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One-Party Rule Gets Things Done. That’s Not Always a Good Thing.

Thirty-nine state governments are now “trifectas.” It’s not the kind of government the Constitution's framers wanted.

Minnesota state Capitol
The Minnesota state Capitol in St. Paul. With party control of the Legislature and the governorship, Democrats were able to enact one of the most progressive agendas in America. (Shutterstock)
All of a sudden, the nation’s political eyes are on Minnesota as proof that elections matter and have consequences.

Both former President Barack Obama and The Washington Post point to the full Democratic Party control of Minnesota’s government and the party’s ability to move one of the most progressive agendas in America. In its recently concluded session it protected abortion and transgender rights and dramatically increased spending on education, health care and the environment. It adopted gun regulations and expanded voting rights.

It was the dream agenda for Democrats and progressives. Perhaps you like what they did.

Yet for every Minnesota there is a Texas or a Florida. And that is the problem with single-party government in the age of political polarization and winner-take-all politics.

Officially there are 39 states with “trifectas” — single-party control of both chambers of the legislature and the governorship. But throw in supermajorities for Republicans in Wisconsin and North Carolina, where they can overturn a Democratic governor’s veto, and there may really be only nine divided state governments.

If you’re in the partisan majority in a trifecta state, life is great. You get to move your agenda. There is nearly a perfect overlay of Democrat and Republican trifectas when it comes to issues such as abortion and transgender rights, with the former expanding or protecting such rights and the latter contracting them. Additionally, as the Brennan Center has pointed out, both parties are doing their best to gerrymander or enact voting and election laws to favor their side and try to guarantee victory in future elections. With the Supreme Court walking away from protecting abortion rights, restricting the reach of the Clean Water Act and refusing to tackle partisan gerrymandering, look to see a further Balkanization of public policy in America and efforts by single-party rule to entrench their side in power.

This is not what Justice Louis Brandeis had in mind when he praised states as laboratories of democracy. Instead it means that what rights you have and the voice you have politically may well rest on the luck of geography and the accident of birth. Federalism may be fine, but this is not what the constitutional framers intended. They wanted a “United” States, not a divided states. The Constitution was supposed to produce unity and serve as a baseline of rights. Yet there seems to be no baseline or floor, and everything is up for grabs. James Madison and many of the constitutional framers feared the problems of majority tyranny in the states, but that is what we now appear to have.
For the trifecta states — or worse, “superfecta” states such as Minnesota and Texas where Democrats or Republicans also control the judiciary — the parties, for the time being at least, have cemented their majorities. At a time of political polarization that produces winner-take-all politics, there is little that Republicans can do to gain a voice in Minnesota or for Democrats to be heard in Texas or Florida.

Single-party rule is never good. This is a truth we learn in political science as we look across the world, to Turkey, Hungary or China. Parties need to be checked by a loyal opposition. But what we now have is red and blue states, blue cities, red counties and few areas where there is any real party competition.

Yet as we see in Washington and in states where no majority rules absolutely, in too many cases divided government produces gridlock, not compromise. The choices, then, are single-party rule that delivers or divided government that does not. In the end, trifecta politics means never having to say you’re sorry.

Governing's opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing's editors or management.
David Schultz is Distinguished University Professor in the departments of Political Science, Environmental Studies and Legal Studies at Hamline University.
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