Legitimacy in a democracy is derived from popular support. Ideally, the best expression of that support comes via elections: politicians present their plans for governing to the public and the public chooses the group of politicians whose plans they want to see implemented. When that is the case, winning elections is tantamount to having your party’s governing plans endorsed by the majority.

But, that is not how U.S. elections operate. 

Both parties claim support for their policies because they win elections, but they do not win elections because of their policies. Instead, because our elections are in an unhealthy state, they win due to a myriad of other reasons unrelated to their plans for governing. They win because they outmaneuver the other side in framing issues or controlling the agenda; because their candidate is more personable than the other party’s candidate; because they (or groups that support them) spend more money and thus dominate the electoral discourse with their spin or misinformation; because so many voters are poorly informed, anti-rational, and/or inured to entertainment that they are vulnerable to the manipulations and misinformation that passes for political discourse today; because the media fail to remind voters of the real nature of their choice and instead focus on the characters, trivial issues, and cover elections like a sporting event—fixating on the scores (polls and fundraising) and the strategies. 

Since politicians in the U.S. win for so many reasons unrelated to their plans for governing, elections fail in their main purpose—to legitimize the governing plans of the winners. With neither party able to legitimately claim majority support for their positions, negotiations over policy proceed sans the most important consideration, the will of the majority. So, the two sides ply other tactics to get an upper hand in the bargaining, tactics that leave the public even more disgusted with politics and that, ultimately, endanger the public good.

The most recent election offers a showcase of reasons why our elections fail to provide the legitimacy necessary to resolve political conflict. 

The electoral discourse carried by the media was devoid of any real debate over policies; instead, it was dominated by an overblown obsession with the Tea Party Movement and its wackiest characters. Only about 4 in 10 eligible voters actually cast a vote in 2010. The minds of the public were rife with misinformation about the very issues they believed were important—many confused the stimulus package with the bank bailout, incorrectly thought that the stimulus act wasn’t saving jobs, and, were lacking in a fundamental understanding of the health care law and its effects. The economy and voter anger defined the 2010 election, but given the nature of the discourse and the misinformation on the issues, the nature of the public’s anger was amorphous. What, other than a demand for instantaneous results, did voters communicate? It is impossible to say. And, because the 2010 election told us nothing about the preferences of the majority, the elected were robbed of any claim of a popular mandate for their policy positions.

And, the failings of the 2010 Election are not new; our elections have been deteriorating for some time. Were the results of 2008 merely a rejection of President Bush and his administration or an endorsement of the Democratic Party’s policies? How much of the Democrats victory was attributable to their plans for governing and how much to the fact they had a rock-star caliber candidate who ran an extremely well-managed campaign and a highly successful fund raising machine? What about the 2006 Election? 2004? As one examines each election it becomes clear that various failings of our electoral system—regarding the media, election laws, the public, the political parties, and so on—muddle the message of elections, making it extremely difficult to decipher popular will through them.

If, instead, the U.S. had elections that conferred legitimacy on the winners because of their plans for governing, that is, if elections sent a clear message regarding the preferences of the majority of the public, politicians would be better able to resolve their conflicts. Bargaining and compromise would still be necessary, but the side with the electoral mandate for their policies would have the moral authority (evident to all sides) that would allow it to prevail.

How do we save American elections so that they lend elected officials the legitimacy they need to resolve political conflicts and govern? The answer to that is a whole other piece (a book, actually, Saving American Elections). It is an answer that involves, among other things, alterations to the media environment so that enough media outlets provide citizens with what they need to understand the fundamental nature of their electoral choice; incentives for politicians to focus on the core philosophical differences between them and drop the personal invectives, the petty, and absurd; election laws that make it so that the reason candidates win is not spending advantages or gerrymandering; and, a public that drops some of its bad habits—the reliance on television and excuses for not informing themselves and participating.

Anthony Gierzynski, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Vermont, Director of the Vermont Legislative Research Service of the James M. Jeffords Center, and author of Saving American Elections: A Diagnosis and Prescription for a Healthier Democracy (Cambria Press, 2011).