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.