Remember back before the 2008 national elections, all those people who agreed John McCain was an idiot and the Republicans were irresponsible, but the only reason they couldn’t vote for Barack Obama and the Democrats was because they supported “divided government”? Remember that?
It was another piece of conventional wisdom touted by the right when they were in the minority (and the left pre-2006), and repeated as fact by the folks at CNN and the New York Times. You heard it from folks like this guy from the Cato Institute and this guy from the Brookings Institute. It was one of John McCain’s “closing arguments” before the 2008 election, and it was the main argument going into the 2010 midterms.
It’s a favorite piece of conventional wisdom among Villagers who love to talk about the wonders of centrism and Third Way politics. And for anyone who sees the world as it actually is, not how they wished it were, it’s a load of horse shit.
Here’s why Americans supposedly like divided government:
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.
I’m sorry, but what world are you people living in? The current Congress is on track to become the least productive ever, at a time when the country is facing some of its most enormous challenges ever. At a time when we can least afford gridlock, that’s exactly what we’ve got. We need our elected representatives to come together and solve the many crises our nation is facing, but instead of forcing both sides to come together in a spirit of compromise, “divided government” has resulted in Republican bully tactics. They’ve held up judicial nominations, creating a crisis on our federal courts, and they’re playing a game of chicken with the debt ceiling (despite the fact that they raised the debt ceiling 19 times under George W. Bush). They’re suddenly peacenkiks and running fast and furiously away from every good idea they ever had — like cap-and-trade, originally a free-market, conservative idea.
And so the legislative trickle has slowed to a drip. From January until the end of May, the last date for which comparable statistics are available, 16 bills had become law — compared with 50 during that period last year, or 28 in 2007, also a time of divided government.
Some folks tried to sound the alarm about the faulty “divided government” logic, namely by using the State of California as an example:
Far from confounding the parties, divided government has enabled them to adhere to dogma. Democrats have succeeded at increasing spending and Republicans at holding down revenue, with credit and con games making up the difference. The result: the state budget, signed 10 days back by Mr Schwarzenegger, may not last the month. On Thursday the governor wrote Hank Paulson with an urgent request for $7 billion, without which the state may not be able to pay its bills in the short-term.
Like Mr McCain, Mr Schwarzenegger campaigned as a centrist who could check the ambitions of a Democratic legislature with the strength of his personality and principles. A President McCain might do better with a Democratic legislature than Governor Schwarzenegger has, but a Republican identity and fearsomeness don’t guarantee that he will.
I’m sure as the 2012 election heats up we’ll be hearing more about the glories of “divided government,” but I’d like to nip this crap in the bud right away. We’re divided enough as it is. Can we please stop acting like America of 2011 is the same as America of 2001, 1991 or 1981? It’s a new world. Divided government does nothing but further entrench both parties. If you don’t want anything to get done, if you don’t want to see progress as the nation slowly spirals down the economic drain and becomes a Third World country, then by all means stick with the “divided government” meme.
Alternately, you can hand the governing of this country over to one party or the other, whichever party you are more ideologically aligned with. If you think the policies that drove this country into the ditch in the first place — lower taxes on millionaires, increased taxes on working classes, deregulation to allow more abusive practices letting corporate giants run roughshod over the people in the interest of lining the pockets of the few — well by all means turn the country over to the Republicans again.
Right now, Republicans are more conservative than Democrats are liberal. That’s just a fact. The Democrats are far from perfect. But if you believe millionaires should pay at least something approximating their fair share of taxes, and corporations have a responsibility not just to their shareholders and the bottom line but to the nation itself and should pay for the privilege of operating in America, and if you think government has a viable role to play in setting policies that benefit the people because the free hand of the market has failed to do so, well then let’s hand the government over to the Democrats and see what they can do.
The alternative is to sit with our thumbs up our asses while both sides hurl insults at each other and no one does anything about the giant train wrecks headed our way.