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January 13, 2014 3:46 PM Don’t Look Now, but This is the Golden Age of American Politics

By Seth Masket

Frances Lee, writing as part of the Monkey Cage’s wonderful series on polarization, notes that we are living in an era of incredible competition between the two major parties nationally:

[T]he period since 1980 stands out as the longest sustained period of competitive balance between the parties since the Civil War. Our politics is distinctive for its narrow and switching national majorities. Nearly every recent election has held out the possibility of a shift in party control of one institution or another.

A major consequence of this competitiveness, Lee notes, is fierce party conflict; if control of the government is really in play in every election, then those elections will be pretty bloody. There’s no room for half-measures when the stakes are so high.

But even if the consequences are annoying to many, we shouldn’t ignore the good news. Competitiveness is the key to democratic accountability. We generally want our politicians and parties to be responsive to voters and to be nervous about making mistakes. That doesn’t happen when one party has an enormous electoral advantage. Southern Democratic politicians used to be able to get away with just about anything they wanted to do because they functionally had no opposition. We regularly hear complaints about congressional districts being unfair because they’re drawn to strongly favor one party, meaning that the incumbent isn’t really accountable.

But, as Lee shows, we actually have attained this parity at the national level. Despite regular claims that one party or another has an electoral lock on the country or that demographic shifts are creating a permanent majority, we’re living in a golden age of competitiveness. If one party pushes its agenda too far or mismanages the country, that can cost it majority control. Political actions actually have consequences.

Enjoy!

[Cross-posted at The Mischiefs of Faction]

Seth Masket is an associate professor of political science at the University of Denver.

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