In a moment of exasperation when a third of my first-year seminar class failed to show up for a library research session, I asked — rhetorically, I thought — in class the next day, “Who here doesn’t know what mandatory means?”
To my dismay, three hands went up.
I’ve been thinking about that moment over the past couple of months, as the debate over the incoming president’s mandate has raged. Hundreds of news sites and blogs have claimed that, having lost the popular vote by nearly three million, he has no mandate. As Clinton spokesman Jesse Ferguson put it in Time magazine, “this election wasn’t a popular rejection of Democrats at large or even Hillary Clinton in particular. Nor was it an affirmation of Republicans and Donald Trump.” Other, conservative media have argued, instead, over what the incoming President’s mandate is. Asche Schow, writing in the Jared-Kushner-controlled Observer, summarized the mandate as “making America great again”: specifically, “immigration reform including a border wall, as his campaign revolved around the ‘build the wall’ promise. He also promised ‘big league’ jobs and the restoration of American manufacturing and prosperity for the working-class. He’ll definitely have to deliver for him or he can kiss a second term goodbye.” In other words, the mandate isn’t a get-out-of-jail-free card, but it matches the campaign promises.
Here’s where this gets interesting, for me. On the one hand, as the Oxford English Dictionary explains, a mandate occurs when one party authorizes another to act on its behalf. The root of the word is the same as the Latin word for hand, which puts me in mind of a contested position on the popular HBO series Game of Thrones: the Hand of the King. Like the monarch’s “right-hand man,” the Hand has been chosen (wisely or not) because he understands the king’s preferences well enough to execute them without having to consult. When the Hand of the King acts against the monarch’s interests, he does well to watch out for his head.
In this sense, a mandate is sort of mandatory. To steal one of the OED’s references, a writer noted in the Hansard Commons in 1886 that “I am perfectly aware that there exists in our constitution no principle of the mandate. … But … I maintain that there are certain limits which Parliament is morally bound to observe, and beyond which Parliament has morally not the right to go in its relations with the constituents.” In other words, the mandate (if it exists) not only authorizes, but also limits. Moreover, according to most uses I’ve found in the last couple of years in the Corpus of Contemporary American English, a mandate directs. John Kerry, for instance, wrote of the State Department, “The office works to execute its Congressional mandate to monitor, report on, and promote the human right of religious freedom across the globe.” Angela Dorn of the nonprofit Single Stop said in an Essence interview, “While I am involved in strategy, human resources, development, and board governance, my most important mandate is heading the legal department.” And The Saturday Evening Post observed in 2015, “Before the ACA there was no employer mandate. No law required employers to provide health insurance to their workers.”
To have a mandate, in this common sense, is to have a set of unavoidable responsibilities that you owe to a person, an organization, a government, a population. That’s very different from the way The Washington Post, for instance, used the term when it claimed, “Trump’s political mandate is very, very small.” Or when U.S. News & World Report pointed out that Republicans were incorrectly claiming that “the president-elect did in fact win that mythical treasure, an electoral mandate.” It’s also different from the “legislative mandate” referred to by National Review, which obtains “when [a president’s] popular support is such that other people in the political system feel compelled to help him do things that he wants to do, and that they don’t.” That last mandate is actually a mandate for the “other people” who “feel compelled”; the president, relying on popularity joining his will to the people’s, gets to mandate. (And, just to be clear, NR points out that a legislative mandate “is irrelevant if you have enough votes to pass things through Congress just with the support of people who already agree with you.” That is, if the Hand of the King is deeply enough in cahoots with the king, no pesky threats of executing the people’s will, or executing the Hand, are necessary.)
When you have an incoming administration whose plans and promises have been either narrow or ridiculous, however, it becomes convenient to treat a mandate as a blanket authorization rather than a set of directives. When Kellyanne Conway says, “There is a mandate there,” she might be talking (seriously?) about rounding up millions of undocumented immigrants. Or she might be talking about cutting Medicaid, which was not on the table during the election. She might be talking about the extensive hiring of lobbyists for the presidential transition. In other words, to the winning team right now, a mandate is less like a series of marching orders and more like a pennant. How this individual and his loyalists will react if and when they learn, like my students, what mandatory means, we can only begin to imagine.