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Divided government exists when one political party controls the executive and the opposition party controls one or both houses of the legislature, which can occur at both the state and national levels. The existence of divided party control of government institutions is a phenomenon that captured the attention of academics, the media, and average citizens in the 1990s. Although it is not a new occurrence in American politics, divided party control of the legislative and executive branches was increasingly blamed for the stalemate and gridlock that seemed to handicap the federal government, especially in the 1990s.
Since the end of World War II (1939–1945), the existence of divided government has been an almost persistent feature of the American political system. From 1952 to 1992, seven elections produced unified government, and thirteen elections produced divided government. The gridlock associated with divided government is not only representative of periods in which divided partisan control exists but can also manifest itself during periods of unified government as well. Nonetheless, academics have spent considerable time and energy in determining the effects, if any, that divided government has on relations between the executive and legislative branches and the nation as a whole.
The return of unified government with the election of Bill Clinton as president initially witnessed legislative acceptance for presidential proposals; however, with time, the Democratic Party–controlled Congress became a vocal opponent of the president, thereby casting doubt on whether unified government was much different than divided government. Divided government derives from the manner in which the legislative and executive branches function and are constituted. Different constituencies and terms of office and the separation of the branches, which are evaluated at separate times, produce conflict and division. Introducing different partisan controls of the presidency and Congress further exacerbates the situation.
This, however, should not preclude the possibility that presidents and Congress can reach agreement during both periods of divided and unified government. Divided government happens to be just one of a host of factors that may create gridlock in the legislative process. For instance, policy-making gridlock can be blamed on the overall design of Congress and the actual trajectory legislation takes. Congress is a complex institution that is disjointed in its functions and influenced by several entities, including committees, individual members of Congress, and interest groups. All of these may disguise or even exaggerate the effects of divided government.
Some argue that divided government is an undesirable outgrowth of the separation of powers inherent to the American political system. Several scholars openly challenge the deleterious effects of divided government. David Mayhew in Divided We Govern argues that whether the government has been unified or divided has not made much difference. Several scholars even suggest that the manifestation of divided government provides notable benefits. Divided government adds an element to the legislative equation that, in many cases, fosters greater debate and further exemplifies the deliberative nature that the founding fathers envisioned for legislating. The disagreement that is inherent in divided government produces debate and, as a result, is a healthy component of democratic governance.
- Fiorina, Morris P. “An Era of Divided Government.” Political Science Quarterly 107, no. 3 (1992): 387–410.
- Galderisi, Peter F. “Introduction: Divided Government Past and Present.” In Divided Government: Change, Uncertainty, and the Constitutional Order, edited by Peter F. Galderisi, Roberta Q. Herzberg, and Peter McNamara. New York: Rowman and Littlefield, 1996.
- Mayhew, David. Divided We Govern. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1980.
The end of the George W. Bush Administration will mark the end of a 40-year period during which, for thirty of those years, the White House and at least one House of Congress were controlled by different parties.
The recurring pattern of split government has seemed to embody a conviction among many American voters that divided government - with Democrats and Republicans each in charge of one of the elected branches - was more likely to produce the compromise and consensus-driven government of checks and balances that our founders intended.
This year, however, the reality is very different. The only way to reinvigorate the checks and balances principle in American government is to make sure Democrats control both elected branches.
The logic of this is straightforward. The framers designed a government of checks and balances not to deadlock government action, but to insure that, when the national government did act, it would have to take broad account of everyone's interests and the divergent perspectives of different geographic regions and different economic segments of society.
The way to achieve that goal was through a government of separated powers in which three political institutions, the House, the Senate, and the Presidency - each organized to reflect different constituencies - would have to haggle, bargain, and deliberate their way to public policy conclusions that would serve what James Madison called "the permanent and aggregate interests of the community."
Two assumptions, however, lay at the foundation of this vision. The first is that each of the political branches would itself be a genuinely deliberative forum in which contesting interests and points of view would be hammered into a consensus-driven institutional position. The second is that the two elected branches would actually want government to work, so that, whatever differences existed in the institutional positions of President and Congress, they would come together to work out a consensus that would be broadly acceptable to the people.
What has happened since 1981, however, has been a breakdown in these assumptions. The Republican Party has been increasingly dominated by its hard-right wing, playing to an ideologically narrow base, which has too often been uninterested in either achieving political consensus across a wide spectrum of views or assuring the effectiveness of American government as a whole.
Its preference instead has been to stifle dissenting views whenever in charge of either the executive branch or Congress, and to veto even widely supported government initiatives if those projects were ideologically disagreeable to the extreme fringes of the Republican Party.
The Democratic Party does not have the luxury of behaving this way. This is not because Democrats are more virtuous as human beings, but because of the dynamics of Democratic Party politics.
More than the Republicans, the Democrats can prevail only by holding together a base that embodies substantial divergences of economic, social, and cultural interests. As a result, norms of deliberation and consensus-building are inescapable elements of Democratic political strategy. Democrats have to honor the system of checks and balances among our governing institutions because it is only by respecting checks and balances among the competing elements of the Democratic coalition that Democrats can they achieve their immediate political goals.
With the Democrats thus poised as a party of internal compromise and dynamic negotiation, and the Republicans trapped as the captives of an ideological base, Americans have only one realistic choice if they want to reinvigorate our system of checks and balances and make deliberation and consensus-building again the hallmarks of American government. In the near term, at least, they have to allow Democrats to control both elected branches.
One can only hope such a step will shake the Republicans out of their ideological grip and put them back on the path of political pluralism. Until that happens, however, we face the paradoxical circumstance that having the Democratic Party in charge of both elected branches will provide more balanced and effective governance than the split governments we have so recently endured.
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