We Should Expect Divided Government For a Long Time

Back in July, I wrote about the unrepresentative nature of the House of Representatives:

The House doesn’t represent the will of the people, because small states are over-represented (some congressional districts are nearly twice as large as others) and recent gerrymandering results in more Republicans being elected than Democrats, even though Democrats get more votes.

What I should have said is that some small states are over-represented and others are under-represented. For example, Rhode Island’s two members of Congress each represent only 525,000 people. Wyoming’s single member represents about 580,000. Yet Delaware‘s one member of Congress represents 925,000 and Montana‘s represents more than one million.

That might be a wash in political terms, because some small states lean left and some lean right. Unfortunately, of the 12 states that have no more than two representatives in Congress, eight lean right and only 4 lean left.

In addition, we shouldn’t forget the District of Columbia, which has more people than Vermont and Wyoming, definitely leans left and isn’t properly represented in Congress at all (they don’t have a senator and their representative gets to talk but not vote). This all adds up to an advantage for the Republicans.

In that post, I also said that gerrymandering resulted in more Republicans being elected to the House in 2012 than Democrats, even though Democrats got more votes. I was right about the numbers: the Republicans received only 47.6% of the total House vote, but ended up with 51.7% of the seats, which resulted in the Republicans having almost total control of the House of Representatives, since the House is run more efficiently (i.e. less democratically) than the Senate.

It might be the case, however, that gerrymandering doesn’t explain the Republicans’ success. That’s not to say the Republicans haven’t done their best to draw Congressional district boundaries to their advantage. They clearly did so the last time they got the chance and did it with more dedication than the Democrats.

Nevertheless, a recent study suggests that the Republicans have a natural advantage in House races. The reason could be that Democrats have gerrymandered themselves by tending to live in big cities, college towns and old manufacturing centers. That’s how gerrymandering works. You try to clump together people who vote for your opponents in as few districts as possible. This creates a few extremely safe seats for your opponents (ideally, they’d get 100% of the vote in a few districts), and a bunch of relatively safe seats for your side. It’s basically voter segregation or ghettoization. By living close together in places like Atlanta, Ann Arbor and Toledo, Democratic voters appear to have put themselves at a natural geographical disadvantage in House races.

The people who did the study claim to have tried out thousands of different district boundaries in 49 states (no Alaska? no Rhode Island?). The results were not encouraging for Democrats or opponents of gerrymandering:

In the vast majority of states, our nonpartisan simulations produced Republican seat shares that were not much different from the actual numbers in the last election. This was true even in some states, like Indiana and Missouri, with heavy Republican influence over redistricting.

It might be possible to counteract this Republican advantage by creating lots of districts that radiate out from the centers of towns and cities and would include a nice mix of urban, suburban and rural voters. The authors of the study seem to discount this possibility. At any rate, their point is that by living in relatively close quarters, Democrats are at a natural disadvantage when it comes to electing members of the House of Representatives.

A reasonable conclusion to draw from all of this is that Congress is even less representative than it seems to be. The Senate was explicitly designed to favor the interests of lightly-populated states, which now tend to vote Republican, while the House exhibits some favoritism toward small states, but more importantly is gerrymandered, whether on purpose or by simple geography, to favor Republicans as well.

The good news is that Democratic presidential candidates may continue to do relatively well, since most people pay at least some attention to politics during presidential elections and most people agree with Democratic policies (progressive taxation, more social spending, less military spending). Democrats who run for President will do well, that is, until they actually have to govern. Then they’ll have to deal with too many Republicans in Congress.

5 thoughts on “We Should Expect Divided Government For a Long Time

  1. I can’t think of a clever response at the moment, but, yes, it’s a bad thing. Granted that we don’t want a government so single-minded that it has become authoritarian, but what we have now is more incompetent than authoritarian. I’ll look at your site some more to see if I can understand your position better.

    Later: Understanding achieved. Your site has a link to an article that provides the “inspiration and intellectual foundation” for your site. It’s by a former Cato Institute economist who was instrumental in designing Reagan’s economic program. We all know what a tremendous success Reagan’s economic policies were. It’s fitting that the link is broken.

    From the Cato Institute site: “In order to maintain its independence, the Cato Institute accepts no government funding. Cato receives approximately 80 percent of its funding through tax-deductible contributions from individuals, with the remainder of its support coming from foundations, corporations, and the sale of books and publications.” That’s “independence” as in “we take money from rich people in order to propagate right-wing ideology that pleases them”, people like the Koch brothers, one of whom sits on Cato’s Board of Directors.

  2. Thanks for notifying me of the broken link. Fixed.

    This is a courtesy comment to let you know that I’ve linked and commented on this post in my blog. Enjoyed your perspective, and appreciate that you’ve gone beyond the more common progressive canard of just blaming evil republican gerrymandering for the fact that Americans seem perfectly happy giving Republicans majority control of the House of Representatives.

    As regards the rest of your comment… tsk tsk. You are a philosopher and presumably have training in logic and logical fallacies. I don’t have to tell you the name of the fallacy you employ here – dismissing an argument by attacking the proponent or a supporter of the argument. The argument stands on it’s own. I suppose I could search your blog and somewhere find that you have linked to an organization that receives support from George Soros and then dismiss your entire blog, as you do in this comment. But I find that boring, and frankly, based on your writing here, I think that sort of argument is beneath you.

    FWIW, if interested, a more nuanced appreciation of William Niskanen and my respect for his perspective is linked here:


    • Thank you for your well-mannered response. Yes, it was clearly an emotional ad hominem reaction to your site, but I went there looking for something different and was disappointed to find yet another devotee of the Cato Institute and so-called libertarianism, who in my experience almost invariably turn out to be de facto supporters of the Republican Party and corporate capitalism. But I took another look at your blog and see that you have more nuanced positions than I first realized.

      That’s not to say that I agree with your views on divided government at all, however. It would be interesting to contrast what “united” vs. “divided” Federal governments have been able to do. I think FDR and Johnson were the only recent Presidents who had significant majorities in Congress for more than a couple of years and they accomplished a lot. Similarly, it’s been good (especially as an ex-Californian) to see California rebound now that you’ve got a Democratic governor and legislature. As I said in my earlier response, divided government can be good at times, but as a general rule, I see it tending toward incompetence, inertia and a lack of progress. And of course things like the sequester (which you thought was a relatively good thing) and the recent farm bill, which cuts assistance for people who are struggling while doing more for corporate agriculture (the people who have the money to pay off our politicians).

      By the way, I respect George Soros and wouldn’t mind at all being on his payroll (in case you’re reading this, George).

      • I wouldn’t mind being on George Soros payroll either.

        Nor would I mind being on the Koch Brothers payroll.

        But, after due consideration, I would really prefer both.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s