Policy Point-Counterpoint: Is Divided Government Good for the United States?

By Franklin, Daniel P. | International Social Science Review, Fall-Winter 2011 | Go to article overview

Policy Point-Counterpoint: Is Divided Government Good for the United States?


Franklin, Daniel P., International Social Science Review


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." (1) 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)

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. …

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