In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Gridlock and Divided Government in the United States

  • Introduction
  • The Scholarly Challenge of Divided Government
  • Landmark Works on Divided Government
  • The Causes of Divided Government

Political Science Gridlock and Divided Government in the United States
Glen S. Krutz, Tyler J. Hughes
  • LAST REVIEWED: 09 October 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 22 February 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756223-0112


Since the 1990s, the topic of divided government has been among the most prominent topics explored by scholars of American political institutions. Divided government means that different parties control the legislative and executive branches of the American national government. For example, the governing arrangement in 2015 featured a Democratic president, Barack Obama, with a Congress controlled by the Republican Party. The flipside would be unified government, which occurs when one party controls the presidency, the United States House of Representatives, and the United States Senate. Unified government occurred most recently during the first two years of the Obama presidency (2009–2010), when the Democrats controlled everything. The working hypothesis about divided government and gridlock is that when opposing parties control the institutional levers of power in the American system of separated powers, gridlock will naturally follow as both parties see a chance to enact their preferences and hence press their advantage. This logic was long espoused on television news shows before scholars began to tackle it. That scholars began to examine the causes and effects of divided government makes good sense. From the mid-20th century until 2000, the instance of divided government increased substantially compared to governing circumstances in the immediately prior era. In a discipline guided by theory on realigning elections and responsible parties, unified government fits better conceptually. Divided government raises many new and interesting questions.

The Scholarly Challenge of Divided Government

Leave it to the political scientist James Sundquist to lay down the scholarly challenge of divided government to which scholars would respond: “Earlier theory emphasized the role of party in bringing coherence to national government, and the role of the president as leader of the party controlling the legislature. The majority of political scientists have failed to address the important issues raised by this change. They have an obligation to provide a new body of theory to explain how coalition government should function” (Sundquist 1988, p. 613). After briefly discussing Sundquist’s piece, this article will then discuss two books that really answered Sundquist’s call and started the divided government literature. Next, the review will briefly consider literature that explores the causes of divided government, followed by the lion’s share of divided government work on its effects. Much of the work explores divided government as a core factor, together with alternative explanations, of legislative productivity or gridlock, such as the distribution of ideological preferences and internal variables pertaining to the Congress.

  • Sundquist, James L. “Needed: A Political Theory for the New Era of Coalition Government in the United States.” Political Science Quarterly 103.4 (1988): 613–635.

    DOI: 10.2307/2150899

    Professor Sundquist observes the increased predominance of divided government in the United States. He regards this trend as an important change that renders time-bound earlier partisan theories predicated on unified government (responsible parties model) and one that requires a new scholarly movement.

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