Districts that vote for presidential and House candidates of different parties are vanishing. So are states with U.S. senators representing both parties. Divided government is today a formula for inaction, not an opportunity for bipartisan legislating. There is no reason to be smug about our past findings or certain we’ve seen it all before.
What we know from our research is that there is no easy way out of the mess we are in.
Change our institutions to fit our new-style parties? Beyond reining in the filibuster, this would entail far-reaching constitutional reform that is likely to remain in the realm of intellectual debate.
Alter the electoral system to produce somewhat less polarized parties? There are lots of ideas worth pursuing in the states, but short of major changes such as compulsory voting or some form of proportional representation, the evidence suggests that they would produce at best modest results.
Encourage independent or third-party candidates appealing to a vast moderate center in American politics? Been there. Done that. A definite nonstarter.
More wishful thinking about delegation to nonpartisan or bipartisan groups? Enough already!
Perhaps more promising are approaches that focus directly on the parties as they exist within our constitutional system. One-party government seems an essential first step, one that can sustain itself in office long enough to put in place and begin to implement a credible governing program. The second is nudging the Republican Party back into being a genuinely conservative, not radical, party that aspires to win presidential as well as congressional elections over the long haul. The third is dampening the intense and unrelenting competition for control of Congress and the White House, which is itself an historical anomaly.
With demographic changes continuing to unfold to the benefit of the Democrats, it is not hard to see them retaining and increasing their advantage in presidential elections. Controlling the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue is more challenging. Democrats might have an opportunity to regain unified control in 2016, if the 2014 midterm elections leave them within grasp of Senate and House majorities two years later. But holding those majorities in 2018 would be an even more difficult task.
How about another run of unified Republican Party government? Some argue the best way to bring the GOP back to reality is to put it in charge and make it accountable for its actions. Others fear the policy consequences of unconstrained extremism. Perhaps a more reliable way of bringing the Republican Party back into the mainstream is a few more decisive presidential defeats. That might create the conditions for the emergence of new Republican ideas less detached from reality and new efforts among some coalition partners to challenge extremist forces in primary elections. Sadly, those extreme candidates are no longer limited to Tea Party members; there are found throughout the so-called Republican Party establishment.
I don’t know what the answer is, or if there is one. In spite of a lot of terrific research we still have work to do fully diagnosing our strikingly dysfunctional government and speaking forthrightly what we believe to be true.
* This sentence has been edited for clarity.