Politics & Policy

In Praise of Divided Government

(James Lawler Duggan/Reuters)
It’s painstaking and unsatisfying for both sides, which is not a bad thing.

Right now, the broad consensus among nonpartisan experts is that in this year’s midterm elections, Republicans will hold control of the Senate while the Democrats will win back control of the House of Representatives. If this turns out to be true, we will once again return to divided government.

Division between the two parties has been the norm since 1981. In the past 38 years, one side or the other has had total control of the government for only ten years. Neither Republicans nor Democrats have held a decisive advantage over the other. Rather, temporary unity in government has quickly transformed into divided control, again and again.

Pundits like to lament this state of affairs, for both its gridlock and its tendency to produce hyperpartisan rhetoric, but I think it has several virtues that are often unappreciated.

Fifty years ago, a popular theory among political scientists was the notion of “alignments” in American politics. The thinking was that certain political coalitions dominate for epochs of American history (typically lasting about 40 years), and while the opposition could win elections, they still had to swim against the current of public opinion.

In recent years, scholars have moved away from this idea, in no small part because the finer details of American politics do not match up with this grand, sweeping theory. Take Franklin Roosevelt. He supposedly inaugurated a new age of liberal policymaking . . . except that a conservative coalition of Northern Republicans and Southern Democrats took control of Congress in 1938 and more or less retained control for the next half century.

The theory of alignments or eras has performed pretty badly since Ronald Reagan, too. Reagan governed as a bold conservative, which should have signaled the end of the New Deal era. But subsequent Democrats did not follow suit. Bill Clinton is famous for his triangulation, but the 103rd Congress of 1993–94 was decidedly liberal on taxes and gun control. Similarly, Barack Obama governed as a bold liberal, perhaps suggesting a new epoch, but Trump has governed in the opposite way.

Instead, I would posit another framework to understand politics over the past 40 years, one in which the two parties are basically evenly matched, strong ideologues dominate the bases of both sides, and a decisive quantum of voters in the middle is up for grabs. This process has yielded a general pattern that seems to repeat: One party surges to control the government, but this is short-lived; the opposition quickly gains a foothold; and divided government persists until the opposition finally takes total control, repeating the cycle.

We have seen something like this happen for Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama, and if the trends continue through Election Day, we will see it with Donald Trump as well. Each president enjoyed a period, early in his term, when he was able to work his will on Congress. Clinton, Bush, and Obama had partisan majorities on their side. In 1981 Reagan had a Republican Senate and a conservative majority in the House. Subsequent midterms cut down on presidential influence, and eventually the opposition wins the White House with majorities of its own in Congress.

This theory is not perfectly efficient. George H. W. Bush managed to win a third consecutive term for Republicans — a feat unprecedented in the postwar era (except for Harry Truman, who won a fifth consecutive term for Democrats). And Republicans won back the Senate under George W. Bush in 2002. But still, this process has more or less held in place for nearly 40 years.

Is this a good thing? On balance, I believe it is. It makes our politics vitriolic on a day-to-day basis, as both sides, always having recently experienced a governing majority, are cutthroat in their efforts to reclaim it. But it offers the country a way to self-correct on public policy. Democrats tend to peel back Republican tax cuts, while Republicans tend to peel back Democratic regulations — except those provisions on both sides that are broadly popular. This does not lead to coherent public policy, but at least it is moderate in sum.

The other advantage of this system is that it keeps both sides invested in the process. Recent Democratic caterwauling about the Senate notwithstanding, both sides appreciate that a small shift in political fortunes can sweep one side in and one side out. So, unlike in the 1850s, when the South was calling for fundamental changes to the political process in recognition that it was now a permanent minority, both sides are basically content to play the game according to the rules.

Again, it is now an ugly game, on a day-to-day basis. But if we think about politics over the course of the past two generations, it definitely has had its advantages. Both sides have been able to enjoy a taste of power, and the public has had regular opportunities to dial back policy excesses.

Most Popular

Film & TV

A Sad Finale

Spoilers Ahead. Look, I share David’s love of Game of Thrones. But I thought the finale was largely a bust, for failings David mostly acknowledges in passing (but does not allow to dampen his ardor). The problems with the finale were largely the problems of this entire season. Characters that had been ... Read More
Politics & Policy

The Great Misdirection

The House Democrats are frustrated, very frustrated. They’ve gotten themselves entangled in procedural disputes with the Trump administration that no one particularly cares about and that might be litigated for a very long time. A Washington Post report over the weekend spelled out how stymied Democrats ... Read More
World

Australia’s Voters Reject Leftist Ideas

Hell hath no fury greater than left-wingers who lose an election in a surprise upset. Think Brexit in 2016. Think Trump’s victory the same year. Now add Australia. Conservative prime minister Scott Morrison shocked pollsters and pundits alike with his victory on Saturday, and the reaction has been brutal ... Read More
NR Webathon

We’ve Had Bill Barr’s Back

One of the more dismaying features of the national political debate lately is how casually and cynically Attorney General Bill Barr has been smeared. He is routinely compared to Roy Cohn on a cable-TV program that prides itself on assembling the most thoughtful and plugged-in political analysts and ... Read More
Film & TV

Game of Thrones: A Father’s Legacy Endures

Warning! If you don't want to read any spoilers from last night's series finale of Game of Thrones, stop reading. Right now. There is a lot to unpack about the Thrones finale, and I fully understand many of the criticisms I read on Twitter and elsewhere. Yes, the show was compressed. Yes, there were moments ... Read More