WORK DISCUSSED IN THIS ESSAY
- Alberto Alesina and Geoffrey Carliner, eds.Politics and
Economics in the Eighties
(Univ. of Chicago Press, 1992).
- Joshua Cohen and Joel Rogers,"Democracy and
Associations",Social Philosophy and Policy,
- Gary Cox and Samuel Kernell, eds., The Politics of Divided
Government,(Westview Press, 1991).
- Alan Ehrenhalt,The United States of Ambition: Politicians,
Power, and the Pursuit of Office,
(Times Books, 1991)
- Morris Fiorina, Divided Government, (MacMillan
- Benjamin Ginsberg and Martin Shefter, Politics by Other
Means: The Declining Importance
of Elections in America (Basic Books, 1992).
- William Grieder, Who Will Tell the People: The Betrayal of
(Simon and Schuster, 1992).
- Gary Jacobson, The Electoral Origins of Divided
Government: Competition in U.S. House
Elections 1946-1990 (Westview Press, 1990).
- David R. Mayhew,Divided We Govern: Party Control,
Lawmaking and Investigations 1946-1990,
(Yale Univ. Press, 1991).
- James A. Morone, The Democratic Wish: Popular
Participation and the Limits of
American Government (Basic Books, 1990).
- David W. Rohde, Parties and Leaders in the Postreform
(Univ. of Michigan Press, 1991).
1981 American voters have kept the national government
divided between the two parties. We have had a Republican White
House and a Democratic Congress, except in 1981-87, when Repub
licans narrowly controlled the Senate. This pattern, of course,
could change if the Democrats retake the White House in 1992.
Polls suggest that voters increasingly approve of divided
government. In 1981, 47 percent of the electorate preferred
government, while 34 percent preferred divided government (the
taking an agnostic view). By 1989 these preferences had reversed:
Now 45 percent approved of divided government and only 35 percent
backed unified government, though very recent polls suggest some
second thoughts. Paradoxically, voters evidently dislike what
have wrought. As divided government has persisted, voter
frustration has increased. Indeed, divided government can be seen
as both a symptom of voter disaffection, and a cause.
Divided government appears to increase public cynicism about
politics in two ways. First, when divided partisan government
intensifies the separation of powers of the American
system, government becomes stymied. Citizens, like the Founders,
may think they are dividing government to keep the rascals from
doing damage. Yet the resultant policy inaction sows deeper
cynicism about politics and government. Second, divided
creates a climate of scandal-mongering, in which each branch of
government expends political resources embarrassing the other
(Watergate, Iran-contra, the S&L scandals, Iraqgate) rather than
jointly tending to the national business. Over time, this
discredits both parties, blurs responsibility, and generates
more voter contempt for government and politics generally.
This analysis is seductive, and at least partly true. However,
several recent books suggest it is overstated. Though we think of
it as a characteristic of the 1980s, divided government has
recurred regularly since the 1940s. In only eighteen out of the
past forty-six years has the same party controlled the White
and both houses of Congress. The Nixon presidency, a period of
legislative activism, coexisted with Democratic control of the
House and the Senate. Divided government was also common during
What's New, and What's Not
In a deeper sense, we have lived with divided government since
Founding. Reacting to the Articles of Confederation, the Founders
believed that the Constitution favored strong, if restrained,
government. But much of American political thought since then
Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson to Richard Neustadt and
Walter Dean Burnham can be read as a recurring judgment that the
Founders constrained government far more than they empowered it.
takes strong politics and a mobilized electorate to overcome the
constitutional bias against government activism.
In the sweep of American history, bouts of effective governmental
activism have been rare: the Civil War and Reconstruction
Congresses, Woodrow Wilson's cooperation with party leaders in
Congress, Franklin D. Roosevelt's two strong working majorities
1933-34 and 1937-38, LBJ's partnership with the 89th Congress in
1965-66. The ticket-splitting of the 1980s is more the rule than
the exception a case of the constitutional chickens coming home
roost. Still, the current era has generated more than a normal
amount of squawking about accumulated problems that government
seems unable to solve. The federal deficit has deprived
of resources to address national concerns, and the magnitude of
deficit itself stands as a monument to government's failure to
So the electorate has evidently locked itself into a vicious
of ticket-splitting, policy inaction, discontent,
disaffiliation and more ticket-splitting and more paralysis. Even
if Bill Clinton should win the White House in November and enjoy
working majority in Congress, the process of political repair
have only begun.
to several new studies by political scientists, however,
we should not exaggerate the perils of divided government nor, by
implication, the virtues of unified government let alone more
radical reform proposals imagining a move toward parliamentary
government. These new studies add badly needed complexity to the
conventional views that blame divided government, willy nilly,
a multitude of sins.
Where most of the new studies fall somewhat short, however, is
their failure to explore adequately the connection between
government and perceived or real paralysis and the resulting
to public confidence in government itself and to key democratic
norms. For one thing, divided government yields less accountable
government. If both parties are the in-party, then policy
are everybody's fault and nobody's. Unified government may not be
sufficient to revive strong politics, but it is probably
at least in the current climate.
Divided government can also be a political red herring. For
example, Republicans have long insisted that their failure to
consummate a domestic program is the fault of Democratic control
Congress control that is itself illegitimate, reflecting
gerrymandering and the power of incumbency. The GOP 1992 platform
states: "After more than half a century of distortion by
power-hungry Democrats, the political system is increasingly
rigged." The platform blames the chronic deficit on Democratic
control of the Congress, and adds, "The only solution is to end
It is necessary to sort out the dynamics of divided
government where it came from, how it works, what can be fairly
blamed on it, what unified government might portend and what
reforms are needed to reclaim politics, irrespective of divided
government. One can begin by differentiating the causes of
government from its consequences.
Causes of Divided Government
Political scientists generally make two kinds of argument about
causes of recent divided government. The first argument
the behavior of politicians, contending that factors such
congressional incumbency, or candidate-recruitment, tends to
advantage one party over the other. Some of this literature views
the past decade as an aborted realignment. Voters gradually
their presidential allegiance toward Republicans, but for a
of structural or tactical reasons Democrats were able to cling to
their control of Congress. The second view emphasizes the
of voters, and concludes that the voters' choice of
government was rational, deliberate, and purposive.
A Rigged System? Drawing on three extensive academic
literatures (on the electoral effects of congressional
reapportionment politics, and realignment), Newt Gingrich and
key Republicans view divided government as the product of
Democratic success at riding out, through devious means, the
electoral "right turn" that began in 1980. The case has
plausibility, since professional politicians do rationally
their careers and incumbents have indeed gotten re-elected more
reliably than in the 1940s and 1950s.
Already advantaged by comfortable vote margins for all
congressional incumbents, House Democrats supposedly used their
committee positions to build up large war chests. Congressional
Democrats also blanketed their districts with newsletters,
up the name recognition that helps re-election. Another part of
same "rigged system" were state legislatures most of which are
controlled by Democrats. These legislatures supposedly
gerrymandered congressional districts to insulate House Democrats
from an increasingly suburban electorate that gave Ronald Reagan
landslide in 1984 and George Bush a strong victory in 1988.
But though incumbents do exploit office, the "rigged system"
largely fails to explain divided government. Its fallacies are
explored by Gary Jacobson and Morris Fiorina. If the system were
rigged, why have Democrats done better in open House races? Why
they lose the Senate in 1980 and win it back in 1986?
While gerrymandering does occur, it doesn't explain lingering
Democratic control of the House. Since 1952 Republican
candidates have received a significantly higher fraction of the
vote than have Republican House candidates. Reagan got 57 percent
of the national vote in 1984, but House Republicans got only 47
percent. For the most part, Republicans fail to capture the
legislative branch because they attract fewer voters.
Incumbents appear strong, but their longevity can be exaggerated.
Only 10 percent of those in the House in 1990 were there in 1968,
even though incumbent vote margins have grown since then. As for
campaign finance and incumbency, a big war chest can certainly
scare away a strong challenger, leaving a seat effectively
uncontested. But during the 1980s Republican challengers were
better endowed than Democratic challengers.
Do Democrats Have Better Candidates? A much more
argument holds that Democrats cling to legislative office, at all
levels of government, because they field more attractive
candidates. As both Alan Ehrenhalt and Gary Jacobson suggest, the
Republicans have had a serious problem in candidate recruitment
of the reasons why they have put effort into converting
conservative Southern Democrat office holders to the GOP.
Democrats obviously have a more visceral commitment to politics
government than government-bashing Republicans. With the
of able patricians like William Weld and James Baker, or such
serious, supply-side intellectuals as Phil Gramm and Jack Kemp,
talented conservatives tend to act on their creed and stay in the
private sector. But talented Democrats, because they actually
government, will put up with the stress, long hours, constituent
abuse, and the relatively low pay of local and state office,
in turn serves as a recruitment pool for congressional
So Democrats often do have better candidates a reality that grows
out of their ideology.
Are the Voters Fools? A very different brand of
for divided government centers not on politicians but on voters.
this view, the voters are getting roughly what they want.
Republican challengers were unlucky enough to pursue clear
realignment just when partisan loyalties, steadily weaker since
1950s, were becoming too thin to support such ambitions. Most
electorally active people have some kind of partisan loyalty, but
increasing numbers no longer buy the party's entire program. Thus
Republicans are split on cultural, social, and economic fault
lines and many Republican presidential voters hedge their bets by
backing Democrats for Congress.
Voter ambivalence may be all too genuine. The electorate
for instance, that deficits ought to be reduced but also agrees,
when asked by pollsters, that budgets for particular worthy
purposes, such as the environment and education, ought to go
Fiorina, Jacobson, and others suggest that increasingly the
active in both presidential and congressional elections, who
to be better informed voters in general, are adopting some basic
rules of thumb. There are quibbles among these analysts about the
degree of sophistication, but all agree, first, that voters see
parties as offering different policy benefits, and, second, that
voters associate their own preferences with a Republican
and a Democratic Congress.
Congress cannot face up to expansionist dictators and "evil
empires" nor can it broadly steer the economy, but the president
can hardly be an ombudsman for a constituent with a Social
problem. When weakened party loyalties and increasing distrust of
government are factored in, the result is enough ticket-splitting
to get divided government.
Fiorina is convincing when he notes the historic, system-wide
pervasiveness of divided government. Since 1946 divided
has also spread rapidly to state politics, often pitting
executives against Democratic legislatures. For Fiorina, this
suggests that more and more voters intend divided government and
have become sophisticated ticket-splitters. Unified government
well become the exception, not the rule.
While Jacobson and Fiorina offer quite believable arguments in
Fiorina's case, enhanced by simple but ingenious modelling the
direct evidence for sophisticated voting is still only inferred
from survey evidence. The great virtue of the thesis, however, is
that it treats voters as purposive: Voters are far more wary of
government and politicians than they used to be, and a near
plurality seems to like divided government even now, despite its
chaotic results. Fiorina rightly calls for more research into
ticket-splitting so that we can know just how much sophisticated
voting is going on, and, in the meantime, urges skepticism about
the view that divided government is an evil.
In short, political science research does not find much support
the contention that divided government is the result of
illegitimate tactics by careerist Democrats. The Democrats
effective career politicians, of course that's one of their
strengths as a party. But true electoral realignments sweep aside
yesteryear's "in party." We didn't have nor could we have had
a realignment in the dealigned 1980s. The real story is that
Democrats went into the 1980s with advantages in legislative
electoral arenas that the Republicans lacked, mirrored by
disadvantages on "presidential" issues and presidential
that Republicans exploited.
If this approach explains the rational causes of divided
government, what about the consequences? The ticket-splitters in
the electorate, after all, do not make up a majority. What if
unintentionally (and, for some, deliberately) stuck the rest of
with governmental deadlock and political decomposition? Does the
cool, rational logic assumed in the new analyses of divided
government's electoral origins also explain its consequences?
Consequences of Divided Government
Divided government seems to hobble governmental effectiveness in
variety of ways. However, these concerns are tempered when one
takes a longer historical view, as do political scientists David
Mayhew, David Rohde, and others. In the literature, three broad
problems are attributed to divided government: policy inaction or
incoherence, an obsession with political scandal, and an erosion
the political efficacy of the parties.
Policy Inaction, Flawed Legislation. The culpability of
divided government is strongest on government's deferral of
pressing problems, notably in economic and fiscal policy.
and Shefter provocatively connect the national-level divided
government of the 1980s to economic decline, fiscal
irresponsibility, policy inaction, a failure to plan for economic
competitiveness, and a subordination of national economic goals
a national security alliance with Japan. Each party is more
to retaining institutional strongholds than to fashioning as
coherent national strategy.
Just how convincing are such charges? To test the hypothesis,
Mayhew did much tedious work, compiling a list of "important"
legislation for the 1946-1990 period (during which the national
government was often divided), 267 statutes in all. Mayhew's list
was derived from the conclusions of leading reporters, policy
analysts, and historians. He found that the rate of important
policy making did not vary systematically across periods of
or divided government.
Mayhew notes that most important legislation in the postwar
186 laws, passed with either two-thirds support or bipartisan
majorities. He observes that Congress, contrary to its
is more of a problem-solving institution than we often think
because most of its members are committed to the ideal of making
good public policy, as well as to the goals of getting re-elected
and achieving influence within Congress. Also, legislation
come easily. To sustain a bill through all the veto points in the
process requires legislative leaders to fashion majorities much
larger than 51 percent.
Presidential skill, furthermore, doesn't neatly coincide with
unified government; it can be found during divided government, as
Reagan, Nixon, and Eisenhower showed. External events that demand
problem-solving do not coincide systematically with unified or
divided government. Finally, in a serious discussion of a
phenomenon often dismissed by political scientists as being too
soft for analysis, Mayhew shows that public moods demanding
government span periods of both divided and unified government.
There are constant policy making pressures in Washington, surges
activism, often that last many years. Over the long run, both
factors favor a rather high level of activism and policy making,
divided government or not.
Is this view of the matter dispositive? Not wholly. Consider
legislation in the 1980s. For many, the failure of government to
match revenues with expenditures is the signal failure of divided
government Democrats successfully defending outlays and
successfully cutting taxes. However, while divided government in
the 1980s made this straddle possible, no such fiscal default
occurred during the sixteen years of cumulative divided
under Truman, Eisenhower, Nixon, or Ford. The new element that
associated divided government with fiscal excess in the 1980s was
the fierce Republican embrace of what George Bush once aptly
"voodoo economics." None of Reagan's Republican predecessors
believed that you could cut taxes and increase revenues.
On the spending side, Mathew McCubbins' article in the Cox and
Kernell volume (written in the spirit of the volume's persistent
focus on parties) focuses on party conflict in a "bi-lateral veto
game" and its resolution. He conceptually strips spending
down to a stylized conflict over two types of programs, domestic
spending and defense spending. Democrats preferred increases in
and reductions in the other, and vice versa for Republicans. The
outcome is basic game theory: since neither side could get its
first preference (more for its side, less for the other side),
both agreed on the second preference (more for both sides). The
result, of course, was persistent, upward pressure on the
Historically, Mayhew finds no such clear relationships between
divided government and fiscal imbalance. But McCubbins' emphasis
defensive partisan behavior in a fragmented system nicely
the dynamic of fiscal blockage, at least in the supply-side
On the tax side, a key piece of legislation, the Economic
Tax Act (ERTA) of 1981, played a very important role. Startled by
the results of the 1980 elections, Democrats sought to shore up
business support for the next election. Both parties competed to
take credit for a supply-side bill that would spark economic
recovery, setting off an infamous "bidding war" that would have
been improbable in a unified government. In a concise article in
the volume edited by Alberto Alesina and Geoffrey Carliner,
Stewart analyzes ERTA and other tax legislation in the 1980s. He
estimates that about 90 percent of lost revenue over the 1980s
to tax cuts is attributable to ERTA. Given Reagan's resoluteness
blocking major tax increases, divided government made it
to recover lost revenue. Modest income and corporate tax
as well as a large increase in Social Security taxes occurred,
tax legislation after 1981 tended toward "revenue neutrality."
government from 1981 to 1992 invited, in other words,
complicated patterns of "gaming" between the two parties on
spending and taxing that, in turn, created a chronic deficit
problem. Its real economic consequences are still being
debated periodic fiscal imbalance has been common in U.S. history
since the Civil War, as Charles Stewart astutely points out in
Cox and Kernell volume. But in the current era of
government-bashing and festering economic and social problems,
fiscal imbalance has symbolized government failure.
Increased public cynicism has probably been reinforced by the
savings-and-loan scandal, a colossal case of bipartisan failure.
a lucid, sobering treatment of the "thrift debacle" in the
and Carliner volume, Barry Weingast and Thomas Romer show
convincingly the bipartisan, political origins of the crisis,
emphasizing incentives and informational biases. The public was
ill-equipped to assess the issue and was not cohesively organized
as the thrift industry was. Since every member of Congress had
thrifts in his or her district or state, Congress tended to
the available arguments. These favored, first, deregulation and,
later, forbearance letting the industry take time to work its way
out of its difficulties.
Explicit treatment of divided government plays little role in the
Weingast-Romer analysis. But their own account hints that
and the administration jointly delayed remedial action because
feared raising taxes or worsening the budget deficit itself
the product of divided government. In addition, the S&L scandal,
like the deficit itself, suggests how divided government permits
blame-sharing as well as credit-sharing. Both public deliberation
and accountability suffered as a result of a blame-avoidance
On balance, the contribution of divided government to policy
inaction and flawed legislation from 1946 to 1990 across many
policy domains is hard to prove, just as Mayhew says. But from
on its contribution to economic mismanagement gets stronger, a
point broadly consistent with more pessimistic analyses, such as
Ginsberg and Shefter's Politics By Other Means.
government has also been blamed for foreign policy
incoherence. During the Iran-contra hearings, former National
Security Adviser Robert McFarlane cited the Boland Amendment
(prohibiting aid to the contras) as destructive foreign policy
meddling. First Congress drew the line here, then it drew the
there. Circumventing Congress came easily for who knew what
Congress wanted? but the process of circumvention damaged policy.
Yet the problem with the general argument of foreign policy
incoherence, as Mayhew points out, is that the country is never
unified for long on foreign policy, even under unified
Divided government may well add healthy checks and balances as
the contras and the Sandinista party know.
In fact, divided government has often been associated with
initiatives now recognized as statesmanlike, the most famous case
being the Marshall Plan, launched during the "do-nothing" (read
Republican-controlled) 80th Congress. There is simply no way,
any imaginable set of criteria, to judge foreign policies
since 1946 under unified control as being consistently superior
those fashioned under divided control.
Scandal-mongering. Ginsberg and Shefter argue that divided
government in the 1980s encouraged "politics by other means." If
Democrats couldn't win the presidency, they investigated and
harassed the president's subordinates, while Republicans anxious
control the House used the ethics machinery to discredit the
leadership. If interest groups couldn't rally voters, they could
buy elected officials. In time, the public reasonably drew
unflattering inferences about people inside the Beltway: a plague
on both their houses.
For some observers of American politics, a continuing round of
ethics scandals feeds the kind of paranoia about government that
Oliver Stone exploited with "JFK," a plausible point about the
political origins of public cynicism. Equally serious, a certain
administrative incoherence and timidity can set in.
wary of scandal, became excessively cautious. Appointments go
unfilled, and talented people take a pass on a job offer because
some youthful indiscretion that could invite smears long
There are, then, three related claims about scandal-mongering.
Divided government increases the rate of political scandal; that
turn increases public cynicism and hobbles government's ability
implement policy. But the rate of scandal-making does not vary
systematically across periods of unified and divided government.
Mayhew counted for the period 1946-1990 the number of days that
congressional committee investigations of the presidency, or
executive response, were featured on the front page of The New
York Times. There is no systematic relationship between
of unified or divided government none at all.
Capitol Hill launches investigations for at least two other
reasons, factional and constitutional. Indeed, as Mayhew points
out, a period of unified government can be associated with
investigations that set the stage for tensions in a particular
administrative or policy domain that will last for decades. If
the case for a relationship between divided government and public
cynicism and administrative incoherence is weak.
Scandals during both divided and unified government often reflect
constitutionally mandated tensions. The Watergate and Iran-contra
affairs, both associated with divided government, of course had
political dimensions. But they also dealt with quite serious
constitutional issues. Moreover, to dismiss recent crises of
government as mere "scandals" is to trivialize the stakes. In
Watergate and Iran-contra, or in lesser imbroglios, crimes and
misdemeanors against democratic government all demanded scrutiny
and response. The rate of congressional investigation in the
post-World War II period (and probably the pre-World War II
is at best only weakly correlated with partisan divided
Party factions will go after one another as easily as different
parties. And concerned congressional leaders will walk away from
party loyalty toward the Constitution.
Death of Responsible Party Politics. An article of faith
among most political scientists is the unimportance of parties
within the Congress. As subcommittees and staff proliferated,
abetted by the collapse of deference to leadership or any
commitment to apprenticeship, such irrelevance grew. Congress is
therefore unruly, hence the recurrent magazine covers picturing
Congress as a baby in diapers. Mayhew summed it up best, in an
earlier, well-known book, Congress: The Electoral
Connection: "No theoretical treatment of the United States
Congress that posits parties as analytic units will go very far
we are left with ... 535 men and women rather than two
All of this is supposedly compounded by divided government.
President Bush has set a modern record of thirty-one vetoes in
fewer than four years. This has only sharpened the sense that
running Congress is not an advantage for the Democrats as a
and that minority status in the House has transformed Republicans
into a kind of Weather Underground in suits. Committee barons
freelance, Speaker Foley lacks fire in the belly, and everyone
hustles money, subverting the party's historic social
Meanwhile Newt Gingrich plots the fall of the Republic, or at
of the Congress.
There are two claims here: divided government thwarts partisan
cohesion, organizationally and programmatically, and it
illegitimate free-lancing, legislatively and in congressional
campaign finance or in a poisonous blend of the two. But this
picture is also overstated, or just plain wrong. Rohde's finely
counterintuitive analysis shows that party government is alive
well in the House of Representatives since the reforms of the
1960s and early 1970s. His work is part of a renewed interest in
congressional parties that can also be found in the Cox and
and Alesina and Carliner volumes.
Rohde demonstrates a marked increase in party government in the
House and Senate. To be sure, notwithstanding structural changes
legislative party cohesion, a Speaker's style can matter
enormously. (Speaker Wright was a strong partisan and Foley a
relatively weak one.) But, on the whole, far from weakening the
Democrats and Republicans as coherent legislative parties,
government has been associated with a strengthening. Rohde
convincingly constructs a party cohesion index that is, the
proportion of votes on which a House or Senate Democrat supports
the party position. The low for the House was reached in 1970, 27
percent, but by 1987 it had shot up to 64 percent; in the Senate
ranged from 35 percent to 52 percent in the same period. From the
92nd to the 94th Congresses, about 8 percent of the House was
involved in the Democratic whip organization, but the percentage
increased steadily to 40 percent by the 101st Congress.
this period the Speakership was strengthened, becoming the
apex of a system composed of regular whip planning meetings,
policy-planning task forces, a Steering and Policy Committee, the
Democratic Caucus, and the Democratic Study Group. The Rules
Committee changed from being an obstructionist body to an
that facilitated the Democratic Party agenda through increasingly
sophisticated and for Republicans oppressive use of rules.
aiding these changes was a sharp decrease in sectional tensions
within the congressional Democratic Party, the result of the
Rights Act's impact on Southern politics.
Speaker Wright used this new system during his brief tenure to
enact a party agenda, echoing earlier, now forgotten efforts and
successes by Carl Albert and Tip O'Neill, both of whom forced
strong, anti-recession measures on reluctant Republican
in 1975 and 1983. Both the Clean Water Act and the Highway
Reauthorization were enacted over Reagan's vetoes. Also passed
important savings and loan, welfare, farm credit, catastrophic
health insurance, trade, and homeless bills. Indeed, Rohde's
evidence suggests that policy-planning and programmatic cohesion
grew during the 1980s within the congressional Democratic Party.
Forthcoming work by James Shoch of Dartmouth College, on trade
policy, and Chris Howard of MIT, on social policy, will
this implication of Rohde's research.
Nor is it clear that divided government promotes corrupt campaign
finance. What does seem clear is that divided government in the
1970s helped stimulate the monitoring systems which generate the
data that public watchdog groups use to call public attention to
finance issues. On balance, public awareness of money's role in
politics seems to have been helped by divided government. This
isn't to dismiss the issue, which is too often ignored and
misunderstood. Greider's controlled outrage in Who Will Tell
People wakes one up to it. Yet it is not analytically clear
whether, or how much, divided government reinforces the power of
organized money and social class in politics.
The overall case that divided government destroys parties is at
best mixed. As Rohde suggests, party cohesion and ideological
coherence, as well as coordinated policy planning, may actually
grow under divided government. At the same time, party cohesion
does not assure party accountability; and parties that do not
accountable are parties that engender voter distrust.
Moreover, a party that shares governance may have difficulty
functioning as a clear opposition. Divided government can
collusion between the parties to avoid blame for policy inaction
failure, which in turn intensifies public cynicism against the
In sum, divided government cannot have been the sole foundation
the recent crisis of governance. Its critics are putting too much
explanatory weight on a pattern of electoral outcomes that has
recurred since World War II, and that was common from the end of
Reconstruction to the rise of McKinley. In the form it took from
1981 to 1992, divided government did, however, make it easier for
government to become associated with major symbols of political
failure, such as the chronic deficit and the S&L debacle. But
restoration of public confidence will require more than control
both branches by the same party.
Given America's constitutional institutions, political culture,
recent history, how shall we go about renewing politics? As James
Morone's exceptionally interesting book shows in rich, historical
detail, American political culture is deeply anti-political.
American history is punctuated by political surges full of
democratic yearning that well up from below. In many of them,
people seek to abolish the messiness of politics in the name of
"the people" and install a government founded in transcendental
values of American community. The popular base of the Perot
movement was a typical example.
Such democratic surges often ossify into the creation of new
interest groups, and new allied federal agencies, such as the
National Labor Relations Board in the 1930s, or the new
environmental agencies of the 1970s. Yet the proliferation of
constituencies and agencies only adds to the system's
ungovernability. Thus, the stage is regularly set for broad
disillusionment with politics, reinforcing the anti-governmental
thrust of American political culture.
In ground-breaking work, the late Jack Walker constructed the
first, reliable "census" across time of interest groups. He found
that the older view of "stable unrepresentation" in the group
system (to use a term coined by William Gamson of Boston College)
no longer captures interest group politics. Gaps in group repre-
sentation have closed steadily since the 1930s due to constant
intervention into the associational system by government and
private "patrons," such as foundations, philanthropies, and the
media. For example, when the Kennedy administration established
state-level commissions on the Status of Women, it laid the basis
for the formation of the National Organization of Women, just as
liberal foundations helped to finance the voter registration
of the early 1960s.
Indeed, since the 1960s, the political system has been
characterized by burgeoning interest groups and declining
participation. Voter turnout and partisan affiliation have both
decreased. As Ginsberg and Shefter observe, electoral politicians
no longer have to engage in mobilizing the electorate. Today's
politicians are all too comfortable with the "low voter turnout"
environment in which they compete. It is a predictable milieu,
changing it is against their career interests. Thus, as the
interest group system has become more pervasive and inclusive,
broader citizenry, paradoxically, has become more frustrated.
Perhaps, contrary to William Greider's title, The People don't
to be told they have already grasped the intractability of
representative government and have channeled their political
impulses into avenues outside those mediated by party and
Paradoxically, the number of political activists has increased
when millions have become electorally inactive. Reintegrating
activism with representative government and effective parties
be very tricky, for interest groups often seem to operate at the
expense of parties, treating them as flags of convenience. (See
Karen Paget, "Citizen Organizing: Many Movements, No Majority,"
TAP No. 2, Summer 1990, and John Judis, "The Pressure
Elite," TAP No. 9, Spring 1992.)
Moreover, as William Greider suggests, because of the
and particularism of interest group politics, the gain to
is no match for the power of money. Also, the crisis of the labor
movement the most embracing and aggregating group of ordinary
voters has reopened gaps in representation. Hence the paradox of
the contemporary system of representation: More Americans are
highly active in politics, via interest groups. Yet in an age of
partisan disaffiliation and group fragmentation, Americans are
disconnected than ever before. What gets lost, finally, is
appreciation of democratic politics and government as aggregative
and collectively valuable activities.
unfortunately, is the larger context for political renewal.
For some analysts, such as those who formed the Committee on
Constitutional Structure, the fate of the Carter Administration
the legislative and fiscal stalemate of the Reagan-Bush era
institutional and procedural reforms to create genuine unified
government. In this view strong parties, a strong presidency,
unified government, and responsible government all go together.
Hence key figures associated with the committees, such as Lloyd
Cutler and the Brookings scholar James Sundquist, call for
constitutional reforms that would make our system more like
parliamentary government. These include such ideas as "team
tickets" (that is, voting for presidential, House, and Senate
slates together), and changing congressional terms to give
presidents time to see a program through. But these reforms,
appealing, are improbable, and they beg the question of how to
redeem democratic citizenship under our present constitution.
One obvious inference is the need for stronger parties, to enlist
citizens in the business of politics and to bridge the
constitutional separation. Without strong parties, even "unified"
government can itself become a kind of divided government, as the
Democratic Party has often been throughout its history. Without a
strengthened Democratic Party, a Clinton administration could go
the way of the Carter administration, succumbing to the still
potent factionalism in the three party groupings the Democratic
Leadership Council, Jesse Jackson and his various constituencies,
and the AFL-CIO/Kennedy alignment. A Clinton administration, like
Reagan and unlike Carter would have to take advantage of the
party-building opportunities of White House incumbency.
Deepening voter alienation also reflects the widespread
that the political deck is stacked that only insiders have
influence, that money talks louder than votes, and that both
parties are corrupted. Greider's muckraking uncovers damning
details about how money talks and constricts national debate
what's feasible. Here again, ordinary people are denied political
influence for reasons deeper than the fact of divided partisan
government. Fundamental campaign finance reform is only the
beginning of a cure.
efficacy, citizen participation, strong parties, and
government competence are mutually reinforcing. In the heyday of
the New Deal coalition, notwithstanding its exclusions, each
operated in tandem with the other to make for a strong polity,
invited further inclusion. Since the late 1960s, that cycle of
reinforcement has ended. Divided government has compounded this
But unified government under the Democrats, at least would have
work mightily to repair the damage. Political renewal can perhaps
be built on the upsurge of citizen activism, but it will have to
take care that such activism does not come at the expense of
parties, or of voter confidence in the polity as a whole. Certain
measures, like the "motor voter bill" recently vetoed by
Bush, or fundamental campaign finance reforms, point in the right
direction. But they only whet one's appetite for a whole new
of strategies to reclaim politics.
When all is said and done, it is hard to imagine political
occurring in the absence of a strong president who has a working
majority in Congress and a healthy partisanship. In that sense,
those who associate democratic decay with divided government are
partly right after all.
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