The Great Reversion

The mainstream press has a vested interested in overreading every election result as do, naturally, the proponents of the winning party. So the pro-overreading faction also wins the argument and one doesn’t want to be a “protest too much” type on the other side. But I do think it’s worth emphasizing that the state to we’ll be entering next year—divided government—is entirely typical in the past thirty years of American political history.

The only episodes of unified partisan control we’ve seen were 1993-94 and 2009-10 for the Democrats and 2003-2006 for the Republicans. You could posit that the existence of a strong “Boll Weevil” faction of conservative Democrats gave Reagan an effective governing majority in 1981-82 but then by the same token this same phenomenon denied Bill Clinton an effective governing majority in 1993-94. Either way, the point is that this is normally how elections turn out. And when elections turn out in a more lopsided way, they tend to revert to division quite quickly. I think it would be a mistake to infer from this that “Americans prefer divided government” since if you add the Democratic partisans to the Republican partisans you get a clear majority of partisans. But the dynamics of the overall system tend to settle into this kind of equilibrium.

And as far as episodes of divided government go, Barack Obama will, in virtue of Democratic control of the Senate, have a stronger hand legislatively than Ronald Reagan and George HW Bush had in 1983-1992, than Bill Clinton had in 1995-2000 or then George W Bush had in 2007-2008. So this could plausibly be the beginning of the end for Democratic political power (as it was for Bush) or merely the end of the beginning (as it was for Reagan and Clinton).

In any event, knowledge of all this is part of what drives my frustration with supermajority rule in the US Senate. People spent much of the past two years acting as if the 60 vote requirement was the only thing standing between the United States and some kind of plebiscitary democracy. The reality is that most of the time legislation requires bipartisan compromise because most of the time the electorate doesn’t deliver the House, the Senate, and the Presidency to one party simultaneously. But it seems to me that when unified government is the outcome, that the winner ought to get the chance to govern. As we saw last night, if the people don’t like the results they both can and will vote the other guys back in.