At the end of the Civil War, leaders of the Union realized that defeating Southern armies was not enough. They needed major structural changes to prevent the reconstructed nation from returning to the unjust and unstable Union it had been before the war.

In just five years Congress and the states reframed the Constitution, extending its rights and protections beyond a privileged few.

They passed the 13th Amendment, outlawing slavery; the 14th Amendment, establishing equal justice under the law and extending citizenship to everyone born here; and the 15th Amendment, which established the right to vote.

When Franklin Roosevelt came to office in 1933, he needed act quickly to relieve the suffering caused by the Great Depression and create confidence that the United States’ government would not let anything like that happen again.

The New Deal put millions of Americans back to work, regulated banking and financial institutions and created programs like depositor insurance, the 30-year home mortgage and Social Security.

Lyndon Johnson won a landslide victory in the 1964 election in the middle of a civil rights revolution. He quickly invested his political capital into far-reaching programs that created a new New Deal for the people who Roosevelt’s New Deal had left behind. Today we still benefit from the Voting Rights Act of 1965, food stamps, Medicare and Medicaid.


Here we are again.

We’ve got plenty of big problems: We are facing historic levels of wealth inequality, institutions that perpetuate racial injustice and a political system corrupted by big money.

We are witnessing the world’s worst response to a global pandemic, and inaction in the face of climate change that will make big parts of the planet uninhabitable in a few decades.

But we don’t have the tools our forebears had in times of crisis – one-party control of government.

The Reconstruction Amendments were ratified when Republicans had huge majorities in Congress, outnumbering Democrats 3 to 1 in the House and 4 to 1 in the Senate.

When Roosevelt started dealing, Democrats in the House outnumbered Republicans 313 to 117 and 59 to 36 in the Senate.


Johnson’s ’64 landslide gave him a 295-to-140 Democratic advantage in the House and a 68-to-32 majority in the Senate.

Compare that to what President-elect Joe Biden is going to face in January, with a bare Democratic majority in the House, and a Senate – depending on the outcome of a pair of runoff elections in Georgia – that will either be evenly divided between the parties, or, more likely, controlled by the Republicans 51-49.

I’ve been reading some optimistic takes about how we could be entering a golden age of bipartisanship, where Democratic and Republican pragmatists are brought together in Congress by a president who has been there, but I’m not sold.

We have lived with divided government for so long, we think of it as the norm, but it’s not.

For 50 years after the Civil War, there was only one Democratic president, and only four years where the Republicans didn’t control both houses of Congress.

In the half-century after Roosevelt’s election, there were only four years where Republicans controlled Congress and only two Republican presidents (Eisenhower and Nixon).


But in the 40 years since Ronald Reagan’s election in 1980, Republicans have held the Senate for 24 years, and Democrats have controlled the House for 22, while the Electoral College has produced four Republican presidents and three Democrats.

If there are any benefits to divided government, we ought to have seen them by now. In fact, history suggests that there was more bipartisan cooperation during the periods of one-party dominance than there is today. When the parties are weak, they have no incentive to work together. If you think you are only one election away from being in control, it makes sense to deny your opponents any achievement they can run on.

Regardless of who you voted for this month, ask yourself this: Could the government we just elected pass the 14th Amendment, or create programs like Social Security or Medicare? Good thing they don’t have to.

There is no doubt that we are facing historic problems now, but if we are going to address them, someone will have to figure out how to make divided government work.

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