Good News About Gridlock

Fans of limited government have a lot to be happy about. It's much harder to go big when you are constantly at risk of being told to go home.


The good news is, everybody lost in the 2020 election—at least a little bit. Donald Trump lost the White House, Democrats lost ground in the House, and the Senate remains in contention with the most likely outcome being Republican control and therefore divided government.

The most sought-after prize in politics is a mandate: a win so big that it justifies ramming through an ambitious political agenda. The idea of being in such a position is so alluring that politicians who just barely managed to eke out a victory—or parties that are barely clinging to a majority—will sometimes still try to claim a mandate. It was a thorn in Trump's side that he lost the popular vote so spectacularly while winning the presidency in 2016, for instance, because it made claiming widespread popular support that much less plausible.

But divided government makes it difficult to posture in this particular way, and that's likely to be a good thing for fans of limited government and fiscal discipline during a Joe Biden administration. It's much harder to go big when you are constantly at risk of being told to go home.

Single party control typically comes with a big price tag, regardless of the party in control. In Trump's first term, spending went up about 10 percent, according to data from the Office of Management and Budget. Under George W. Bush, that number was 24 percent. Both men enjoyed Republican majorities in Congress for much of their presidencies.

Under Bill Clinton, however, when government was largely divided, spending increased only 3 percent. And during the presidency of Barack Obama it fell 10 percent. This was not because those Democratic presidents were deeply committed to cutting spending—far from it, though previous generations of Democrats were warmer to the idea of fiscal restraint than the current generation.

The same is true, of course, of previous generations of Republicans. Under past administrations, Republicans were well established (rhetorically, if little else) as fiscal hawks. But they have in recent years largely abandoned that banner, choosing to downplay concerns about the long-term consequences of budget imbalances when those imbalances were brought about by spending on GOP priorities, such as defense and tax cuts, with no offsetting spending reductions. The real question is whether the dynamic of gridlock as a check on the growth of spending still holds in a country where the orthodoxy about debt and deficits has shifted.

As we saw during the confirmation battle over Amy Coney Barrett's nomination to the Supreme Court, leading congressional Republicans do not mind a little hypocrisy in the service of higher goals. So it may be that Republicans snatch up the flag of fiscal conservatism once again, brush off the mud, and pretend as if they haven't been trampling on it for years.

Another significant difference from the last time there was divided government is the increasing abdication of congressional responsibility in favor of executive power. Gridlock may well exacerbate this already established tendency of presidents to take recourse to executive fiat when the legislative or confirmation process stalls. Biden has made clear that he will reverse several of Trump's signature executive orders on his first days in office. Given his positions on a path to citizenship for people covered by the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program as well as spending on a border wall and the treatment of asylum seekers, it will become alarmingly traditional for U.S. immigration policy to swing wildly every time power changes hands—a bad thing for Americans and would-be Americans alike.

The same is true of trade policy and foreign policy, where presidents have significant latitude. Wars are expensive—both hot wars and trade wars. Biden didn't run on either kind of bellicosity, though presidents have a way of coming to terms with debt and deaths after assuming power.

At the same time, some of the most alarming and highest-variance outcomes threatened by Democrats are now unlikely to occur. Court packing will be all but impossible under divided government, for example. Making and implementing massive climate change accords will prove difficult, especially if Republicans do indeed retain control of the Senate and its treaty-approving powers. Biden has already made clear that his agenda for health care reform is less radical than that of much of his party, but the possibilities there will be limited by a lack of congressional cooperation as well.

Gridlock is not the same thing as a libertarian moment. Gummed-up works are a consolation prize when there is so much urgent policy work to be done, including economic deregulation, dismantling of the barriers to free movement of people and goods, spending cuts, criminal justice reform, and more.

The election results did yield some encouraging signs for personal freedom, however. When Americans were asked in their polling places about specific individual freedoms, they chose "leave people alone" in large numbers. Faced with an unusually interesting slate of referenda, voters consistently selected the libertarian option without much fuss. Drug legalization and decriminalization ran the table, with all eight initiatives winning. Affirmative action will not be brought back in California college admissions and government hiring. Uber and Lyft do not have to reclassify their drivers as employees in the Golden State. In Massachusetts, voters approved a "right-to-repair" measure that protects property rights. The list goes on and on.

The Libertarian Party (L.P.) also put in a respectable showing, with its second-best national result ever. The party did well enough in several states to cover the spread between the major party candidates. While this, inevitably, will occasion claims that the L.P. played spoiler, there's always the hope that instead of angrily demanding fealty from Libertarian supporters, one of the major parties will take the concerns of that largely untapped well of voters and potential voters into account and attempt to appeal to them more systematically in the next election cycle.

Another way to interpret the results is that on a deeper level nothing changed. The country is divided. We knew that before Election Day. Watching day after day of vote counting where totals wavered back and forth over the line of a bare majority drove that fact home more viscerally than ever. It's pretty much exactly about 50/50 out there, folks. That's how our parties are built. We'll have a couple of years in which this particular variation of partisan control in Washington constrains political actors in certain ways, until another election slightly tweaks the balance of power again and we start over—while leaving nearly every incumbent in place and the options for dissatisfied voters almost completely unchanged.

In general, if people are dancing in the streets after an election, it's a bad sign. It shows that the stakes of politics are too high, that people think too little of the other side (or too highly of their guy), and that voters have overvalued a single race at the top of the ticket. The slow burn of this cycle's results tempered the feelings of both victory and defeat. Gridlock isn't anyone's first choice—not even libertarians'—but everyone losing a little is likely the best case for the next couple of years. Sore winners beget sorer losers, though, and since we have to do this again quite soon it behooves everyone to think about what it will be like when you are, as you inevitably will be, on the other side again.