasn’t decided by an ideologically divided Supreme Court, which gave the win to the guy who won fewer votes. This election wasn’t even particularly close. It means that the side that won is entitled to try to pass its agenda. But the protesters don’t respect the result of the election.

To be sure, there are people, like the Birther conspiracists, who don’t in fact respect the result of the election.  But so what?  So long as they don’t actually engage in criminal conduct to express that disrespect, they’re entitled to be sore losers.

But winning an election doesn’t mean you get to do whatever you want for the term of your office.  Not in America’s system with it’s complicated checks and balances and divided government.  No, winning merely means you have better leverage on the wheels of power, not complete control.

George W. Bush was re-elected in 2004 by a comfortable margin and his party had control of both Houses of Congress.  Rather quickly, with the Katrina debacle and the emergence of a full-blown insurgency in Iraq, his administration got stuck in the mire.  His vaunted “political capital” was gone and he was unable to enact such things as the massive Social Security reforms on which he campaigned.

Beyond the practicalities of enacting public policy, the very idea of a “mandate” is rather silly.  Yes, Barack Obama won and yes, he was and is quite popular.  Yes, he campaigned on fixing health care and yes, fixing health care is popular.  But those who voted for Obama did so for a wide variety of reasons.  Similarly, those who like Obama and who want to “fix” health care may nonetheless disagree, vehemently even, with the particular set of fixes that are being bandied about.  Surely, they’re entitled to let that be known?

Just as surely, those who lost the last election are entitled to try to rally the troops and persuade independents to give them another chance.  That’s the essence of free speech.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. PD Shaw says:

    I don’t recognize Tomasky’s Amerika.

    As an independent, I’ve repeatedly voted for people with every intention of voicing my opposition to those portions of his/her agenda that I don’t like. I’ve voted for Congressman who’ve indicated the same.

    This ain’t the British parliament, Mr. Tourist-Abroad.

  2. John Burgess says:

    My rule of thumb is that if an election isn’t decided by more than an 80% victory margin, there’s no ‘mandate’.

    Anything less than 80%, you’ve still got to argue your points and win your argument. The 21%+ do not have to shut up and take it.

  3. Joe R. says:

    Didn’t he get the memo? We invented the phrase “tyranny of the majority” last week. We’re clever. We’re surprised no one thought of it before.

  4. Jake P says:

    The “We won” attitude has been broadcast from top to bottom, by politicians and even more explicitly by the media. Somehow along the way, that morphed into a feeling of moral superiority.

    Since we’re coming up on football season, I’d compare what they’re doing to a too-elaborate touchdown dance in the endzone–your six points count exactly the same, but you’ve made a bigger deal of it than you probably should have. Don’t be surprised when the other team wants to bust you in the chops. It’s much better for everyone when you just hand the ref the ball.

  5. Hmmm…, won man, won vote, won time?

  6. Our Paul says:

    And James Joiner strikes another blow to the concept of civility in the public square, to wit:

    But so what? So long as they don’t actually engage in criminal conduct to express that disrespect, they’re entitled to be sore losers.

    Just as surely, those who lost the last election are entitled to try to rally the troops and persuade independents to give them another chance. That’s the essence of free speech.

    Perhaps you could clarify the concept of free speech. Can it exist when elected representatives cannot communicate with their constituents?

    Are we back to the Bush Derangement syndrome?

    George W. Bush was re-elected in 2004 by a comfortable margin and his party had control of both Houses of Congress. Rather quickly, with the Katrina debacle and the emergence of a full-blown insurgency in Iraq, his administration got stuck in the mire. His vaunted “political capital” was gone and he was unable to enact such things as the massive Social Security reforms on which he campaigned.

    May I suggest a contest:

    My favorite Moment in my Bush Derangement Syndrome.

    Extra points if it can be directly linked to a current nutso right wing theme. I will start the ball rolling.

    Long before Katrina, President Bush in a PR show flew back from Texas and proudly signed special legislation to prevent the removal of Terry Schiavo’s feeding tube, a life support system. Much applauded by fundamental Christians, it was the beginning of his plunge in public approval. Direct link to nutso right wing theme: Death Panels in current health care reform…

    Sorry about that James, but anybody that engages in disruptive behavior that prevents free exchange of ideas in a public forum is a barbarian and a thug, and they are subverting free speech.

  7. Gustopher says:

    I think there is a difference between protesting the policies of a President, and carrying a sign suggesting that the President be killed.

    It’s the latter group that don’t respect the election, and are confusing democracy with tyranny. I would also suspect that this group overlaps quite a bit with the birthers.

    And I think there is a difference between carrying a sign suggesting that the President be killed, and carrying a sign suggesting that the President be killed while you have a gun strapped to your hip.

    The latter go past cheeky and rude to being one commotion in the crowd away from having a bullet in their brain courtesy of the Secret Service.

  8. James Joyner says:

    Perhaps you could clarify the concept of free speech. Can it exist when elected representatives cannot communicate with their constituents?

    I oppose shouting down speakers and have said so in numerous posts. I’m arguing against the idea that the losers have to shut up and take it.

    I think there is a difference between protesting the policies of a President, and carrying a sign suggesting that the President be killed.

    […]

    And I think there is a difference between carrying a sign suggesting that the President be killed, and carrying a sign suggesting that the President be killed while you have a gun strapped to your hip.

    Agreed on both counts. The sign alone is stupid and uncivil but within the realm of free speech. The combination of the sign, the gun, and proximity to the “tyrant” is a clear and present danger and not protected.

  9. kth says:

    I don’t really see where Tomasky is saying that people who disagree with the president’s proposals should STFU and go home. The question is more of how much the media should cover them. And given that all of the issues animating the protests were thoroughly aired during the campaign, “they lost” would seem to be a fair response to the claim that these protests are newsworthy.

    Of course there’s a peculiar dynamic over this first year of the Obama administration, in that both sides believe they are helped by focusing on the most polarizing/galvanizing (you pick the word) elements among the right. That’s arguably why you see so much of Limbaugh, Palin, the birth certificate controversy, and what is basically the second wave of tea parties.

  10. Tlaloc says:

    I find different views of representational democracy interesting. On the one hand you have the view that the representative is being selected for their judgment and views. On the other you have the view that they are essentially a placeholder for direct democracy who is supposed to vote as their constituents want.

    I think it’s sort of inbetween. Generally a representative should try to represent his constituents by voting for their apparent desires. There may be times when the rep should however act against the whims of the people, but only when there is good reason (and there are times when there are legitimately good reasons).

  11. odograph says:

    I’ve been very disappointed by by this cycle. It seems that the GOP is returning to something that works (the politics of irrational fear) rather than constructive dialog.

    The Deather I met told me “it’s not what’s in this bill, it’s what could come later.” The protesters on TV say “the USA is going to be run by Hugo Chavez.”

    None of that is real. It’s a fear stoked by the fear of other frightened people.

    I could ask why the GOP caters to this, but I guess the easy answer is “because it works.”

    It makes me sick though, in the knowledge that a “uninformed party” or a “fear party” only works if you can find uninformed and fearful people. Apparently they can find them, or make them, on demand.

  12. odograph says:

    Shorter: I firmly believe the polls are being moved not by anything in proposed legislation, nothing rational, just in this contagious fear they see on TV.

  13. Crust says:

    James, I think you’re misreading Tomasky. He didn’t say:

    [T]he side that won is entitled to to pass its agenda.

    He said:

    [T]he side that won is entitled to try to pass its agenda.

    Tomasky isn’t denying checks and balances or the important role of dissent and argument as you strangely claim. He’s just saying that Obama is a legitimate president and there isn’t (or shouldn’t be) a scintilla of a question around this.

  14. An Interested Party says:

    Just as surely, those who lost the last election are entitled to try to rally the troops and persuade independents to give them another chance.

    I wonder how things like the Birthers, the talk of death panels, the Nazi comparisons, and all the other lovely behavior being shown at these town hall meetings are persuading independents…

  15. James Joyner says:

    I wonder how things like the Birthers, the talk of death panels, the Nazi comparisons, and all the other lovely behavior being shown at these town hall meetings are persuading independents…

    I dunno. Something’s working, though. The latest Gallup poll shows Independents more skeptical than they were.

  16. When did it become a crime to be upset with or criticize one’s servants? I mean, our members of Congress and the President are still our servants, aren’t they?

  17. Our Paul says:

    No disrespect meant James, just an attempt to get your juices flowing for what surely is going to be a disappointing season. There is a reason why the Blue Dog Democrats chose their appellation.

    In view of your recent blog about the state of knowledge of the American populace are you surprised that a frontal misinformation attack featuring death panels, socialized medicine, and hoards of Canadians crossing the boarder for medical care would erode support for health care?

    Pssst: Rhetorical question…

  18. An Interested Party says:

    Amazing how some things have seemingly impressed so many independents…

  19. odograph says:

    Nice clip, Interested. “Obama scares us.”

    The politics of irrational fear indeed.

  20. Tlaloc says:

    When did it become a crime to be upset with or criticize one’s servants?

    I guess when someone got arrested for it. Wait, the only person so far detained was a guy carrying a loaded gun and a sign saying death to Obama?

    I think that guy probably should be detained.