This turned into a mini-research project… The chart below shows who had the majority in the Senate and House, and who held the White House, for each of the 115 Congresses of the United States. The main point is to examine when a party has been able to do what it wants in government.
The colors: beige is “Pro-Administration” (not an actual party); green is Federalist; orange is Democratic-Republican; purple is Whig; blue is Democratic; red is Republican. (White can be taken as “the opposition”— except in 1881, when it means that both parties had the same number of Senate seats.)
The number gives the percentage of seats in the Senate and House held by the majority party.
For Democrats and Republicans, I’ve used two colors: dark when the party can do what it wants; light when it can’t. The general rule is that it’s light when not all three columns match— that is, government is divided.
However, I’ve modified this for the period 1953-1988. With Eisenhower and Nixon, this is largely because neither tried to govern in conflict with Congress, at least by today’s standards. With Reagan, I’ve shown Congress as stymied, but not Reagan himself: he was able to implement the major policy shift from liberalism to plutocracy without serious setbacks.
I haven’t tried to graphically depict cases where a party was too divided to get much done— e.g under Carter and Trump.
What emerges, I think, are a number of periods with very different overall structures.
- 1789-1800: the early years. I don’t know much about the politics of the time, but it’s probably not worth drawing lessons from it as everyone was trying to figure out how things worked and what their disagreements were.
- 1801-1830: the Era of Good Feelings. Well, no wonder things went pretty smoothly: the Democratic-Republicans had a lock on government.
- 1830-1860: the pre-Civil-war period. A lot more contentious, as a Democratic/Whig system developed. The second half of the period, dominated by the slavery question, shows a high degree of contention.
- 1860-1932: overall, the Republican Period. This was the old style GOP, of course— the party of Northern business above all. There are a few contentious periods, but overall the number of strong GOP years is striking. Only Cleveland and Wilson had strong Democratic years.
- 1933-1979: the liberal period. This period was dominated almost as strongly by the Democrats.Congress was so reliably Democratic that GOP presidents had to work with it.
- 1980 on: the plutocratic period. Very largely a return to Republican rule, but much less solidly. Compare the majorities: where the 19C GOP often had numbers in the 60s or higher, the present-day GOP hasn’t risen above 57%. Divided government is the norm rather than the exception.
The reason I looked at all this was because I was curious how often we’ve had divided government, and the bipartisan courtesies that used to accompany it: infrequent filibusters, accommodating confirmation hearings, a collegial Senate, etc. We often hear people bemoaning increased polarization and wishing that people would just work together somehow across party lines. It’s said that the parties used to be miscellaneous coalitions so that they could pretty easily work together.
I think the general answer can be read from the chat: bipartisanship usually isn’t necessary. In 76 out of 115 Congresses— two-thirds of the time— we’ve had undivided government. That means that one party held the presidency and Congress, and could pretty much do as it wanted. (Again, we’re ignoring intra-party fights for now.) In such times you could be bipartisan if events warranted, but you could also pretty much ignore the other party.
Of course, that leaves another third of the time when we have divided government. Then, of course, it’s useful if both parties can work together. On the other hand, at least two of these periods were highly polarized times when being “moderate” arguably meant being a piece of jelly-like protoplasm:
- The pre-Civil War period. People looked for decades, but there was really no moral or pragmatic compromise to be found between slavery and abolition. The compromisers of the time aren’t exactly highly regarded today.
- The present day, which is a lower-key but just as polarized debate on whether the country should be run for the benefit of its richest 10%, or for everyone. And some other issues, like whether or not we’d like to preserve the planet’s ecosphere and avoid nuclear annihilation. I sympathize with those who “hate politics” and wish that everyone would just get along. But you can’t wish the issues away, and “moderates” are usually deeply delusional about what’s actually happening in the country.
(What happened in the 1875-96 period? I really don’t know, though now I’m curious. This was the Gilded Age, when the preoccupation was making money. The party lines seem baffling today: the Republicans were protectionist and pro-industry; the Democrats were laissez-faire, anti-tariffs, and associated with small farmers, immigrants, and Southerners. Neither seems to map to todays’ liberal/conservative divide.)
So, when you hear that (say) filibusters used to be uncommon— sure, they were, but look at those majority numbers. Majorities over 60 used to be common. This isn’t to say that the abuse of the filibuster isn’t a problem; the point is that periods of amiable divided government really haven’t ever been the norm.