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Debate: Divided government vs. one-party rule

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Is divided government better than one-party rule?


In the United States, divided government describes a situation in which one party controls the White House and another party controls one or both houses of the United States Congress. Divided government is suggested by some to be an undesirable product of the separation of powers in the United States' political system, resulting in political gridlock and little progress. By others, it is considered a desirable outcome that helps maintain checks on the excesses of opposing political Parties. In the 2008 US presidential election, the topic received attention because the prospect of one-party rule loomed and subsequently became a reality with the election of Democrat Barack Obama and further additions to the Democratic majorities in the Senate and House of Representatives in the United States Congress.

John McCain argued, in the last days of his presidential campaign, that electing Barack Obama would be a bad idea because it would lead to one-party rule and that this would be harmful. With the election of Barack Obama, the debate continues as people consider whether the reality of one-party rule is a good thing, whether it will help the country achieve its objectives, and whether Democrats should be cautious about certain specific risks involved in one-party rule.

The debate regarding divided government vs. one-party rule is framed by some of the following questions. Does divided government create a necessary check on government and the excesses of one political party or another? Can presidents of one political party more effectively constrain the actions of their own party? Does the Supreme Court provide a sufficient check on one-party rule? Is divided government more stable? Can one-party rule be important in passing legislation quickly and solving crises? Does divided government lift up more centrist, and perhaps more long-lasting ideas and reforms? Does divided government constrain corruption? What does history demonstrate? Have divided or one-party governments been more successful? What do voters prefer?

See Wikipedia: "Divided government" for more background.

Checks: Does divided government provide important checks and balances?


James Madison wrote in Federalist paper 51, and later added - "Ambition must be made to counteract ambition. If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary."
Any case where government has been able to 'control itself' would be the exception. Most examples of one-party rule are cautionary tales of excess as the minority party is shut up and shut down. Monopolies are seldom in the public interest, and political monopolies are no exception."
John Adams - "Divided we ever have been, and ever must be."[1]
Ben Franklin - "It is not enough that your Legislature should be numerous; it should also be divided."[2]
Thomas Jefferson - "Divided we stand, united we fall."[3]
Republicans deserve a thrashing, but the pendulum would be swinging too far in the opposite direction if GOP misrule yielded to Democratic monopoly. It would satisfy partisan competitiveness and a thirst for revenge among angry activists, but would not benefit the nation."
David Rohde, a Duke University political scientist - "You might be able to do big things that have been blocked by divided government. But the potential pitfall is you can overreach, alienate the opposition party and alienate independents -- sowing the seeds of your own destruction."[4]
Political parties are important expressions of "auxiliary precautions," especially when the minority has a share of governmental authority with which to wage dissent. For example, if Obama wins the White House, a Republican Senate would at least have advise and consent power on key nominations as well as a say in legislation.
Parliamentary rules are a lesser defense against one-party abuse. If Democrats win the Senate with 60 seats, a real possibility, they would be able to silence GOP voices on virtually any issue."


  • Presidents can effectively control members of their own Party Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Missouri, said in October of 2008, "If there were huge majorities in the House and the Senate and John McCain were president, it is more likely that Congress would flex their muscle and do whatever they wanted to do regardless of John McCain — because they wouldn’t need John McCain’s approval. On the other hand, if you have Barack Obama in the White House, he believes in bipartisan cooperation. He wants to change this ‘I control the mountain and therefore I will move the mountain mentality’ in Washington."[5]
  • The Supreme Court still checks one-party rule "The hypocrisy of the 'One-Party Rule' Gambit". Informed Comment. 28 Oct. 2008 - "Second, the Democrats do not have the supreme court, and there is no early prospect of a firm Democratic majority on it. The conservatives on it are still fairly young and energetic. Thomas and Scalia are very far right, and Alito and Roberts only a little less so. Kennedy is a swing vote but not exactly a liberal. The likely retirements will mostly come from the ranks of liberals, so that Obama and a Democratic congress will only be able to maintain a status quo. It is true that they can stop a far-right putsch on the Court, but that is hardly one party rule."

Governance: Does divided government offer better governance?


"Can one party rule?". Washington Post. 2008 - "we don't believe either party has a monopoly on policy wisdom. We liked Mr. Bush's insistence on accountability in education, tempered by Sen. Edward M. Kennedy's reminder that you couldn't fix urban schools without some money. We don't support the Democrats' plan to allow unionization without secret ballots, but we agree with them that National Labor Relations Board rules have tipped too far toward management. And so on. We like to think, in other words, that a process in which both parties play a role can sometimes lead to better outcomes and not always to dead ends."
The Reagan tax laws of 1981 and 1986, for example, were both approved by a House of Representatives controlled by the Democrats and have largely survived. The major potential reforms of agriculture, telecommunications, and welfare in 1996 were approved by Clinton and a Republican Congress, although only the welfare reform has survived subsequent legislative and regulatory changes. The primary exception to this pattern, of course, is the Great Society. My judgment, however, is that the prospect for a major reform of the federal tax code, Medicare, or Social Security will be dependent on more bipartisan support than now seems likely in a united Republican government."
  • One-party rule makes military spending and war more likely William A. Niskanen. "A Case for Divided Government". CATO. 7 May 2003 - "Point Three. The prospect of a major war is usually higher with a united government, and the current war makes that clear.[..]Each of the four major American wars in the 20th century, for example, was initiated by a Democratic president with the approval of a Congress controlled by Democrats. The war in Iraq, initiated by a Republican president with the support of a Republican Congress, is consistent with this pattern and has already proved to be the only use of U.S. military force lasting more than a few days that was initiated by a Republican president in over a century."
  • One-party rule increases govt intrusions on civil liberties Lisa Snell. "Divided We Stand". Reason Online. February 2007 - "Every American concerned about excessive government intrusion into our lives should greet with optimism the return to a system of partisan checks and balances[...]The last four years have witnessed an unprecedented level of government interference in individual lives. While National Security Agency wiretapping and detainee rights have attracted much attention, examples of abuse of power in other arenas abound, such as the Drug Enforcement Administration’s raids on medical marijuana patients."


  • Divided government impedes sound governance "The One-Party Rule Scare". Connecting The Dots. 27 Oct. 2008 - "Since Americans have an innate mistrust of concentrated power, the notion [of divided government] could gain traction for voters with short memories. They would have to forget the past two years [2006-2008] of 'checks and balances' [a Republican president and Democratic Congress] that prevented extending health care to impoverished children and setting reasonable timetables for withdrawal from Iraq, among other majority desires."
  • The most successful US presidencies enjoyed one-party rule "Down with Divided Government". The New Republic. 27 Oct. 2008 - "Let’s first look at those past administrations that enjoyed singular success. Most lists would include George Washington’s two terms, Abraham Lincoln’s presidency, Theodore Roosevelt’s (just about) two terms, and Franklin Roosevelt’s four terms. A longer list not based on consensus might include Thomas Jefferson’s first term, Andrew Jackson’s two terms, Woodrow Wilson’s first term, Harry Truman’s two terms, and Ronald Reagan’s two terms. Of the consensus choices, all enjoyed a united government (in George Washington’s days, there were not really parties)."
  • The worst US presidencies involved divided government "Down with Divided Government". The New Republic. 27 Oct. 2008 - Now let’s look at the more disastrous moments in the history of American administrations--where charges of impeachment were brought, and recriminations paralyzed the government. That would have to include the administrations of Andrew Johnson, Richard Nixon, and Bill Clinton--all instances of divided government. I’d also add the last two years of Wilson’s second term when divided government (and Wilson’s illness) set America on the track of irresponsibility in foreign and domestic policy. So if you look at America’s moments of glory and ignominy, the conclusion is inescapable: divided government is a curse, not a blessing, and should be avoided, if at all possible.
  • Divided government is a bad idea when parties are polarized. When there are many centrists in a government, opposing political parties can better come together to reach compromises and take action. But, when political parties are more polarized, it is more difficult for a divided government to find common ground and take action.

Voters: Do voters seek divided government?



Corruption: Does divided government help fighting corruption?


  • One-party rule leads to corruption Michael Merritt. "The Case For Divided Government". PoliGazette. July 8th, 2008. - "So why is having unified government so bad? Well, for starters, it leads to all sorts of corruption. You only need to look at the Jack Abramoff, Tom Delay and Mark Foley scandals to see what can happen when politicians get too comfortable with their own power. … As well as scandals in Congress, scandals in the executive branch can also go unchecked with unified government. Just look at the U.S. Attorney scandal, treatment of enemy combatants, and others."


  • Political corruption exists in divided government too. "The Case That Divided Government is Irrelevant". 2008 Central. 8 Jul. 2008 - "Corruption is a worry not for divided government, but for parties that have any power whatsoever. As appealing as it would be if no party had power, that seems unrealistic. Moreover, it’s not just Republicans that have a monopoly on corruption; Democrats like William Jefferson are not squeaky clean, either.
As for Merritt’s second argument, Democrats have done absolutely nothing constructive regarding those scandals that they could not have done in the minority. Issuing unanswered subpoenas for instance. At best, you could argue that Democratic pressure made Alberto Gonzalez resign. But not even Republicans were not happy with him at the hearings."

Pro/con sources



See also

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