A broadly embraced delusion is that if one’s own party can just win control of the national leadership, that will “get things back on track” and fix the problems. It’s the fallacy that one political party can overpower the other. This approach has failed — consistently — for decades.

In the last twenty years:

  • In 2000, Republicans won complete control of all three of the House, Senate and Presidency.
  • In 2008, Democrats won complete control of all three of the House, Senate and Presidency.
  • In 2016, Republicans won complete control of all three of the House, Senate and Presidency.
  • In 2020, Democrats won complete control of all three of the House, Senate and Presidency.
  • In 2024 … ?

Indeed, Barber and McCarty record that just between 1992 and 2014, Congress “experienced more changes of party control than in the prior 40 years.”12 Hoover Institution fellow Morris Fiorina explains this phenomenon, “each [party] must capture enough of the center to win. [However] Once in office, if the party governs as its base demands, marginal members of the electoral majority defect. The result of this party overreach is the [midterm] 2006 Republican “thumpin'” and the 2010 Democratic “shellacking.”13

Meanwhile, in the twenty years since 2000, the nation finds itself no further along and — to be fair — probably in worse condition on climate change, border security, Rust Belt economics, social justice, gun violence and so on.

Why? Princeton’s Frances E. Lee “argues that these more frequent changes lead each party to believe that in the next election it may be able to win control of the chamber or increase its vote share; therefore each party has little incentive to compromise.”14 As illustration, observe that the Obama Administration used the control it won in 2008 to pass the Affordable Care Act (“ACA”), sign the Paris Climate Accords and negotiate the Trans Pacific Partnership (“TPP”), but shortly thereafter the GOP reclaimed control and withdrew from the Paris Accords and the TPP and set about dismantling the ACA. As of 2021 the Democrats have recaptured control anew. The question is whether they have learned the lesson of 2008.

What then, is the Lesson?

A clue to the answer is that while the core objective of healthcare reform survives from 2008, notably the ACA did not survive fully intact. This is because the former enjoys support of over 60% of the electorate15, while the latter was passed unilaterally, without bipartisan support. And therein lies the secret to achieving lasting progress on these issues. Our nation is divided too evenly for either party to establish sufficient dominance to unilaterally impose partisan policies that will “stick” long enough to succeed. Kamarck observes, “significant pieces of legislation require years of careful implementation. During this period, party control of government is likely to shift.”16 So non-sustainable policies — ones that enjoy barely 50% support — fail.

We have to figure out how to build sufficient bipartisan support for our initiatives. That requires working across party lines. That is what we are not doing. That is the problem we need to fix.

If we’re going to fix it, we need to know what causes it.

Read on >> What causes partisan polarization?


12 Barber and McCarty, p. 45.
13 Morris P. Fiorina, “Gridlock is bad. The alternative is worse,” in “Political Polarization in American Politics,” Daniel J. Hopkins and John Sides, editors, New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2015, p. 170.
14 Frances Lee, Beyond Ideology: Politics, Principles and Partisanship in the U. S. Senate. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009.
15 A December 2020 poll by the Kaiser Family Foundation found 62% support for maintaining or building upon the ACA. Only 20% want to repeal it entirely. “5 Charts About Public Opinion on the Affordable Care Act and the Supreme Court.” KFF Health, December 18, 2020, Figure 5.
16 Kamarck, pp. 100-101.

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