Not Enough Gridlock
posted by Gerard Magliocca
I’m writing up my contribution for the upcoming Notre Dame Symposium on gridlock (after some fits and starts), and I’m playing with the thought that our real problem is that we don’t have enough gridlock. Allow me to explain.
Compromise can arise in two circumstances. One involves altruistic decisions. The other involves sheer exhaustion. People focus on the former (“Why can’t our leaders rise above party and make concessions for the national good?”). Yet in many conflicts around the world, peace often comes when only both sides conclude that they cannot win and therefore must make a deal.
We’ve gone through extended periods with entrenched divided government. From 1981 until 1992, the GOP controlled the White House and Democrats controlled at least part of Congress. From 1994 to 2000, the opposite was true. These were stable equilibria that helped convince each side that it could not seize complete power in the medium term and thus had to negotiate.
Now contrast that with recent years. In 2001, the GOP won the Presidency and Congress. Later that year, though, the Senate flipped when Senator Jeffords switched parties. In 2002, the Senate swung back to Republicans. In 2006, divided government returned, but only for two years. The Democratic sweep of 2008 was then repudiated in 2010, and now in 2012 Republicans think they can take everything.
In this scenario, the parties have no incentive to bargain. If they wait two years, then they have a reasonable hope of regaining total power. If voting preferences stabilized with each party unable to oust the other from a power base, then things might change.