Divided We Thrive

A grand victory for Republicans in the 2010 midterm election? Yes, of course. But also no. In all three of the most recent earthshaking midterm elections — 1994, 2006 and now 2010 — the same candidate won: divided government.

That is not a coincidence. In the last two decades, a strong and persistent pattern has emerged, one that will dominate our politics for some time to come, because it is rooted in two important political realities. First, the public strongly prefers divided government. Second, it has every reason to.

Divided government comes about when one party controls the White House and the other controls either or both chambers of Congress. Washington has been split between the parties for more than 21 of the past 30 years (the exceptions being 1993 and 1994, part of 2001, 2003 to 2006, and the past two years). The middle four of President George W. Bush’s eight years represented the longest stint of unified government in that span. Not at all coincidentally, they also saw his party’s support nosedive.

Consistently, when either party, never mind which, obtains total control, its popularity collapses and the voters take the first available opportunity to bring in the other side.

This is a relatively recent phenomenon. From the Great Depression until the Ronald Reagan years, the public had no problem with keeping Democrats in charge of Congress for decades, no matter which party held the White House. In those days, however, both parties were ideologically broad coalitions. Northeastern Republicans stood to the left of Southern Democrats, for example. Regardless of which party was in power, ideological diversity was assured, and like-minded politicians worked across party lines.

That changed, and changed in a big way, as the parties re-sorted themselves along ideological lines. Today, almost all Democrats are to the left of all Republicans. The result is that the system behaves very differently when one party is in control than when they share. So differently, in fact, that you can fairly say that the country has one Constitution with two distinct modes of operation.

In Mode 1 — unified government — the minority party in Washington, shut out of power, has every incentive to make the majority’s life difficult, and does so. Its partisans, with no stake in whether anything gets done in Washington, treat the government as if it were under control of an invading army. The majority, lacking support from the out-of-power party, must govern on its own, which requires holding on to every element of its coalition, which means governing from the center of its party instead of the center of the country.

In other words, Democrats, when in total control, have little choice but to govern from the left. Republicans, who are even more conservative than Democrats are liberal, govern from the right. Policy is driven toward the edges, instead of the middle.

At that point, a third force comes into play: independents and moderates, who make up nearly a third of the country. As policy veers off center and partisan bomb-throwing escalates, they grow angry and disillusioned with what they perceive as an establishment that ignores their views and puts partisanship ahead of patriotism.

These independents express their anger by rallying against incumbents. Their votes, combined with the out-party’s votes against the in-party, tilt the balance to divided government. We saw that on Tuesday, as we did in 2006 and 1994.

In Mode 2 — divided government — the dynamic is reversed. Both parties, responsible for governing, have a stake in success. Forced to negotiate and compromise, they drag policy toward the center, allowing moderates to feel represented instead of ignored. Most important, the country itself becomes more governable and meaningful laws stand a likelier chance of passage, because neither side can easily blame the other for whatever is wrong and because any major legislation needs support from both parties to pass.

Mode 2 is not, by a long shot, smooth and harmonious. It is contentious and stressful. But divided government, in today’s world of ideologically polarized parties, is the only way of attaining sustainable bipartisanship. And that is likely to remain the case for the foreseeable future.

By promising to transcend partisanship in an all-Democratic government, President Obama, in 2008, promised something he had no prayer of delivering. Paradoxically, the three words that will do the most to help him deliver on his broken promise of bipartisanship — and, indeed, that offer him the best hope of governing from the center, broadening his support and stabilizing his presidency — are these: Speaker John Boehner.