Indiana illustrates the damaging consequences of one-party rule

November's general election will be a laydown formality; the polls are basically closed, six months ahead of time, with a Republican governor assured of victory



June 18, 2024 - 1:02 PM

Republicans rule the roost at Indiana's state capitol.

My home state’s citizens last month elected their next governor. No, I misspeak. Five percent of them elected him. Seven percent preferred a different candidate, and 88 percent never had a say in the decision.

The party now dominant in Indiana held its May primary, in which 12 percent of the 4.7 million registered voters participated. The winner captured 39 percent of that vote, or 5 percent of the electorate. November’s general election will be a laydown formality; the polls are basically closed, six months ahead of time, with a Republican assured of victory. This is “early voting” of a kind no one should advocate.

We have watched the national polarization that divides Americans in eerily equal numbers play out in vastly uneven ways, state to state. But talk of “red” and “blue” doesn’t capture either the full extent of the imbalance, or the knock-on consequences for the formation and pursuit of sound public policy.

The issue isn’t simply that states lean reliably Republican or Democratic. It’s that now a big majority are heavily, maybe irrevocably, tilted in one direction or the other. Where that obtains, office seekers pitch their initial appeals to the hard core on their side, as primary candidates always have. 

The difference is that, instead of the winner’s traditional post-primary imperative, to reach out to nonpartisans and even open-minded members of the opposing party, now their job is finished.

It happened pretty quickly. In the early 2000s, three-fifths of the states saw reasonable political balance between the two major parties. Today, “trifecta” government, meaning one-party control of the governorship and both legislative bodies, has become the norm across the 50 states. In 40 states, containing 83 percent of the American population, one party enjoys trifecta dominance, and often by overwhelming margins.

The roots of this phenomenon have been well studied. They include the cultural aggression of elite institutions and the predictable reaction to it, the nationalization of issues abetted by the collapse of local media and the pernicious effects of the antisocial media.

The gerrymandering that once exaggerated a dominant party’s political margin is no longer much of a factor; social clustering and these other factors have often done a more effective job than the political bosses ever did. 

In many jurisdictions today, one would have to reverse gerrymander, mixing geographies and crossing all kinds of legal boundary lines, to produce a truly competitive electorate.

Political campaigns need not necessarily be dispiriting, narrowcasting mudfests. They can be vehicles, in fact the best possible vehicles, for floating constructive ideas to an attentive public. 

Ideas proposed by a successful campaign have a higher likelihood of enactment after the election. Ideas fashioned not to stroke the erogenous zones of a riled-up minority of left or right, but to speak to the broader public in pursuit of a general election victory, evoke our common interest instead of our differences and antagonisms. 

But such campaigns rarely make sense these days.

In 2024, 30 states feature not only trifecta government but 2-to-1 majorities in at least one house. In that setting, both campaigns and governance look totally different than they do in genuine two-party polities.

About the author: Mitch Daniels of West Lafayette, Ind., is a senior adviser to the Liberty Fund, president emeritus of Purdue University and a former governor of Indiana.

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