Divided Government: Definition, Effects, Pros & Cons

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  • 0:00 What Is Divided Government?
  • 1:12 Causes of Divided Government
  • 2:53 Pros and Cons
  • 4:00 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Stephen Benz

Stephen has a JD and a BA in sociology and political science.

Divided government occurs when different political parties control different branches of government. We'll look at the causes and effects of this type of government, as well as the pros and cons of a divided government.

What Is Divided Government?

An old joke says, 'If the opposite of pro is con, then the opposite of progress must be Congress.' This cynical joke reflects a common frustration that Americans have with the federal government's seemingly slow and sometimes ineffective nature of conducting business. Quite often, the source of the federal government's inefficiency comes from a phenomenon called divided government.

Divided government occurs when different branches of the federal government are controlled by different political parties. This is possible due to the separation of powers between the executive, or presidential, and legislative, or congressional, branches. For example, a divided government exists when the presidency is controlled by one party (e.g., the Democrats), and Congress is controlled by another party (e.g., the Republicans).

Since the different branches of government have a check on one another, each party has a way of stalling the efforts of the other party. For example, if a Republican Congress passes a bill, the Democratic president can veto, or cancel the bill, thus preventing Republicans from passing the bill. Likewise, the president's initiatives often cannot get adopted because laws have to originate from congressional leaders.

Causes of Divided Government

How, then, do voters choose leaders from one party to be the majority in Congress, but then elect a representative from another party to be president? The answer is complex.

One cause of divided government is the difference in turnout between presidential elections and non-presidential elections. During a presidential election, voters turn out in record numbers and often vote for a single party. During a non-presidential election, however, voter turnout is far lower.

In these non-presidential elections, voters are usually only voting for congressional candidates in an election that is important but not as significant to voters as presidential elections. As a result, the majority of voters who turn out to the polls tend to be those who dislike the president's new policies or are extremely politically engaged. Those who feel just okay about the government aren't likely to show up at polls.

An example of this came during Bill Clinton's first term. In 1992, Clinton won the presidency and his Democratic Party maintained a majority in the Senate and House. But two years later, there was not a presidential election. Instead, there was only a congressional election. Democrats lost the majority of the seats in the House and Senate, creating a divided government. This sudden reversal two years later can, in part, be explained by changes in voter turnout during non-presidential elections.

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