Politics

Evan Horowitz

One-party rule comes with risks and rewards

The last time Republicans controlled either house in the Massachusetts Legislature was 1958, when baby boomers were still babies, Eisenhower was president, and Jack Paar was hosting “The Tonight Show” (neither Barack Obama nor Jimmy Fallon was alive yet.)

For the past 56 years, Democrats have not only maintained their majority but also expanded it, so that today they account for 80 percent of state representatives and 90 percent of senators.

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The virtue of such one-party dominance is that it makes it easier to pass legislation and respond quickly to urgent issues. At the same time, research suggests that one-party rule increases the risk of corruption and makes it harder for voters to make informed decisions.

Is it still one-party rule when Massachusetts has a Democratic Legislature and a Republican governor?

When people speak of “one-party rule” they often mean that one party controls both the governor’s office and the Legislature. But in fact it’s possible to have “one-party rule” even when there’s a Democratic Legislature and a Republican governor (or vice versa). And Massachusetts provides a good example.

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In recent years, we’ve had a string of Republican governors, but their ability to shape legislation was severely limited by the fact that the Democrats held a supermajority in the Legislature, with enough votes to override any vetoes. The Democrats didn’t have to compromise; they could work around the governor and still maintain full control over the political process.

Some of this year’s candidates have talked about the virtues of divided governance, but so long as Democrats dominate the Legislature, a Republican governor makes a very thin wedge.

Why have Democrats been so dominant?

The first, most tempting answer is that Massachusetts is a left-leaning state. Registered Democrats outnumber Republicans 3 to 1, and only Vermont has more residents who identify as liberals.

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But even among Massachusetts Democrats, there are serious political divides. Last year, when the governor proposed a new tax package, he didn’t just face resistance from Republicans. He faced considerable resistance from within his own party, which includes both strong supporters of expanded public programs and tax-averse skeptics. If those groups split apart, they could well form two distinct, viable political parties in Massachusetts — perhaps a strongly progressive Democratic Party and a center-left Republican Party.

One reason this hasn’t happened is because of the bleed-through of national politics. It’s hard for state Republicans to brand themselves as centrists, since the notion of “Republican” has become so bound up with more right-wing factions like the Tea Party. (Republican candidates for governor have had more luck moving to the political center, perhaps because they have a greater opportunity to communicate their position to voters.) The same difficulties afflict Democrats in red states, where candidates with a (D) after their names have a hard time convincing center-right voters that they can effectively represent their interests.

Is Massachusetts alone in this?

One-party rule has become the norm across the United States. In 36 states, the governor and legislative leaders all hail from the same party. And in another three, the party that controls the Legislature has enough votes to override vetoes from the governor.

What are the benefits of one-party rule?

Any argument about the virtues of divided governance has to confront the dysfunction in Washington D.C., where the Democratic Senate and Republican House have managed to produce far more gridlock than compromise.

One-party rule smooths the legislative process, which is one reason that one-party states have been in the vanguard in terms of tackling big policy issues like health care costs, early education, and gun control.

And the costs?

In the long term, competitive elections between well-matched competing parties help limit corruption and gives voters a clearer set of choices come Election Day.

Corruption, of course, is not unique to states with one-party rule. But political science research has found that it can be more prevalent, and the key reason is the lack of accountability. Weak minority parties lack the resources to provide effective oversight. And voters have a harder time committing to “throw the bums out” or forcing a change in leadership if they don’t see a viable and tested alternative.

In general, one-party rule makes it harder for voters to make informed decisions. Party affiliation is in part a signal. When voters see a (D) or (R) next to a candidate’s name, they can skip the full policy paper and make certain assumptions about that candidate’s views. That’s less true here in Massachusetts and other one-party states. The (D) doesn’t mean as much if virtually every candidate is a Democrat — from the ardent progressive to the business-focused centrist to the anti-tax conservative.

Without a radical realignment of the parties, it’s hard to see how the Republicans can regain control of the state Legislature. But if their minority status has come to seem inevitable, that doesn’t mean it comes without cost or consequence.

Evan Horowitz can be reached at evan.horowitz@globe.com.
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