What’s worse, gridlock or the alternative?

The Monkey Cage, an excellent blog that features writing by political scientists and which has gravitated to the Washington Post website, has been running a series of short pieces on the theme of polarization. Yesterday’s installment by Morris Fiorina of the Hoover Institution at Stanford, bears the intriguing headline:

Gridlock is bad. The alternative is worse.

Fiorina goes over aspects of the comparison between the U.S. system, with its many veto points and high tolerance for divided government, and some of the parliamentary systems, which are fundamentally designed to put one party, or a coalition representing a majority in charge of the government and allow it to implement its policies until it loses an election.

In the American context, Fiorina argues, we have a left (embodied in the Democratic Party) a right (Republican) and a center, where swing voters can determine the outcome of elections. When centerish voters support the Democrats, it doesn’t necessarily mean they really want the lefty policies that the Democrats are offering, only that they prefer it to the righty policies that the Republicans are offering. (And vice versa.) What they really want is something in the middle. In his words:

“Roughly speaking, Democrats build their electoral coalition from the left, and Republicans from the right, but given the generally centrist distribution of public opinion, each must capture enough of the center to win. 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 2006 Republican ‘thumpin’ ‘ and the 2010 Democratic ‘shellacking.'”

I guess the key phrase, for understanding Fiorina’s argument, is “the party governs as its base demands.” I’m not sure I agree that that’s always what happens, but I see his point. When the Republicans get too much control, their policies are so far right that a majority, formed of the left and center, doesn’t like the result. When the Dems control, same deal with the center and the right. He concludes:

“By no means am I happy with the status quo. This country faces serious problems. How long before the political system seriously addresses the problems of pensions and health care, immigration, an increasingly inefficient tax system and a variety of other problems? But failing to deal with them may be no worse than attempting to deal with them in ways that do not have anything approaching majority support in the electorate. However unsatisfying the present state of affairs, voters may prefer muddling along to ping-ponging between two minorities that attempt to govern entirely by their own lights.”

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Comments (27)

  1. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 02/26/2014 - 01:17 pm.

    Once again

    It’s easier to state the problem than to propose a solution to it.
    Takes us back to Churchill:

    “Many forms of government have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”

    House of Commons, 11 Nov. 1947 Oxford Dictionary of Quotations (OXFORD U. PRESS 1979)

    • Submitted by Hiram Foster on 02/27/2014 - 08:35 am.


      Churchill served in a parliamentary system of government, something that was emphatically rejected by our founders. I think if you asked him, he would say the American system of government was much worse than his own.

  2. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 02/26/2014 - 04:06 pm.

    The “Center” is the problem

    Pressures to “appeal to the center” do nothing more than muddy up the well thought-out solutions of those who have definite ideas on how to solve the problem.

    This is true on both the left and the right. The Left didn’t want Obamacare, they wanted the government to control all the health care in this country with a system they euphemistically refer to as “single payer” (meaning the taxpayer). They didn’t get their way because their politicians believed they couldn’t sell it to “the center” and so the Left was stuck supporting a system that no one wanted or agreed with philosophically and is destined to fail miserably. So it not only didn’t solve the problem but it made their side look foolish for supporting such a hybrid “centrist” solution.

    When it comes to tax reform, if the Right had their druthers, they would eliminate the immoral and counterproductive income tax, and the IRS along with it, and impose a national sales tax. This of course would eliminate thousands of existing jobs in the federal bureaucracy, not to mention the entire tax preparation industry. It would also cause “the centrists,” who rely on the mortgage interest tax deduction and income tax refunds for their financial well-being to protest long and hard, even though it could be argued that both vehicles make no sense to their personal finances.

    So the Right will be convinced by the politicians on their side that the solution is too radical and too difficult, if not impossible, to sell to “the middle.”

    We need an education system that does a better job of teaching people about the pros and cons of the different governing philosophies so people can make up their mind which philosophy they agree with so we can eliminate the so-called “center” which is just another name for clueless.

    • Submitted by Neal Rovick on 02/26/2014 - 04:27 pm.

      …so we can eliminate the so-called “center”..

      Yes, Syria is an example we can all follow.

    • Submitted by jason myron on 02/27/2014 - 07:06 am.


      people that are so offended by the thought of compromise can just move to Somalia already where they can live in the unregulated, everyman-for-himself Thunderdome that some of them so desperately crave. Seems to me that part of the joy of being a free man is the ability to put the money where the mouth is and go for it. The “clueless” among us will continue to recognize that we live in an actual society and work towards making it better for all.

      • Submitted by John Appelen on 02/27/2014 - 12:35 pm.

        What money

        “Seems to me that part of the joy of being a free man is the ability to put the money where the mouth is and go for it.”

        I thought your view was that you want to put someone else’s money where your mouth is…. Even if it is against their will.

        • Submitted by jason myron on 02/27/2014 - 04:25 pm.

          Since when?

          I gladly pay taxes as I know it’s my civic duty to do so. I’m not the one whining that paying them is some sort of piracy. Mr. Tester loves to use the word freedom a lot, I’m just pointing out that he can use that freedom to go someplace else that fits his utopian, Ayn Rand vision. Perhaps he can get a better rate if he buys two tickets?

  3. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 02/26/2014 - 04:28 pm.

    The assumption that a majority of the people support gridlock is belied by the persistent tendency of the electorate to elect people who promise to “do something” to change the status quo.

    The confusion of the gridlock being desired and politicians being able to inflict gridlock reflects a pretty low-level reading of the leaves left in the current cup of TEA.

    Better inanities, please…

  4. Submitted by Jon Kingstad on 02/26/2014 - 08:14 pm.

    I could accept Mr. Fiorina’s insight

    if we had any clear evidence of what he describes was or is actually happening.

    But look at the realities. A candidate like Obama is elected on a lofty, high-minded program of “hope and change”. Actually promises to try to get proposals that a lot of people would probably call “left”, like “universal health care” witha “pubc option” (not to be confused with single payer) and talks a great game about reform of banking and financial markets, help for people with their mortgages and foreclosures, immigration, privacy and realistic policies toward climate change.

    But what do we get from the President once said Obama is elected? Some very weakened, half a loaf proposal for health care reform that doesn’t even include a “public option” . Not even the effort or attempt to deal with the members of his own party. Rather lame excuses about “filibuster proof majorities.” Never mind that we have a President who will not take a stand against one of the most serious threats to climate change in his Presidency, the Keystone XL. Or the drone program, the NSA mass surveillance, the failed HAMP program, and on and on.

    So, while I think Fiorina’s insight holds good to some extent, I think you have to recognize that his insight assumes you have a viable locus of power representing the “left”. The left has been completely shut out of the power dealing that goes on. The right frames and controls the debate and the center basically negotiates with itself. Gridlock happens when the right cannot accept the pap that comes from this sausage factory.

  5. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 02/27/2014 - 06:43 am.

    Mirror images

    This is another case where writers assume the parties are mirror images of each other, in this case, that parties seek to assemble governing coalitions. This isn’t the case. Republicans don’t need to assemble a governing coalition, because as an anti government party, they aren’t interested in governing. It’s enough for them to prevent the other, pro government party from governing, and to do that, they don’t need to be in the majority, all they need is to maintain a minority capable of blocking action, something which our voting system virtually guarantees.

    “But failing to deal with them may be no worse than attempting to deal with them in ways that do not have anything approaching majority support in the electorate.”

    The fact is, lots of stuff that has majority support in the electorate has no chance of passage. This is because the founders in their perhaps less than infinite wisdom, were terrified of majoritarian rule and constructed for us a consensus based system.

    • Submitted by John Appelen on 02/27/2014 - 12:45 pm.

      Anti Government

      I have never heard of a Republican wanting to do away with the American government. Do you have any sources to support this pro-anarchy view you are attributing to them?

      I have heard that they want to reduce the bureaucracy, mandates, etc that have grown up around our government. Interesting comment though.

  6. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 02/27/2014 - 02:56 pm.

    I have never heard of a Republican wanting to do away with the American government.

    It’s not so much that they want to do away with government so much as that they don’t want it to govern. And attacks on the legitimacy of government from Republicans and conservatives are commonplace. Whenever a Republican equates taxation with theft, they are saying that our political and governmental institutions are not lawful

    • Submitted by John Appelen on 02/27/2014 - 06:36 pm.

      Spending vs Spending

      Conservatives respect the government collecting money to pay for defense, government, infrastructure, education, shared services, caring for the truly disabled, reasonable regulatory oversight, etc.

      Typically they disagree with taking money from one citizen and arbitrarily giving it to another citizen. Especially when that forced transfer can promote a group of receiving citizens to vote for more forced transfers. That cycle can not end well for anyone. Check out the blue section in this image.

      • Submitted by Dan Landherr on 02/28/2014 - 09:51 am.

        I think you’re speaking too broadly

        I often hear conservatives who want to eliminate education and oversight functions of government.

        • Submitted by John Appelen on 02/28/2014 - 04:40 pm.


          I rarely hear of Conservatives that want to “eliminate” these functions. Usually I hear that they want less government oversight, and more government accountability for results. They seem to believe that we are investing a huge amount into our society / government each year, yet the academic gap persists, poverty persists, etc.

          And yes there are some anarchists in both the Liberal and Conservative groups. That is why the Nolan diagram is drawn as it is.

          • Submitted by Jon Lord on 03/04/2014 - 09:57 am.


            If the conservatives want less government oversight how would the government be able to provide more accountability for results then? Both the academic gap and poverty grew during the Reagan Administration. Neither got better.

    • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 02/27/2014 - 06:51 pm.

      Oh, they want it to govern

      just, other people whose life style or religion they object to.

      • Submitted by John Appelen on 02/27/2014 - 10:53 pm.


        Liberals want government to legislate morality by redistributing wealth to the “needy”.

        Social Conservatives want to legislate morality by stopping the intentional stilling of beating human hearts.

        Yet both judge each other to be irrational and controlling.

        • Submitted by Matt Haas on 02/28/2014 - 11:09 am.

          Why yes of course

          Abortion is the ONLY area in which conservatives attempt to influence social morality. We had a rather well publicized debate round these parts recently, perhaps you recall it? What you meant to say is conservatives attempt to legislate moral policy by enforcing the edicts of Christianity upon the entire populace, whether they want it or not. That should cover most of the social issues relating to conservatism.

  7. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 02/28/2014 - 06:07 am.

    “Liberals want government to legislate morality by redistributing wealth to the “needy”.”

    Conservatives want to legislate amorality by passing tax breaks that redistribute money from the needy to the wealthy. In policy terms each position has it’s merits. I should note practically any substantive policy choice results in a redistribution of wealth. If our goal is never to redistribute wealth, we would do nothing at all except to pretend that wealth is not in a constant state of redistribution whether we do anything or not.

  8. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 02/28/2014 - 07:08 am.

    Yet both judge each other to be irrational and controlling.

    I don’t think conservatives are irrational. And I don’t think they are controlling, really the problem I see them having is that they are not.

  9. Submitted by Karen Sandness on 02/28/2014 - 05:56 pm.

    Fiorina’s makes a huge factual error

    when he refers to the Democrats as “the left.”

    Nowadays, the so-called “center” is about as thin as a playing card.

    Both Republicans and Democrats cater to their wealthy contributors first and foremost–which is why Obama will not take a firm stand against the XL Pipeline, continues coddling the military-industrial complex, and turned “health care reform” into corporate welfare for the insurance companies (a guaranteed patient base, woohoo!)–while throwing sops to ordinary people.

    In the case of the Democrats, it’s things like raising the minimum wage to a level that still leaves people deep in poverty.

    In the case of the Republicans, it’s personal behavior issues.

    But in the end, both appeals to the masses take a back seat to ensuring that people like Mr. Fiorina remain comfortable and that the little people stay little.

  10. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 03/03/2014 - 08:52 am.


    The main alternative to our system of government is the parliamentary system. Parliamentary systems don’t have the same kinds of checks and balances we have. The leader of government typically emerges from the legislature, not separately from it. It’s a majoritarian form of government where non governmental parties don’t have very much power at all. It’s government without a net since the majority party can actually govern. Under our system of government, we have gotten a little bit lazy, in my opinion. Since we govern largely by consensus, losing political parties still have significant power, which lowers the stakes of elections, and in general provides a disincentive to political participation. I have actually talked to some friends of mine who are legislators, about what I see as the merits of a parliamentary system, and in their nice way, they look at me like I am crazy.

  11. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 03/05/2014 - 04:14 pm.

    The 80s called

    They want their argument for the status quo back.

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