Author: Franklin, Daniel P
Date published: July 1, 2011
As one of my favorite professors used to say, "the Framers set out to design a government that didn't work very well . . . and they were enormously successful."' The separation of powers design built into the U.S. Constitution guarantees a level of inefficiency in government that is breathtaking at times, especially in an era of divided government.2
Political scientists have expended much effort to study the causes and effects of divided government. Since the United States will experience divided government at least through 2012, and quite likely beyond that, it is important to consider the consequences occasioned by this artifact of America's constitutional design.
First of all, why divided government? Political scientists are divided on this question. Some argue that divided government is a function of a conscious voter choice.3 Others contend that the American system of government is hard- wired to produce divided government.4 While both explanations have some validity, this writer favors the latter. Because America's national elections run on a two-year cycle that reflect the preferences of dramatically different electorates (voter turnout in midterm elections is approximately sixty percent of that in general elections), the American electoral system is bound to produce frequent partisan shifts. For instance, in 2008 voter turnout was roughly 130 million; two years later it dropped to about 90 million.5 And these were not the same voters. The general rule of thumb is the lower the turnout, the more class biased the results.6 Accordingly, midterm elections should always produce (all things being equal) more conservative outcomes.7 Given these circumstances, in 2010 the Democrats, with more congressional seats to defend and saddled with an economy in the doldrums, should have expected defeat at the polls.
Divided government has been more frequent during the last few decades and will likely become the norm for the foreseeable future. While the reason for this increasing phenomenon is not entirely clear, it probably has something to do with the partisan polarization of American politics. As parties operate in such a political climate, the electorate is less likely to vote split tickets and that fact alone accentuates the impact of variations of turnout from one election to the next.8
What are the policy effects of divided government? Because divided government is likely to occur more frequently in the twenty-first century, the question of its impact on policy is far from trivial. If, for example, divided government is more likely to produce policy gridlock, then we have a serious structural problem on our hands which goes to the viability of the Constitution in the modern context. This begs the question: "Is the constitutional design of the United States up to the task of governing?"
As with most important questions of this nature, one can find persuasive arguments on both sides. In the debate that follows, Christian John and Will McLennan, two undergraduate political science majors at Georgia State University in Atlanta, Georgia, debate the question, "Is Divided Government Good for the United States?" McLennan disputes claims that 'gridlock' stifles governance by offering evidence that not only is gridlock not a problem, it may actually improve governance. For one thing, he credits divided government with limiting the size and scope of government. He also suggests that it produces better policies. By contrast, John sees few benefits in divided government. He argues that the cost of divided government is too great and probably detrimental to the welfare of the country. Besides, he maintains, even without divided government the structure of checks and balances in the Constitution are more than adequate to keep the government from going too far, too fast. Ultimately, we leave it to the reader to decide.
1 Thanks to Dr. David Prindle, Department of Government, University of Texas, Austin.
2 Divided Government is defined as split partisan control of the Congress and the presidency. It is possible, as is the case in today's context, that only one house of Congress can be controlled by the party opposite the president. There is some evidence to suggest that in the case of divided government lite, the president has a slightly greater advantage but the same general dynamics occasioned by the separation of powers still apply. See Richard S. Conley, "Presidential Republics and Divided Government: Lawmaking and Executive Politics in the United States and France," Political Science Quarterly 122, no. 2 (Summer 2007):257-85; Michael E. Bailey, "The Heroic Presidency in the Era of Divided Government," Perspectives on Political Science 31, no.l (Winter 2002):35-45; Sarah A. Binder, "The Dynamics of Legislative Gridlock, 1947-96," American Political Science Review 93, no. 3 (September 1999):5 19-33.
3 Morris Fiorina, "An Era of Divided Government," in Developments in American Politics, eds. Bruce Cain and Gillian Peele (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1992), 324-54. Garand and Lichtl provide nuanced support for the proposition that at least some voters consciously split their tickets with the intent of electing a divided government. However, the relationship is weak in a statistical sense and does not take into account the different electorates from one national election to the next. See James G. Garand and Marci Glascock Lichtl, "Explaining Divided Government in the United States: Testing an Intentional Model of Split-Ticket Voting," British Journal of Political Science 30, no. 1 (January 2000): 173-91.
4 See Robert S. Erickson, "The Puzzle of Midterm Loss," Journal of Politics 50, no. 4 (November 1988): 101 1-29; James E. Campbell, "The Presidential Surge and Its Midterm Decline in Congressional Elections, 1868-1988," Journal of Politics 53, no. 2 (May 1991):477-87.
5 Nonprofit Vote, "Voter Turnout 2010," http://www.nonprofitvote.org/voter-turnout-2010.html (accessed June 13, 201 1), 7; United States Government Bureau of Census, Table 1: Reported Rates of Voting and Registration: 1996-2008, in "Voting and Registration in the Election of 2008: Population Characteristics," http://www.census.gov/ prod/20 1 0pubs/p20-562.pdf (accessed June 13, 2011), 2.
6 Hajnal and Trounstine demonstrate that while the preponderance of evidence suggests that low voter turnout does not affect presidential elections, lower level turnout does have the expected class bias effect. Zoltan Hajnal and Jessica Trounstine, "Where Turnout Matters: The Consequences of Uneven Turnout in City Politics," Journal of Politics 67, no. 2 (May 2005):5 15-35.
7 Constantini and Dannehl reveal a fairly consistent Democratic party voter drop-off in midterm congressional elections. Edmond Constantini and Charles Dannehl, "Party Registration and Party Vote: Democratic Fall-Off in Legislative Elections," Legislative Studies Quarterly 18, no. 1 (February 1993):29-50. See also Martin P Wattenberg and Chris Leonard Brians, "Partisan Turnout Bias in Midterm Legislative Elections," Legislative Studies Quarterly 27, no. 3 (August 2002):407-21.
8 See Barry C. Burden and David C. Kimball, Why Americans Split Their Tickets: Campaigns, Competition, and Divided Government (Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 2004).
DANIEL P. FRANKLIN is an Associate Professor of Political Science at Georgia State University in Atlanta, Georgia. WILL McLENNAN received his BA in political science and sociology from Georgia State University in May 201 1. He is currently attending the University of Chicago School of Law. CHRISTIAN JOHN will receive his BA in political science from Georgia State University in May 2012.