Let’s Return to Split-Ticket Voting and Divided Government

Image via rollcall.com

Maybe obstructionism and gridlock aren’t as bad as you think.

In the early days of Trump’s presidency, one of my favorite Twitter follows who goes by the name Kilgore Trout tweeted that he enjoys “Republican obstructionism, Democrat obstructionism, obstructionism, gridlock, [and] key lime pie.”

Kilgore’s point is well taken (though I’m more partial to cheesecake).  Obstruction and gridlock tend to occur when government is divided, its branches in conflict.  But a structurally and ideologically divided federal government has many advantages over single-party rule.

This isn’t the current wisdom.  Split-ticket voting has been steadily dropping since 2000, and is now at an all-time low – and trust in government has dropped in almost perfect sync.

Nowadays, your average Republican or Democratic partisan wants their party at the levers of federal authority – their man in the White House—and a majority in Congress and on the Supreme Court.  Gridlock is something to be avoided at all costs; action and progress through regulation and legislation are the order of the day.

The opposing party becomes at best a laughable annoyance and at worst an obstacle to be obliterated.  We disrupt their public events, tar them with insults, and call for their heads.  They are our enemies, and they must convert or be destroyed.

How did Leviathan’s writer Thomas Hobbes put it?  “A war as if of every man, against every man . . . and the life of man solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”  When Hobbes said this, though, he was speaking of life without society or government.  Perhaps he didn’t foresee a time when our beliefs about government would cause us to withdraw from society.

I think that many of us fight so hard for our party to control all three branches of government for two reasons: we want to use government to make our own world, and we fear what will happen if the other party gets to make theirs.

We do this because we see the government as a world-making machine.  But that was never meant to be.

Our nation’s first law, the Constitution, tells us exactly why our government exists in its first sentence.

We the People, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

Our government is meant to unite us in pursuit of justice and peace by protecting us and promoting the common good.  In doing so, it secures a space where citizens can be free to speak and act as they choose.  It is not a sword, but a shield.

The Framers knew the dangers of partisanship, and how it could lead to tyranny.  The Constitution lays out a system of government called federalism, designed to counter these impulses.  It spreads power out both horizontally and vertically.  Not only is every branch of the federal government crafted to check the others, but the federal government’s powers are enumerated and few, with most authority left to the states and the people.

A return to divided governance would make it harder for either party to use government as a tool to remake the country as they see fit.  Left or Right, we could all breathe easier.  Single-party rule can easily devolve into tyranny, especially with so much power concentrated in Washington.  And even if your tyrant’s in power now, what happens when he isn’t?

When faced with troubles, our best solutions will come if we work together to find common ground.  Our never-ending national “culture war” between the Right and the Left will only get worse unless we act now.

Paradoxically, divided government would unite us by making government smaller and more responsive to its people.  It would also recognize reality.  Our nation exists, its people exist, and their political opinions exist.  They aren’t going to vanish.  They must be reckoned with, not silenced.  

Connor Mighell is a third-year law student at The University of Alabama School of Law with an undergraduate degree in Political Philosophy from Baylor University. He is a staff writer at SBNation, and his work has been featured at The New Americana and in The Dallas Morning News. 

Connor Mighell is a third-year law student at The University of Alabama School of Law with an undergraduate degree in Political Philosophy from Baylor University. His work has been featured also in The Dallas Morning News.

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