Political Parties: What is divided government?

Photo of House Speaker, Paul Ryan, at the 2017 congressional charity baseball game taking a moment to honor one of the capitol police officers who saved lives.

In a rare instance of united rather than divided government, members of both major political parties put aside partisan differences to show support for those injured at the Republican party practice session earlier in the week. “Republicans and Democrats came together. Not just for a baseball game. We came together to express our gratitude to law enforcement, show our support for those who were injured, and also to unite as a nation in the face of such tragedy,” wrote Speaker Paul Ryan about the 2017 Congressional Baseball Game on June 16, 2017. He is seen in this photo thanking Special Agent Crystal Griner of the Capitol Police. (Credit: Paul Ryan at https://www.speaker.gov/video/we-are-united-2017-congressional-baseball-game)

Learning Objectives

  • Discuss the problems and benefits of divided government.
  • Define party polarization.
  • List the main explanations for partisan polarization.
  • Explain the implications of partisan polarization.

In 1950, the American Political Science Association’s Committee on Political Parties (APSA) published an article offering a criticism of the current party system. The parties, it argued, were too similar. Distinct, cohesive political parties were critical for any well-functioning democracy. First, distinct parties offer voters clear policy choices at election time. Second, cohesive parties could deliver on their agenda, even under conditions of lower bipartisanship. The party that lost the election was also important to democracy because it served as the “loyal opposition” that could keep a check on the excesses of the party in power. Finally, the paper suggested that voters could signal whether they preferred the vision of the current leadership or of the opposition. This signaling would keep both parties accountable to the people and lead to a more effective government, better capable of meeting the country’s needs.

But, the APSA article continued, U.S. political parties of the day were lacking in this regard. Rarely did they offer clear and distinct visions of the country’s future, and, on the rare occasions they did, they were typically unable to enact major reforms once elected. Indeed, there was so much overlap between the parties when in office that it was difficult for voters to know whom they should hold accountable for bad results. The article concluded by advocating a set of reforms that, if implemented, would lead to more distinct parties and better government. While this description of the major parties as being too similar may have been accurate in the 1950s; that is no longer the case.[1]

The Problem of Divided Government

The problem of majority versus minority politics is particularly acute under conditions of divided government. Divided government occurs when one or more houses of the legislature are controlled by the party in opposition to the executive. Unified government occurs when the same party controls the executive and the legislature entirely. Divided government can pose considerable difficulties for both the operations of the party and the government as a whole. It makes fulfilling campaign promises extremely difficult, for instance, since the cooperation (or at least the agreement) of both Congress and the president is typically needed to pass legislation. Furthermore, one party can hardly claim credit for success when the other side has been a credible partner, or when nothing can be accomplished. Party loyalty may be challenged too, because individual politicians might be forced to oppose their own party agenda if it will help their personal reelection bids.

Divided government can also be a threat to government operations, although its full impact remains unclear.[2] For example, when the divide between the parties is too great, government may shut down. A 1976 dispute between Republican president Gerald Ford and a Democrat-controlled Congress over the issue of funding for certain cabinet departments led to a ten-day shutdown of the government (although the federal government did not cease to function entirely). But beginning in the 1980s, the interpretation that Republican president Ronald Reagan’s attorney general gave to a nineteenth-century law required a complete shutdown of federal government operations until a funding issue was resolved.[3]

Clearly, the parties’ willingness to work together and compromise can be a very good thing. However, the past several decades have brought an increased prevalence of divided government. Since 1969, the U.S. electorate has sent the president a Congress of his own party in only seven of twenty-three congressional elections, and during George W. Bush’s first administration, the Republican majority was so narrow that a combination of resignations and defections gave the Democrats control before the next election could be held.

Over the short term, however, divided government can make for very contentious politics. A well-functioning government usually requires a certain level of responsiveness on the part of both the executive and the legislative branches. This responsiveness is hard enough if government is unified under one party. During the presidency of Democrat Jimmy Carter (1977–1980), despite the fact that both houses of Congress were controlled by Democratic majorities, the government was shut down on five occasions because of conflict between the executive and legislative branches.[4]

Shutdowns are even more likely when the president and at least one house of Congress are of opposite parties. During the presidency of Ronald Reagan, for example, the federal government shut down eight times; on seven of those occasions, the shutdown was caused by disagreements between Reagan and the Republican-controlled Senate on the one hand and the Democrats in the House on the other, over such issues as spending cuts, abortion rights, and civil rights.[5] More such disputes and government shutdowns took place during the administrations of George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama, when different parties controlled Congress and the presidency.

For the first few decades of the current pattern of divided government, the threat it posed to the government appears to have been muted by a high degree of bipartisanship, or cooperation through compromise. Many pieces of legislation were passed in the 1960s and 1970s with reasonably high levels of support from both parties. Most members of Congress had relatively moderate voting records, with regional differences within parties that made bipartisanship on many issues more likely.

An image of Ronald Reagan shaking hands with Tip O’Neil.

In the early 1980s, Republican president Ronald Reagan (left) and Democratic Speaker of the House Tip O’Neil (right) worked together to pass key pieces of legislation, even though they opposed each other on several issues. (Credit: Ronald Reagan Presidential Library & Museum)

For example, until the 1980s, northern and midwestern Republicans were often fairly progressive, supporting racial equality, workers’ rights, and farm subsidies. Southern Democrats were frequently quite socially and racially conservative and were strong supporters of states’ rights. Cross-party cooperation on these issues was fairly frequent. But in the past few decades, the number of moderates in both houses of Congress has declined. This has made it more difficult for party leadership to work together on a range of important issues, and for members of the minority party in Congress to find policy agreement with an opposing party president.

The Implications of Polarization

The past thirty years have brought a dramatic change in the relationship between the two parties as fewer conservative Democrats and liberal Republicans have been elected to office. As political moderates, or individuals with ideologies in the middle of the ideological spectrum, leave the political parties at all levels, the parties have grown farther apart ideologically, a result called party polarization. In other words, at least organizationally and in government, Republicans and Democrats have become increasingly dissimilar from one another. In the party-in-government, this means fewer members of Congress have mixed voting records; instead they vote far more consistently on issues and are far more likely to side with their party leadership.[6]

It also means a growing number of moderate voters aren’t participating in party politics. Either they are becoming independents, or they are participating only in the general election and are therefore not helping select party candidates in primaries.

A series of six graphs titled Polarization of the U.S. Congress

The number of moderates has dropped since 1973 as both parties have moved toward ideological extremes.

What is most interesting about this shift to increasingly polarized parties is that it does not appear to have happened as a result of the structural reforms recommended by APSA. Rather, it has happened because moderate politicians have simply found it harder and harder to win elections. There are many conflicting theories about the causes of polarization, some of which we discuss below. But whatever its origin, party polarization in the United States does not appear to have had the net positive effects that the APSA committee was hoping for. With the exception of providing voters with more distinct choices, positives of polarization are hard to find. The negative impacts are many. For one thing, rather than reducing interparty conflict, polarization appears to have only amplified it. For example, the Republican Party (or the GOP, standing for Grand Old Party) has historically been a coalition of two key and overlapping factions: pro-business rightists and social conservatives. The GOP has held the coalition of these two groups together by opposing programs designed to redistribute wealth (and advocating small government) while at the same time arguing for laws preferred by conservative Christians. But it was also willing to compromise with pro-business Democrats, often at the expense of social issues, if it meant protecting long-term business interests.

Recently, however, a new voice has emerged that has allied itself with the Republican Party. Born in part from an older third-party movement known as the Libertarian Party, the Tea Party is more hostile to government and views government intervention in all forms, and especially taxation and the regulation of business, as a threat to capitalism and democracy. Although an anti-tax faction within the Republican Party has existed for some time, some factions of the Tea Party movement are also active at the intersection of religious liberty and social issues, especially in opposing such initiatives as same-sex marriage and abortion rights.[7] The Tea Party has argued that government, both directly and by neglect, is threatening the ability of evangelicals to observe their moral obligations, including practices some perceive as endorsing social exclusion.

Although the Tea Party is a movement and not a political party, 86 percent of Tea Party members who voted in 2012 cast their votes for Republicans.[8] Some members of the Republican Party are closely affiliated with the movement, and before the 2012 elections, Tea Party activist Grover Norquist exacted promises from many Republicans in Congress that they would oppose any bill that sought to raise taxes.[9]

Image A is of Ted Cruz. Image B is of John Kasich.

Former 2016 presidential candidates Ted Cruz (a) and John Kasich (b), like many other Republicans, signed a pledge not to raise taxes if elected.(Credit: modified image from OpenStax American Government)

Movements on the left have also arisen. The Occupy Wall Street movement was born of the government’s response to the Great Recession of 2008 and its assistance to endangered financial institutions, provided through the Troubled Asset Relief Program, TARP. The Occupy Movement believed government moved swiftly to protect the banking industry from the worst of the recession but largely failed to protect the average person, thereby worsening the growing economic inequality in the United States.

An image of a large crowd of people, several of whom are holding signs.

On September 30, 2011, Occupy Wall Street protesters marched to the headquarters of the New York Police Department to protest police brutality that occurred in response to the movement’s occupation of Zuccotti Park in Lower Manhattan. (Credit: modification of work by David Shankbone)

While the Occupy Movement itself has largely fizzled, the anti-business sentiment to which it gave voice continues within the Democratic Party, and many Democrats have proclaimed their support for the movement and its ideals, if not for its tactics.[10] Bernie Sanders’ presidential run made these topics and causes even more salient, especially among younger voters. To date, however, the Occupy Movement has had fewer electoral effects than has the Tea Party. Yet, as manifested in Sanders’ candidacy, it has the potential to affect races at lower levels in the 2016 national elections.

The Causes of Polarization

Scholars agree that some degree of polarization is occurring in the United States, even if some contend it is only at the elite level. But they are less certain about exactly why, or how, polarization has become such a mainstay of American politics. Several conflicting theories have been offered. The first and perhaps best argument is that polarization is a party-in-government phenomenon driven by a decades-long sorting of the voting public, or a change in party allegiance in response to shifts in party position.[11] According to the sorting thesis, before the 1950s, voters were mostly concerned with state-level party positions rather than national party concerns. Since parties are bottom-up institutions, this meant local issues dominated elections; it also meant national-level politicians typically paid more attention to local problems than to national party politics.

But over the past several decades, voters have started identifying more with national-level party politics, and they began to demand their elected representatives become more attentive to national party positions. As a result, they have become more likely to pick parties that consistently represent national ideals, are more consistent in their candidate selection, and are more willing to elect office-holders likely to follow their party’s national agenda. One example of the way social change led to party sorting revolves around race.

A second possible culprit in increased polarization is the impact of technology on the public square. Before the 1950s, most people got their news from regional newspapers and local radio stations. While some national programming did exist, most editorial control was in the hands of local publishers and editorial boards. These groups served as a filter of sorts as they tried to meet the demands of local markets.

Television was a powerful tool, with national news and editorial content that provided the same message across the country. All viewers saw the same images of the women’s rights movement and the war in Vietnam. The expansion of news coverage to cable, and the consolidation of local news providers into big corporate conglomerates, amplified this nationalization. Average citizens were just as likely to learn what it meant to be a Republican from a politician in another state as from one in their own, and national news coverage made it much more difficult for politicians to run away from their votes. The information explosion that followed the heyday of network TV by way of cable, the Internet, and blogs has furthered this nationalization trend.

A final possible cause for polarization is the increasing sophistication of gerrymandering, or the manipulation of legislative districts in an attempt to favor a particular candidate. According to the gerrymandering thesis, the more moderate or heterogeneous a voting district, the more moderate the politician’s behavior once in office. Taking extreme or one-sided positions on a large number of issues would be hazardous for a member who needs to build a diverse electoral coalition. But if the district has been drawn to favor a particular group, it now is necessary for the elected official to serve only the portion of the constituency that dominates.

Gerrymandering is a centuries-old practice. There has always been an incentive for legislative bodies to draw districts in such a way that sitting legislators have the best chance of keeping their jobs. But changes in law and technology have transformed gerrymandering from a crude art into a science. The first advance came with the introduction of the “one-person-one-vote” principle by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1962. Before then, it was common for many states to practice redistricting, or redrawing of their electoral maps, only if they gained or lost seats in the U.S. House of Representatives. This can happen once every ten years as a result of a constitutionally mandated reapportionment process, in which the number of House seats given to each state is adjusted to account for population changes.

GOVT 2305 Student Resource Reapportionment Pie Chart; chart illustrates the 6 steps for representative government: 1) read the Constitution's rules, 2) count people--take a census, 3) apportion seats by census, 4) reapportion every 10 years based on new population numbers, 5) redraw lines or redistrict, and 6) gerrymandering reminder that it is illegal.

But if there was no change in the number of seats, there was little incentive to shift district boundaries. After all, if a legislator had won election based on the current map, any change to the map could make losing seats more likely. Even when reapportionment led to new maps, most legislators were more concerned with protecting their own seats than with increasing the number of seats held by their party. As a result, some districts had gone decades without significant adjustment, even as the U.S. population changed from largely rural to largely urban. By the early 1960s, some electoral districts had populations several times greater than those of their more rural neighbors.

However, in its one-person-one-vote decision in Reynolds v. Simms (1964), the Supreme Court argued that everyone’s vote should count roughly the same regardless of where they lived.[12] Districts had to be adjusted so they would have roughly equal populations. Several states therefore had to make dramatic changes to their electoral maps during the next two redistricting cycles (1970–1972 and 1980–1982). Map designers, no longer certain how to protect individual party members, changed tactics to try and create safe seats so members of their party could be assured of winning by a comfortable margin. The basic rule of thumb was that designers sought to draw districts in which their preferred party had a 55 percent or better chance of winning a given district, regardless of which candidate the party nominated.

Of course, many early efforts at post-Reynolds gerrymandering were crude since map designers had no good way of knowing exactly where partisans lived. At best, designers might have a rough idea of voting patterns between precincts, but they lacked the ability to know voting patterns in individual blocks or neighborhoods. They also had to contend with the inherent mobility of the U.S. population, which meant the most carefully drawn maps could be obsolete just a few years later. Designers were often forced to use crude proxies for party, such as race or the socio-economic status of a neighborhood. Some maps were so crude they were ruled unconstitutionally discriminatory by the courts.

A series of three maps titled Gerrymandering in Austin, Texas, 2003–2015

Examples of gerrymandering in Texas, where the Republican-controlled legislature redrew House districts to reduce the number of Democratic seats by combining voters in Austin with those near the border, several hundred miles away. Today, Austin is represented by six different congressional representatives.

Proponents of the gerrymandering thesis point out that the decline in the number of moderate voters began during this period of increased redistricting. But it was not until later, they argue, that the real effects could be seen. A second advance in redistricting, via computer-aided map making, truly transformed gerrymandering into a science. Refined computing technology, the ability to collect data about potential voters, and the use of advanced algorithms have given map makers a good deal of certainty about where to place district boundaries to best predetermine the outcomes. These factors also provided better predictions about future population shifts, making the effects of gerrymandering more stable over time. Proponents argue that this increased efficiency in map drawing has led to the disappearance of moderates in Congress.

According to political scientist Nolan McCarty, there is little evidence to support the redistricting hypothesis alone. First, he argues, the Senate has become polarized just as the House of Representatives has, but people vote for Senators on a statewide basis. There are no gerrymandered voting districts in elections for senators. Research showing that more partisan candidates first win election to the House before then running successfully for the Senate, however, helps us understand how the Senate can also become partisan.[13] Furthermore, states like Wyoming and Vermont, which have only one Representative and thus elect House members on a statewide basis as well, have consistently elected people at the far ends of the ideological spectrum.[14] Redistricting did contribute to polarization in the House of Representatives, but it took place largely in districts that had undergone significant change.[15]

Furthermore, polarization has been occurring throughout the country, but the use of increasingly polarized district design has not. While some states have seen an increase in these practices, many states were already largely dominated by a single party (such as in the Solid South) but still elected moderate representatives. Some parts of the country have remained closely divided between the two parties, making overt attempts at gerrymandering difficult. But when coupled with the sorting phenomenon discussed above, redistricting probably is contributing to polarization, if only at the margins.

The Politics of Redistricting

Voters in a number of states have become so worried about the problem of gerrymandering that they have tried to deny their legislatures the ability to draw district boundaries. The hope is that by taking this power away from whichever party controls the state legislature, voters can ensure more competitive districts and fairer electoral outcomes.

In 2000, voters in Arizona approved a referendum that created an independent state commission responsible for drafting legislative districts. But the Arizona legislature fought back against the creation of the commission, filing a lawsuit that claimed only the legislature had the constitutional right to draw districts. Legislators asked the courts to overturn the popular referendum and end the operation of the redistricting commission. However, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the authority of the independent commission in a 5–4 decision titled Arizona State Legislature v. Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission (2015).[16]

Currently, only five states use fully independent commissions—ones that do not include legislators or other elected officials—to draw the lines for both state legislative and congressional districts. These states are Arizona, California, Idaho, Montana, and Washington. In Florida, the League of Women Voters and Common Cause challenged a new voting districts map supported by state Republicans, because they did not believe it fulfilled the requirements of amendments made to the state constitution in 2010 requiring that voting districts not favor any political party or incumbent.[17]

Do you think redistricting is a partisan issue? Should commissions draw districts instead of legislators? If commissions are given this task, who should serve on them?

link to learningThink you have what it takes to gerrymander a district? Play the redistricting game and see whether you can find new ways to help out old politicians.


Questions to Consider

  1. Is it possible for a serious third party to emerge in the United States, positioned ideologically between the Democrats on the left and the Republicans on the right? Why or why not?

  2. In what ways are political parties of the people and in what ways might they be more responsive to elites?

  3. If you were required to become active in some aspect of a political party, what activity and level of party organization would you choose and why?

  4. Is it preferable for the U.S. government to have unified party control or divided government? Why?

  5. In general, do parties make the business of government easier or harder to accomplish?

Terms to Remember

bipartisanship–a process of cooperation through compromise

census–counting citizens for purposes of representation in the U. S. House and the Electoral College; data collected every 10 years to allow for reapportionment of House seats

divided government–a condition in which one or more houses of the legislature is controlled by the party in opposition to the executive

gerrymandering–the manipulation of legislative districts in an attempt to favor a particular candidate

moderate–an individual who falls in the middle of the ideological spectrum

party polarization–the shift of party positions from moderate towards ideological extremes

reapportionment–the reallocation of House seats between the states to account for population changes

redistricting–the redrawing of electoral maps

safe seat–district drawn so members of a party can be assured of winning by a comfortable margin

  1. Nolan McCarty, Keith T. Poole and Howard Rosenthal. 2006. Polarized America. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
  2. David R. Mayhew. 1991. Divided We Govern. New Haven: Yale University Press; George C. Edwards, Andrew Barrett and Jeffrey S. Peake, "The Legislative Impact of Divided Government," American Journal of Political Science 41, no. 2 (1997): 545–563.
  3. Dylan Matthews, "Here is Every Previous Government Shutdown, Why They Happened and How They Ended," The Washington Post, 25 September 2013.
  4. Matthews, "Here is Every Previous Government Shutdown, Why They Happened and How They Ended."
  5. Matthews, "Here is Every Previous Government Shutdown, Why They Happened and How They Ended."
  6. Drew Desilver, "The Polarized Congress of Today Has Its Roots in the 1970s," 12 June 2014, http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2014/06/12/polarized-politics-in-congress-began-in-the-1970s-and-has-been-getting-worse-ever-since/ (March 16, 2016).
  7. "The Tea Party and Religion," 23 February 2011, http://www.pewforum.org/2011/02/23/tea-party-and-religion/ (March 16, 2016).
  8. "The Tea Party and Religion."
  9. Paul Waldman, "Nearly All the GOP Candidates Bow Down to Grover Norquist, The Washington Post, 13 August 2015, https://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/plum-line/wp/2015/08/13/nearly-all-the-gop-candidates-bow-down-to-grover-norquist/ (March 1, 2016).
  10. Beth Fouhy, "Occupy Wall Street and Democrats Remain Wary of Each Other," Huffington Post, 17 November 2011.
  11. Morris Fiorina, "Americans Have Not Become More Politically Polarized," The Washington Post, 23 June 2014.
  12. Reynolds v. Simms, 379 U.S. 870 (1964).
  13. Sean Theriault. 2013. The Gingrich Senators: The Roots of Partisan Warfare in Congress. New York: Oxford University Press.
  14. Nolan McCarty, "Hate Our Polarized Politics? Why You Can’t Blame Gerrymandering," The Washington Post, 26 October 2012.
  15. Jamie L. Carson et al., "Redistricting and Party Polarization in the U.S. House of Representatives," American Politics Research 35, no. 6 (2007): 878–904.
  16. Arizona State Legislature v. Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission, 135 S. Ct. 2652 (2015).
  17. "Editorial: Republicans Should Accept Redistricting Defeat and Drop Talk of Appeals," 10 January 2016, http://www.fairdistrictsnow.org/news/661/ (March 16, 2016).