Divided Government: Hopeful or Hurtful?
I wrote a syndicated column this week that left me with very mixed feelings about many positions I previously took for granted. I am usually a big fan of divided government; I am still a fan, to some extent. But this year I’m not as eager to see a Republican victory that brings about divided government.
Here’s my dilemma. I absolutely hate the thought of Democrats not getting booted out of Congress, but also hate many of the specifics and consequences that would following if such booting were to occur this election year.
In the past, I’ve made the case that divided government, while not a silver bullet for protecting free markets, is a means of slowing, if ever so slightly, the growth in government. My colleague Jack Salmon wrote a few years ago:
If we look back over the past three decades, when the president was a Democrat and the Senate was controlled by Republicans, average annual spending growth was 4.1%, and just 3.4% during the six years of divided government under the Clinton administration. By contrast, periods of divided government with a Republican president and Democratic Senate oversaw average annual spending growth of 6.2% (not adjusted for inflation).
This reality doesn’t make Republicans look great. In fact, back in 2008, right after the election of Barack Obama as President, I looked at that same data and concluded that:
If limited government is the goal, history tells us we should root for Democratic presidents and Republican Congresses. And regardless of party, Texans should be kept far away from the White House.
Intuitively, one senses that unified government gets us the worst from both sides, especially when it comes to the administrative and regulatory state. And in that sense, I favor the friction that come from divided government. Besides, I have always associated bipartisanship with “both sides agreeing to do things that extend the government’s inference into our lives”. I am not a fan of that either. The last two years gave us many good examples of what I mean.
I haven’t changed my mind about these issues. What has changed, though, is the fact that a 2022 election that brings divided government means possibly not only strengthening Donald Trump’s grip on the Republican party, but also the election of many unfit candidates who are neither free market nor have any policy ideas except their opposition to wokeness and the left.
Opposition to wokeness may be enough for some, but I can’t ignore that it comes with an eager support for bad policies, including welfare-for-all handouts, industrial policy, and general disdain for free markets. When it comes to policy, the two parties are united only in loathing of each other and in an insistence on using taxpayer funds to bribe the populace for allegiance to their respective big-government agendas.
Don’t get me wrong, the alternative to divided government would be awful, too. If the Democrats manage to keep the Senate or only lose a few seats in the House, they will be bolstered in the idea that progressivism, policymaking through executive orders, student-loan forgiveness, eviction moratoria, 40-year high inflation rates, and government budget deficits as far as the eye can see are all A-Okay.
That’s why I tried to soothe myself into thinking that if we had divided government, maybe, just maybe, we could get these politicians to make at least some policy changes that would ease some severe injustices, and to end some unforgiveable government intrusions into our lives and the economy. They could, for instance, pass immigration reform, legalize marijuana at the federal level, and lift all the barriers to building infrastructure and housing.
Since I wrote, and struggled with, my column I have thought that the best to way summarize my hopeful thinking here is this:
Basically, on the spectrum between left and right, I am in the center (neither right nor left). But on the spectrum that goes from less to more freedom, I am a freedom super-fan. So, the goal is to get politicians in the center pushing for freedom-enhancing policies. How do we do that? A mix of persuasion and good will, I guess.
One final thought. I expect that if we do get divided government, the media will immediately start whining about gridlock and about how nothing gets done save by unified government. Don’t buy it. When you look at the growth of government spending since 1980 it is hard to tell when government was divided or unified:
Adjusted for inflation, the numbers don’t tell a different story.
Veronique de Rugy is a Senior research fellow at the Mercatus Center and syndicated columnist at Creators.