Government » American Political Parties » Divided Government and Partisan Polarization

Summary and Main Ideas


A divided government makes it difficult for elected officials to achieve their policy goals. This problem has gotten worse as U.S. political parties have become increasingly polarized over the past several decades. They are both more likely to fight with each other and more internally divided than just a few decades ago. Some possible causes include sorting and improved gerrymandering, although neither alone offers a completely satisfactory explanation. But whatever the cause, polarization is having negative short-term consequences on American politics.

Practice Questions

  1. What are the positives and negatives of partisan polarization?
  2. What is the sorting thesis, and what does it suggest as the cause of party polarization?
  3. Does gerrymandering lead to increased polarization?
  4. How have the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street Movement affected partisan politics?
  5. Is it possible for a serious third party to emerge in the United States, positioned ideologically between the Democrats on the left and the Republicans on the right? Why or why not?
  6. In what ways are political parties of the people and in what ways might they be more responsive to elites?
  7. If you were required to become active in some aspect of a political party, what activity and level of party organization would you choose and why?
  8. Is it preferable for the U.S. government to have unified party control or divided government? Why?
  9. In general, do parties make the business of government easier or harder to accomplish?

Sample Answers:

2. The sorting thesis says that voters change party allegiances in response to shifts in party position. It suggests that polarization is a function of voters’ paying more attention to national politics and voting more consistently.

4. They have pulled their respective parties further to the ideological poles and have changed the issues parties consider. They may also have made compromise more difficult.


bipartisanship: a process of cooperation through compromise

divided government: a condition in which one or more houses of the legislature is controlled by the party in opposition to the executive

gerrymandering: the manipulation of legislative districts in an attempt to favor a particular candidate

moderate: an individual who falls in the middle of the ideological spectrum

party polarization: the shift of party positions from moderate towards ideological extremes

reapportionment: the reallocation of House seats between the states to account for population changes

redistricting: the redrawing of electoral maps

safe seat: a district drawn so members of a party can be assured of winning by a comfortable margin

sorting: the process in which voters change party allegiances in response to shifts in party position

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