As I predicted a while back, the Partisan-Industrial Complex in Washington, D.C. has deployed its quadrennial Mandate Manipulation Machine to make sure that the 65 million Americans who voted for Barack Obama remember that America giving more than 340 electoral votes to an African American billed as a Islamic Marxist terrorist means there is no mandate for real change in this, a country obviously more conservative than ever.
A cursory glance at the newspapers today shows the media teeming with stories quoting incoming Obama administration officials, Democratic Party leaders and spokespeople for corporate front groups insisting that actually, no real change can be made, and what small-bore changes can happen, will have to happen in the very distant future, not soon. My favorite was the one-two punch from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) and Democratic National Committee chair Howard Dean. Upon hearing of his bigger senate majority, Reid said on Tuesday, "This is not a mandate for a political party or an ideology." A day later, Dean told reporters, "I don't think it's a mandate for the New Deal." Awesome - what a way to project inspiring strength and confidence.
Funny, how three days shifts everything. On Monday most of these people were telling us this was "the most important election of our lifetime" because of the policy changes it promised. By Thursday, with the election over, power safely in the hands of Democrats, and plum government jobs being doled out to old Washington hands, the very same people - as if relieved to finally be able to let out a taboo secret - are saying this "most important election of our lifetime" may actually mean no significant policy changes at all.
Of course, the motives of different Mandate Manipulators vary. For example, Reid and Dean (and Obama aides) may sympathize with progressive goals, but they may also fear taking the blame for failing to deliver legislative progress from a public that now expects such progress from Democrats. By contrast, the DLC and Third Way despise the very goals of economic progressivism. And, of course, movement conservatives like Bob Novak want to crush any progressive legislation in its infancy, willing to claim with a straight face that while Bush's narrow 2004 election victory was a mandate, Obama's huge 2008 election victory is not.
Regardless of the myriad impulses, the sail-trimmers, bet-hedgers, and expectation-downplayers are already doing their damndest to demoralize the progressive movement, whether accidentally or deliberately, with a "more things change, more things stay the same" meme. But there are three important things for us all to remember.
First, the behavior is entirely - almost boringly - predictable. There is an entire industry in Washington, D.C. that exists solely to distort, squelch and pulverize mandates in the immediate aftermath of biennial national elections. For example, the Democratic Leadership Council and Third Way - both corporate front groups - exist exclusively to promote their agenda in the three-month window between a presidential election and an inauguration. Their mission is making sure no matter what happens in a given election, it is portrayed in the elite media as a validation that America resoundingly voted for continued corporatism, militarism and ideological conservatism. Not surprisingly, there is also an entire elite media apparatus more than happy to parrot the propaganda, primarily because the elite media is predisposed to repeat conservative talking points (especially on economic issues), regardless of the actual data.
Second, the feverish intensity and speed of 2008's mandate manipulation is, in a way, a good sign. Usually, there is a pause of a week or so for the Establishment noise machine to ramp up, write its talking points, and then begin its misinformation campaign. But this year, the distortion actually began preemptively, with the Punditburo taking to newspaper columns and the airwaves to insist that regardless of what happened in the election that hadn't even taken place, America remains more conservative than it has ever been (see my ongoing "Center-Right Nation Watch" series).
Once Tuesday delivered a huge progressive landslide, that pre-election hysteria has turned into a full-on panic - suggesting that even the most arrogant let-them-eat-cakers inside the Beltway are genuinely afraid that there has been a paradigm shift in American politics - one that threatens the current Establishment's very relevance and authority. And so the Mandate Manipulation Unit has gone into a reactive overdrive with everyone around Obama (and aspiring for a White House job) delivering a "nothing to see here, folks!" message. Yes, after "the most important election of our lifetime" we should expect to see nothing exponentially different from our government come 2009.
Finally, and most importantly, the progressive movement that worked closely with Obama now has its own capacity to counter the mandate manipulators and crystallize the real message of the 2008 campaign. Indeed, this is a new and critical development. From the Campaign for America's Future, to labor unions, to the Progressive States Network, to Public Citizen, to blogs, to high-profile congressional spokespeople, we have our own collective microphone and infrastructure.
And we are already seeing the benefits of that capacity. Just today, for example, OpenLeft has launched a petition drive asking Obama to respect the election mandate by refusing to appoint free-market fundamentalist Larry Summers as Treasury Secretary. Likewise, check out this statement from Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown's (D) - the most powerful Democrat from the most politically important state in the country:
Sen. Sherrod Brown, a liberal Ohio Democrat, argued that Obama should strike quickly to seize the economic downturn as a way to enact bold liberal programs in the mold of Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal and Lyndon Johnson's Great Society. "He won because we wanted to take the country in a very different direction from George Bush, and clearly George Bush represented the end of the conservative era," Brown said. "The voters said we want ... a progressive alternative."
That's right, we no longer have to sit on the sidelines and watch the professional ruling class in Washington claim this election as their own property - we actually get to have a say, even after the election is over, even when D.C. wants to put us in our place by telling us to simply shut up and go away.
Now, you might be wondering - why is the post-election debate over a mandate important? Simply put, because it sets the parameters of the political debate for the next four years. How the mandate is depicted - and distorted - impacts what the next president will have the political capital to do, and not do. Political capital, after all, is really an intangible matter of perception. If the president is perceived to have an electoral mandate for far-reaching change, then he will have a lot of capital to reach for that change (especially if we successfully pressure him). But if the president is perceived to have an electoral mandate merely for small-bore incrementalism (as the Mandate Manipulators always insist), then he will be under enormous pressure to reach only for incremental reform.
This is why conservatives were so adamant about claiming a mandate in 1980 and in 2004 - they understood its critical connection to policy. This is also why Establishment voices are so adamant about downplaying a mandate today - because the empirical data from the election suggests that 2008 provided an overwhelmingly anti-Establishment mandate on everything from financial regulation, to trade, to health care to the Iraq War. If that mandate is permitted to be recognized, acknowledged and appreciated in the public debate, it might force significant policy change on those issues.
That's the kind of change we all voted for this week - but as Obama himself said in his victory speech, "This victory alone is not the change we seek - it is only the chance for us to make that change." Helping Obama turn that chance into something more is now our charge in the months ahead.